Interview by Alison Johnson
Dr. Mark E. Ellis always felt like he was “playing with house money,” as he put it—that he should have died as a teenager but had the extraordinary good luck to live for four more decades. During those years, Ellis became a devoted family man and a prominent local cancer physician who championed holistic care in addition to cutting-edge medicine. Two years after his death from a new case of cancer, Ellis’ wife, Lynn Hamilton Ellis, has put his story into a book that encourages all readers to follow their dreams.
At age 18, Mark Ellis found his philosophy on life in an unusual place: lying in a hospital bed after learning that the large black mole on his back—the one a friend had thought was a horsefly—was, in fact, a vicious form of cancer.
Early one morning, after doctors had removed an orange-sized tumor from his brain, Ellis was alone in a dark room when the Beatles song “Hey Jude” began playing on his radio. “Take a sad song and make it better,” the song told him. And Ellis listened.
Suddenly, his life had direction and purpose. He was somehow unaware that his diagnosis, malignant melanoma, was a virtual death sentence. Instead, he decided he would become a doctor to help other patients as sick as he was, and he would always see the positives around him.
That day marked the start of a remarkable journey that Ellis’ wife of 35 years, Lynn Hamilton Ellis, has detailed in a new book, The Humanity of Medicine, A Journey: From Boyhood to Manhood, From Cancer Patient to Cancer Doctor. Lynn Ellis, a first-time author, wrote the 300-page book based on hours of taped interviews she recorded with her husband before his death in 2010.
“It’s a book for anyone who has dreams, not only for cancer patients,” Lynn Ellis says. “We all have challenges to face. Mark would quote “Hey Jude” often, whether it was when one of his kids had a complaint or he was inspiring his patients to find strength to fight their cancer.”
Mark Ellis survived thanks to five years of experimental chemotherapy and ultimately became head of the Peninsula Cancer Institute, a Williamsburg-based practice offering both medical treatments and complementary services such as art, music and pet therapy and nutritional counseling. His wife joined him there as administrative director for five years.
Ellis was diagnosed with a new case of malignant melanoma in Nov. 2008, after finding an abnormal mole on his neck that Lynn Ellis first thought was a bug bite. He passed away April 3, 2010 at age 59. The book details his death only in an author’s note, the most difficult section for Lynn to write.
“I wanted the arc of the book to be Mark’s journey from cancer patient to cancer doctor, not from cancer patient to cancer patient,” she says. “I feel like the story is a very uplifting one, which is what I wanted and he certainly would have wanted.”
Proceeds from the book—available at bookstores and through Amazon—will benefit charitable cancer care organizations. Those include the Mark E. Ellis, MD Cancer Care Endowment Fund at Riverside Health System Foundation; research efforts at Wake Forest University Medical School, Ellis’ alma mater; and Hospice and Support Care
IN HER WORDS
I wanted to write this book because… I always wanted to write it, from the first time I heard his story of illness and survival way back in 1973 when we went on our first date. I thought it could be used to inspire people of all ages. He was still taking chemotherapy at the time and was completely undaunted about his future plans. When I did start writing, it was more so my children could know their father before he was a father. I was later inspired to complete my project because I wanted to use his story as a means to continue his work.
I believe the greatest lesson of Mark’s story is… never give up on your dreams.
Mark’s favorite part of being a doctor was… the time he spent within the four walls with his patients. He loved his patients as whole people, and he remembered details about them all his life. Although patients who were cured of their cancer always credited him with saving their lives, he always said that he was only the vehicle through which a greater power worked. And he felt that healing took on many forms and occurred in many more ways than merely physically.
Two things that made him unique as a doctor were… his own medical history, and his personality. He was always grounded in reality but could inspire hope. He was an excellent listener and had a gift for tailoring a treatment plan to each individual patient. I have thousands of letters from his patients now. I’ve read every word, and we read some to him during his last months.
Mark’s message to other cancer patients would be… be courageous. Fight the good fight. Healing comes in many forms. Pray for the miracle that you want, and accept the miracle that you get.
One thing few people knew about Mark was… how uniquely spiritual he was. He never openly professed his beliefs, but his spirituality shone through in the ways he dealt with his patients every day.
Mark changed me as a person by… I had to write a book to be able to answer that question. All I can say is that he made me a better person. He always had more confidence in me than I did, and I learned that I could achieve anything that I wanted to achieve.
Writing the book was… a fabulous trip through time. I amazed myself at how much I could remember. I loved reliving his life as well as mine with him.
In the end, Mark’s attitude about death was… he felt that he had had his miracle 40 years ago when he was cured from his original terminal cancer illness, and that he would not be cured from his cancer this time. He felt that God had made the decision that it was his time to move on. Personally, I still wish I had another 35 years with him. Why I couldn’t —that is one of the questions I have for God. But I am so happy to have had him for the 35 years I did.
Writer, and retired administrative director of the Peninsula Cancer Institute. Future writing projects could include fiction or a sequel to The Humanity of Medicine
Late husband Mark (married 35 years); three grown children: Lisa, a social worker, Mark Jr., an actor and comedian, and Robert, a sound designer
Bachelor’s degree in English from Wake Forest University, where she and Mark met in a religion class when she was 19 and he was 22
Reading, travel, playing piano, gardening, being
active outdoors and observing nature, wine and
Read an excerpt from Ellis’ book:
Mark has always maintained that his decision to become a doctor was an easy one. Furthermore, he can pin point the exact date on which it was made: September 21, 1968. He was eighteen years old and lying in a hospital bed at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As a patient, he found himself surrounded by medical personnel, and he both observed and reaped the benefits of their compassion, their intelligence, their dedication, and their spirit of cooperation.
Attending him were Dr. David Kelly, the neurosurgeon, and Dr. Richard Janeway, the neurologist. In addition, there were the nurses, the nursing assistants, the techs, the volunteers, the medical students, and the residents, and he was struck, as he put it, by the humanity of medicine.
Actually, the first two things that I remember upon waking up in the intensive care unit with my head all bandaged are very specific: the urinary catheter and the absence of a TV. I wanted the catheter out because it hurt, and I wanted a TV so I could watch the game.
Wake Forest’s second football game of the season was scheduled to be at home against Clemson, and it was going to be the first Wake Forest University football game ever televised. Groves Stadium was brand new and had just opened the week before with the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest losing to the Wolfpack of North Carolina State.
Fluctuating between begging and demanding, the young patient managed to gain Dr. Kelly’s consent to remove the catheter and admit him to a regular room where he knew he would find a television. Because the TV in his new room didn’t work, his father “went out somewhere in Winston-Salem” and rented one so that his critically ill son could watch the game. While Mark was waiting, his younger brother, looking for some subtle way to find out if his older sibling could still think clearly, asked him if he had heard the new Beatles song. Mark was a Beatles fanatic; the Beatles were (and still are) his happy music. He told him “no,” and asked to have his radio brought to the hospital.
The radio was one of those little handheld black transistor radios that were popular in the sixties, and
he kept it under his pillow, attached to his ear with an earpiece, so that he would not miss an opportunity to hear the new release. But it wasn’t until several hours later, after everyone had gone, that he heard it. In the wee hours of the morning, when his room was dark and silent, he was feeling very much alone, when from the radio came Paul McCartney’s voice singing Hey Jude.
He was forever changed. For the remainder of his hospital stay, he kept the radio on every second so that he could hear the song over and over again, as often as the radio station played it. Not only did he immediately love the song, but the idea of taking a sad situation and making it better, would become the theme of his life. He had just survived an operation to have a cancerous tumor the size of an orange removed from his brain. The tumor was malignant melanoma, and his prognosis was terminal. For some reason the prognosis never sank in; in Mark’s words, “That was probably a good thing.”
As far as his decision to become a doctor, the inspiration was strong. “It was an epiphany. It was cancer. It was Hey Jude.”