Having someone you love get down on one knee is always a moment to treasure, but for Jade Scandrett-Huriwai, it’s a milestone that represents courage, resilience, and a complete change of fortune for her and partner Mile Nafatali.
Just weeks before Mile pulled himself out of his wheelchair to pop the question to his future wife, he’d been told he was dying of lymphoma, a blood cancer. He was advised to go home, be with his family and make the most of his remaining few months. He was just 21.
“Life is so short,” explains Nafatali. “It had been such an emotional time and I just felt it was the right moment to show Jade how I felt. She’d been there from the beginning and has been a huge support.”
Dunedin lovebirds Nafatali, now 22, and Scandrett-Huriwai, 21, first met at a housewarming party in February 2020 and hit it off straight away. But Nafatali had been battling crippling shoulder pain for several months and was in and out of physiotherapy.
“At the time, I was playing basketball and volleyball competitively,” he tells. “I wasn’t that worried – I just thought it was some kind of sporting injury. But when I started coughing up blood, my family encouraged me to get to the doctor.”
Even when an X-ray revealed a large mass in Mile’s chest, he remained upbeat. “The doctors were pretty sure it would be benign, so I was confident,” he recalls. So confident that when he began dating the bubbly girl he’d met at the party a few days earlier, he was relaxed about explaining to Jade what was going on.
“He had a massive white bandage on his chest from the tumour biopsy,” she shares.
“Although we both knew cancer was one of the possibilities, I just felt it would be a best-case scenario situation.”
Even when an x-ray revealed a large mass in Mile's chest, he remained upbeat. Photo / Sharron Bennett
A week after they began seeing each other, Nafatali picked Scandrett-Huriwai up, drove her to Dunedin’s marina and told her he had lymphoma. His priority, he says, was giving Jade an “out” – letting her know that she could walk away.
“I knew I had intensive chemotherapy ahead of me and initially I was thinking, ‘I’ve only known Jade a week – she doesn’t deserve this.'” But she was all-in, telling Nafatali, “We’ll get through it together.”
By July, Nafatali had completed six gruelling rounds of chemotherapy. “We were slowly accepting the gravity of the situation,” admits Scandrett-Huriwai.
The lymphoma had already spread to Nafatali’s hips, leaving him in a wheelchair. A stem cell transplant was the next course of action, but when he travelled up to Christchurch for a consultation, a scan revealed there was little point.
“The haematologist told me my cancer was so advanced that the transplant would
have virtually no effect,” Nafatali recalls. “He then said there were no other treatment options available to me and that I should go home.
“I had my mum Raewyn and sister Victoria with me, and Jade – who was with her family that day – was on the end of the phone. We were all in tears, broken.”
“I'm so happy Jade stuck with me. My future looks exciting!” Mile says. Photo / Supplied
There was only one thing to do. Back home and with the knowledge he had just a handful of months to live, Nafatali hauled himself on to his knee to surprise Jade with a stunning diamond ring he’d bought with his mother’s help.
Saying yes was easy, says Scandrett-Huriwai. “He’s just so selfless,” she explains. “Even in the worst moments, he’s always put me first – laughing, cracking jokes, making me smile.”
Meanwhile, Nafatali’s mother called a family meeting, gathering her five other children to start researching alternative therapies.
CAR T, a groundbreaking immunotherapy that super-charges the body’s own cells to fight certain types of cancers, came up in their search.
Discovering a clinical trial of CAR T treatment was available in New Zealand through a medical research centre, the Malaghan Institute, was a beacon of light – but by the
time it could accept Naftali, he would likely be dead.
Fortunately, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation in Melbourne was also running a trial.
To their surprise, a Zoom call with a senior clinician from the foundation ended with good news for an ecstatic Nafatali.
“He said he believed he could offer a therapy that might save my life.” But then the kicker: “The treatment was $1.2 million.”
With the cost completely out of reach, Nafatali and Scandrett-Huriwai’s hopes were shattered. It was one of Nafatali’s cancer nurses, however, who quietly filed an application for the government’s High Cost Treatment Pool and found the therapy could be covered.
Mile’s mad dash to Melbourne and CAR T immunotherapy – where his own cells were extracted, modified and then reinfused into his body – feature as part of a new Prime documentary, A Mild Touch of Cancer, which follows the highs and lows of several families’ experiences with CAR T.
As the doco shows, CAR T has been successful in treating a number of other Kiwis with terminal cancer. Photo / Supplied
It’s at times uplifting and heartbreaking as CAR T doesn’t work for everyone – but it did for Nafatali.
“The day we got the results, we were all so nervous,” he tells. “But the scans showed
I’d had a complete response – the cancer was gone.”
While it seems like a miracle, the doco shows CAR T has been successful in treating a number of other Kiwis with terminal cancer. Speaking to Scandrett-Huriwai and Nafatali, it’s clear they’re still processing their good fortune.
Nafatali is back to work – he and Scandrett-Huriwai are administrators for the Covid-19 vaccination programme. As someone who can’t have the vaccine himself, it’s something Naftali feels strongly about.
And while there will be more scans and regular check-ups for Nafatali, now there’s also a wedding to organise. “It’s been hard to think ahead because I’ve always had lymphoma in the way,” says Nafatali, who is gradually getting his mobility back.
“My main goal now is to stay healthy, live life and make sure I don’t relapse,” he enthuses.
“I’m so happy Jade stuck with me. My future looks exciting.”
• A Mild Touch Of Cancer screens 8.30pm Tuesday, October 19, on Prime and will then stream on Sky Go. A feature-length version will also hit theatres nationwide from October 28 as part of the Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival. For details, visit nziff.co.nz