My name is Luke. I am 25 years old. A year ago I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. The cancer is still here – I’m here too. Starting in January 2020, I am going to cycle from Bristol to Beijing on a tandem bicycle. Let me explain.
I received my diagnosis on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, exactly one year ago today as I write this, on 19 June 2018. It was like finding out that I was in the deep end of an icy pool with no memory of having made the jump. The disease was stage IV. That is, it had already spread to my lungs, pepper-shotting them with 13 unwelcome nodules, a large-scale breakout from the original tumour, the size of large aubergine, beneath my left scapula.
I was in shock, bewildered, angry. I couldn’t comprehend how I had been let down by my body, and this badly. My life was – I felt – numbered in months. My goals and dreams were shredded in a moment, at the age of 24. All my plans: to cycle around Central Asia, start my upcoming Master’s course, to become an entrepreneur, go pro in Ironman triathlons – gone. Then, on the most difficult day of my life so far, I went for a run.
Encouraged and accompanied by Dad, I laced up my shoes and ran up the stony dirt footpath that climbs the hill to the Downs: a large expanse of Bristol parkland with views across to Brunel’s Suspension Bridge, a sheer-sided drop down to the River Avon at its western edge. Over the sun-baked grass we trotted, my shoulder and upper arm aching from the sheer inconvenience they suffered from the engorged tumour beneath my scapula. It had been persistently prising my left shoulder blade away from my rib cage, imperceptibly at first, but now at full throttle, in a headlong rush to render my arm useless.
We jogged up the rise to the Observatory – a run that I had done so many times with my running and adventuring partner Zak, where the rate of tapping soles and sharp breaths would climb with the gradient. Today, it nudged my spirits upwards. Dad and I panted by the wire-linked railings, beyond which the Suspension Bridge hung: a feat of human engineering ingenuity which few had believed possible, a testament to the sheer stubbornness of human inspiration.
Here Dad gave me some of the most important advice I have received: we can’t control our circumstances, we can’t turn back time, we can’t change this cancer diagnosis, however much we would like. But we can choose our approach to it. We can choose to mope, throw our arms up and cry “All is lost” or “Why bother?” and decide our fate has been mapped out for us.
Or instead, we can choose to make the next moment count, and then the next. We can choose to try, at the very least, to live today, just today, just Tuesday the 19th June 2018, to the full.
What this means – and my central belief – is that we have a choice. A choice to be proactive. A choice to maximise our chances of living longer, and more importantly, living a happier and more fulfilled life. A cancer diagnosis is a reason to do more, not less. A reason to pursue health, rather than care less for your body. It is a reason – rather, one of the strongest kicks up the proverbial posterior you can get – to dream bigger than ever before, demand even more from life, and at the same time give more. In short, the sharp, even desperate, clarity and urgency that cancer brings in its wake is an opportunity. This is why I am cycling from Bristol to Beijing, with Stage IV cancer, in 2020.
I do not think of myself as a “cancer survivor”. I dislike this term: It implies success, certainty, a ‘victory’ over the disease, which too often is transient. And so often, it is misplaced. Too often I have read how someone has been a “cancer survivor” for X months or years, only to read the footnote that shortly afterwards, they were no longer a survivor. It also implies that surviving cancer is the only thing that you do.
It’s my strong belief that the way we approach cancer has to change. And by we, I mean everyone with cancer today. And those who know, or knew, a loved one with cancer.
And for those lucky enough to not have had a cancer diagnosis touch their lives, I believe there is merit in re-evaluating your approach to life.
I believe this can be summed up in the term CanLiver – that is, someone living a rich life with cancer. This encapsulates my attitude: that, even with cancer, you can live life to the full. That, even with cancer, you have a choice – whether to make the most of each day, as far as you can (and in the knowledge you will rarely, if ever fully achieve this; that does not mean we shouldn’t strive for this) and embrace the challenge. That, even with cancer, you can do things to improve your health and happiness.
It also highlights the fact that, each day, you know that your timeline is probably shortened. Each day, you have to face up to the fact that some of your hopes might not be achieved. For me this means children and a family, a fulfilling career, reminiscing with friends about our university days.
The vast majority of cancers are not currently curable. And whilst thankfully there are novel, potentially potent techniques being developed, this still means that the uncertainty and threat hovering over your future plans will always be there, affecting you and loved ones. This is the reality of having cancer.
But I think it is also hugely important to emphasise that this uncertainty does not stop us living -– instead it does the reverse: we should live harder than before and work harder to look after ourselves and improve our chances of a longer, more fulfilled, life. This is where exercise comes in.
Exercise releases endorphins, which improves mood, often drastically. Even before I had cancer, I got pretty cranky without going for a run or cycle – just ask my parents or my girlfriend. Basically anyone who knows me, in fact. For CanLivers, facing the huge, life-altering, and extremely difficult challenge that is cancer, the role of exercise as a powerful mood-lifter cannot be over-emphasised.
That run, on that day, where I discovered how lightly I tread on this earth – just as a climber, who has been walking along a snow-covered crevice, treads through the thin covering to discover that only sheer air is beneath them – pushed me into a better mood. The situation had not changed, but I was that little bit more able to give a shaky smile, receive a hug, rather than bury my head in the sofa cushions.
That run was also something else – a small positive action. Nothing more. It didn’t help anyone else, it didn’t change the situation, but it was an achievement that I – and only I – was responsible for.
That, to me, encapsulates one of the beauties of exercise. Only you can take that next step. Moving your legs, firing neurons, contracting muscles – it is an action over which you have complete ownership. This makes it hard. No-one else can do it for you. But that means that every metre, each painstaking mile is entirely your achievement. And there are few feelings better than having achieved something. It can change who you are. You can, simply by getting out the front door, change your life story. You can become someone who does running: a mile, ten miles, even a marathon – this becomes part of your identity and a testament to your strength of character. As you run, even with cancer, you change your life story. Cancer doesn’t write your book – you do.
This brings me to a final reason why exercise is even more important for CanLivers. Fitness matters. A strong, otherwise healthy body can withstand more trauma – whether caused by chemicals, a scalpel or radio waves. Being fit gives you resilience.
It is now a year on from diagnosis, and despite pretty unfavourable odds, I am still here. I feel so fortunate to still be breathing, doing, experiencing.
I know that running and cycling and having a good diet increase my chances of living another year, though this is very far from guaranteed. I am immensely grateful for the NHS, whose treatment made this possible. I am also so, so grateful to the people who have given so much support to make the challenges more bearable, enabled me to do so much more than I thought I could, and who have made my life so much richer. Thank you.
And yes, I really am going to cycle from Bristol to Beijing next year. Stay tuned for my next post.