It was really amazing fun to join Luke on the tandem this week. I think I earned my dinner and rest! After Luke had already cycled more than 1,200 kilometers around the UK, we started Tuesday morning in Oxford, where we met as classmates a little over a year before. The night before our departure, a group of nearly 100 Oxfordians joined Luke for a really inspiring talk where he shared his story and CanLive message at Worcester College (see video).
The University of Oxford was very kind to offer Luke the opportunity to share his story with the University’s vast audiences. I am honored that Luke entrusted me to author this intimate perspective of his tumultuous 2018-2019 school year. Below are the first few paragraphs of a much longer, and very powerful article. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you’re looking for even more, check out my radio interview of Luke from November, 2019.
“Dying to Live: a year in the life of an Oxford student with cancer and what he’s doing next.”
In any other October of Luke Grenfell-Shaw’s previous 24 years, an unsuspecting classroom full of students and lecturers would have first noticed his determined stride, his sharp nose and cheek bones, his playfully spiky dirty-blond hair, or his aggressively floral shirts. This October, however, was different. It was Noughth Week of Michaelmas term 2018. Upon entering the room, it was clear that Luke’s remarkable features and even his outrageous shirt were muted by even starker characteristics — a pale bald head, a slightly swollen, eyebrow-less face, and a palpable sense of unease in his own athletic body.
I was among the group of new postgraduate students who noticed Luke walking in. Although we didn’t know it yet, this would be the only moment of the year when all the students and teachers would be in the same room. A fast-paced year running this way and that was about to begin. In the blink of an eye it would be over, and those of us pursuing a one-year Master’s of Science (MSc) degree would have graduated. And so, it went. At the close of the 90-minute induction meeting the group rose to mingle and connect. Luke did not linger for long and slipped out ahead of most of the group.
It was one week later, during the first official meeting of the Water Science, Policy, and Management cohort, based at the University of Oxford’s prestigious School of Geography and the Environment, that Luke first addressed the class: ‘Just to clear the air and to address it up front, I’m sorry I was unable to attend the induction field trip to Dorset. I’m guessing you might have noticed I’m not looking entirely normal. I’ve got cancer and I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy.’ His tone was frank and full of uncertainty. Luke continued, ‘I’ll be missing lectures and some other things this year. I just wanted you to know why I’ll be absent from time to time.’
The class responded with a mix of silence and supportive comments. It was uncomfortable to move on from the seriousness of Luke’s announcement to the next task — a seemingly inconsequential selection of two representatives from the class to liaise with the teaching staff. Stammering forward, we carried on. Again, Luke did not linger at the end of class. In this moment, he quite understandably had other priorities.
Indeed, Luke had missed the three-day induction field trip some ten days earlier because he had been scheduled for his fifth of six chemotherapy sessions at the Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre (BHOC). He had learned just four months earlier that a nagging ache in his back was actually an aubergine-sized tumour that had already found its way into his lungs. Luke abruptly left the teaching-abroad post he was enjoying in Siberia and quickly found himself back home in Bristol with chemicals in his veins to halt the cancerous growths. At the age of 24, some thirteen years earlier, I had just concluded a year of teaching abroad and was settling into a new city at the start of an exciting career. Luke, however, was at BHOC for chemotherapy treatment sessions. ‘I was attached to a drip for 20 hours a day, not all of it was chemo but I felt pretty terrible 24 hours a day.’ Luke, his family and friends, and now his new Oxford classmates and I learned just how quickly life can be turned upside down.
>> Continue reading on the University of Oxford’s Medium channel