“My survival alone was a miracle.”
Diagnosed in 2002 with a life threatening head and neck cancer, Liam Ryan’s doctors told him he should have never survived. Beating all the odds, today Liam wears an eye-patch as his only reminder.
According to Liam, his book was written by somebody ordinary, to encourage and inspire every cancer patient that will come after him. This is the first of nine articles in a series that covers his final chapter, Closure.
Closure, Part I
I had now reached the point where I was effectively cured. When cancer comes back after the five year remission period it is regarded as a new version rather than a return of the old one. I was now working full-time again and leading a full life just as I had before. For the very first time I let myself believe I had successfully survived my ordeal. I had emerged from the forest. Now, at long last, I was in a position to begin to distinguish the wood from the trees. I could view my entire ordeal from start to finish. The realisation now was that my recovery had become an even bigger story than my survival ever was. Miracle number two had gone on to outdo miracle number one.
When I had completed my treatment I just wanted to be alive. The odds were so high against that possibility and the treatment I had to endure that nothing else was in view. If I was alive it meant I had won, or at least I was winning. My cancer would only win when I was dead. I was prepared to pay any price to deny it that result.
I was so strong at that point that the prospects of blindness, deafness, loss of speech or reduced mobility made little impact on me. I just wanted to win and I didn’t care how. My singlemindedness was so absolute that even if I had to go into a vegetative state in order to declare victory it wouldn’t have mattered. With my life on the line, my mental focus was ensuring that nothing would distract from the desire to simply stay alive. I was right up against the wood then.
Now that I had reached open ground I could look back and see the forest was made up of many trees. Not only was I not just alive or a vegetable or blind or deaf or dumb, I was basically 95% of the person I had been before cancer struck. My survival, an amazing story in itself was turning out to be just the starter. My recovery had become the main course. If the starter was delicious, the main course was sumptuous. It had become an unending platter of the finest food imaginable. I could see, hear, walk, talk, eat, drink, work, run, sleep, drive, swim, sing, cycle and even fly (in an aeroplane!). Apart from the eyepatch it was almost as if cancer had never happened.
Now that I had resumed every bit of the life I had before I got sick I wanted to draw a line in the sand. I wanted to make a clear distinction between cancer and post-cancer. I wanted to pick a point in time and be able to say that was the very last day of my ordeal.
I felt I needed to go somewhere for closure. Wherever I was to go, it would have to be somewhere special. A place that would receive me as a cancer patient, and send me home as a free man. I wanted to make a journey somewhere to mark the end of the journey itself.
I did not know where that place was going to be. I knew it could not be an extravagant destination like Las Vegas, Ibiza or Hong Kong. I knew it could not even be one of the beautiful cities in the world like Paris or Sydney or Cape Town. It had to be somewhere very special, somewhere with meaning. It was going to be the place where I would close the book. The place where I would say “I have beaten cancer. I am still alive. It is over. Now it is time to get on with the rest of my life.” I didn’t know where such a place was to be.
By now quite a few of my daily church visits had turned into going to morning Mass in Ballina. These weekday Masses were almost exclusively attended by a group of local women who hardly ever missed a day. Just about all of these wonderful women became devoted to my case. Without any invitation they had taken charge of the piece of my jigsaw that had “prayer” written on it. One of these women, Deirdre Griffin, approached me one morning as I was leaving Mass. She convinced me that the place I was looking for was called Medjugorje.
I didn’t know anything about Medjugorje. This was good. I liked the fact that it was a place I didn’t know much about. It meant that I felt I was able to journey there on my own terms. I could make this a very personal pilgrimage, just for me, without any preconceived expectations of what Medjugorje was supposed to be.
I made a point of finding out very little more about it before I went. The little bit I did know however I liked. I knew that an apparition had occurred there. The only other thing I knew was that it had a mountain. That was good enough for me. I started with a mountain at Tountinna, so now I would finish with one too. Two small mountains were now going to bookend my entire cancer story, Tountinna in County Tipperary and Krizevac in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Deirdre’s sister-in-law, Rosemarie McKeogh organises a parish trip from Ballina to Medjugorje every year. She was only delighted to sign me up for the group going out in September. I too was glad to be travelling with a group of people I knew well but this was primarily a private mission. I was determined that I would isolate myself at the appropriate moments to make the personal closure I needed.
Stay tuned as we continue Liam’s story…
Reprinted with permission of the author.