“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.
Read Part I of this amazing, incredible, inspirational two-part story.
My fight was now equipped with its greatest component of all, Perspective. When everything else is deserting you, perspective is the one thing you can rely on to keep you strong. And none of us, no matter who we are, have to look too far to find somebody worse off than we are. All we have to do is watch the news properly every night. When you take in the images in front of you of the bombing or the tsunami or the earthquake or the famine, suddenly your old car, or your difficult boss or your mild back pain doesn’t seem to be such a big problem anymore.
And so with me. A nice example of the perspective that was now established in me came one day when I shared the lift with a woman about my own age during my radiotherapy. Her surgery was lower than mine and although it resulted in her features being perfect from the chin up, she would unfortunately never be able to eat or drink normally again and would have her peg tube for life. So later that day I surmised what was going through both our minds. She was saying “Well I’m glad I’m not him because as a woman I am very concerned about my looks and I would not fancy facial disfigurement”. And I was saying “Well I’m glad I’m not her because when I return to Ireland the first thing I want to have is a pint of Guinness and a steak”.
But, having spoken to her, at that time I reckon we were both so strong, that if the cases were reversed I would then just have said “Well I’m glad I’m not her because as a man I am fussy about my looks and I wouldn’t fancy facial disfigurement” And visa versa for her. And that is perspective at its best. You take possession of your own case and make it the best there is.
My case was so extreme I have no doubt that my survival was indeed like a jigsaw. If any piece was missing I would not be here today. And most of the pieces were put in place by my many incredible medics, my family, my friends, my community and huge slices of luck at certain moments.
The other great advantage of perspective is that it brings a great ally with it, Appreciation. It was perspective that stopped me seeing the empty part of the glass when I tried to look at the end of my life. My first infusion of appreciation came when I came around in intensive care after the surgery. I had returned to the world more machine then man. I had about 15 tubes coming out of me, all connecting to various machines and although I was glad to be alive, I seemed to be only a single notch above, being alive.
But again, rather than mourn the temporary loss of just about all my bodily functions as I lay there, my mind immediately led me to recognizing and appreciating all of the wonderful fundamental activities my body had been performing for years until then, probably for the first time. It was only now when I was denied the use of them did I begin to see all the amazing things my two hands and ten fingers did every day. And they were just the simple things like scratching my nose, brushing my teeth or lifting a cup of coffee to my lips. I vowed I would never let myself take such simple but amazing abilities for granted ever again. That is perspective and appreciation keeping you strong in the most extreme of circumstances.
When you are taking on cancer you need to use every single element of your life to assist the fight, no matter how small. You need to turn all your negatives into positives. So just as perspective brings appreciation as part of the package, you can’t deal with the possibility of your demise without wondering what comes next. If you have Faith you need to use it. It can be one of your greatest weapons of all. It gives you somewhere to go beyond where you are now. This can be a critical refuge at times of intense pain or when all hope appears to be lost. You still have something in your locker that nothing can touch. It can become your only beacon beyond discomfort, pain, disability and even death itself. It can keep you strong when nothing else can.
I found my faith to be a huge advantage to me. It made me incredibly strong. It extended my ability not to be afraid of anything, irrespective of what the end result could be and allowed me to give everything to my fight to stay alive. In those moments, when everything else seemed to have been taken from my corner, I always believed God was still there.
So right throughout my fight this great resolve seemed to be emerging from me. It stemmed from a variety of sources, personal responsibility, perspective and appreciation, ensuring that above all the fight would never end, not being afraid to die and even when I could not find the answer in this world, I had somewhere to go that was greater than that. If cancer was to take me, the most important thing became that I never gave up. I wanted to be able to clench my fist on my deathbed and say this has been through no fault on my part. That became very important to me. And without having adopted that mindset I don’t believe I would be here today.
My resolve was so strong it was often stronger than me. On about 4 separate days throughout my ordeal I genuinely had nothing. I was looking to throw in the towel. These were a few singular days of intense pain and severe discomfort when perhaps news of a setback of some kind had also just broken. It appeared to be time to accept the inevitable. My mind knew I had nothing on those days so it took over the controls by itself. It knew everything was depleted from the eyes down.
And what it did amazed me. It would plant an image in front of me of my one year old son, Abe or another one it used was the mother of some friend of mine going in to a little church somewhere to light a candle for me. Then it would say “That boy is going to need somebody to take him to the crèche and the playground and his football games. And that woman is not lighting that candle for you to sit there feeling sorry for yourself. You can quit for yourself Liam, but you can’t quit for them”.
And it always worked! Within an hour, no matter how bad I was, I would be back on the horse. The fight would be resumed. My mind knew that when I didn’t have it myself, it had to spread the responsibility to find people who it knew I would feel I couldn’t let down. It also used my incredible medical team. They were all working just for me. They had done incredible work. I could quit for myself, but I couldn’t quit for them.
My case was so extreme I have no doubt that my survival was indeed like a jigsaw. If any piece was missing I would not be here today. And most of the pieces were put in place by my many incredible medics, my family, my friends, my community and huge slices of luck at certain moments. But I have no doubt some of those pieces were also down to me. That was my job. I was on the team too. Whenever I give credit to my wonderful medical team for their great work, they never hesitate in acknowledging the role I played too. That is always very rewarding to hear as cancer survivor. When it came to the crunch, you stood up to the mark.
If you are reading this as a cancer patient you have a very important role in your own treatment. This is not a disease you can dictate to. It is a ruthless predator. Cancer will not allow you any weakness. There is no room for anything less than everything. You need to do all in your power to make sure it does not get the better of you. You are on the team too. It is your job to make yourself the best patient you can be. To help everybody else help you. If you do you are giving yourself the greatest chance possible and there is no limit to where that can take you. I should have died, many times, in 2002, but 15 years later I am still here to write these words.
When I was diagnosed I was given a month to live. There was no reason to think it was anything other than a certainty. I was 40 then. Now I am 55 and last year I got the biggest job I have ever had when I became the first architect ever appointed at Tipperary County Council. From a month to live my life has returned to doing everything I did before I got cancer. And in 2012 I marked the tenth anniversary of my incredible survival by running my first marathon, post-cancer and writing a book. All of my consultants are simply amazed and tell me I now possess one of the greatest cancer stories there has been.
But they also compliment me for being a great patient. I put myself on the team too. I made sure it was my responsibility to try to help everybody else help me. And there are very few cancer cases worse than mine, so if I did it there is no reason why you can’t do it too.
So go and climb that mountain. Inch by inch, day by day, only one direction to go. You owe it to yourself to give yourself the best possible chance. And with the right determination, anything is possible.
I have become the proof of that.
Reprinted with permission of author.
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