“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.
I was at a Head & Neck Cancer Conference recently in Liverpool and I was surprised when quite a few medics repeatedly said to me “I wish my patients were like you”. Apparently a regular stumbling block they come across is when a reluctant patient says “It’s alright for you. You haven’t got cancer”.
That is something they couldn’t say to me. So when I returned to Ireland I felt there was something I could do that would assist the people who had been so good to me. I could write something for the patient from the ex-patient to help the consultant and the oncologist. Something to circumvent the impasses the medics were encountering.
I merely collated all of the “good patient” elements of my story. I could go places the medics couldn’t reach. If I ever get confused about what I am trying to do, I just flick back to being the patient again and remind myself what I would have done for me had I met myself 15 years ago! Nothing beats the advice and inspiration that comes from somebody who has already done what you now need to do.
At the age of 40 was diagnosed with cancer. Not just any cancer. It was one of the worst cases of Head & Neck cancer ever seen, anywhere in the world. I simply had no chance. My initial consultant told me I was the second worse case he had ever seen and the worst case was dead in a month. That was all he had down for me too.
Eventually I was referred to a regional Head & Neck cancer treatment centre in England and, impressed by my fighting spirit, they wanted to offer me a chance, but even there, nobody really believed I would make it. I had a massive, stage 4 tumor in the middle of my face running around my eye to my brain stem and aside from the severity of the cancer itself, the intensely complex treatment required to remove it was likely to put me in the grave before the tumor got the chance to. It was as big as surgery comes and everything was at risk, my sight, my speech, my hearing and because the tumor was so close to both my brain and spine, my physical ability and my mental capacity.
If successful, I was constantly forewarned of the likelihood of a very poor outcome and a recovery where I would be mentally impaired, physically disabled, blind, deaf, dumb or most likely of all, some combination of all 5. In a very simplistic translation, success meant being alive.
From as early as day 2 (on day 1 you have nothing) my own role in all of the chaos that was going on around me began to sketch out in front of me. The patient has a job to do too. It is not a case of just sitting back and saying “treat me”.
The very first part of the patients role is Acceptance. Now was not the time to go backwards into “why me” or “poor me” or “it should be him” territory. It was too late for that. Your life has now been divided into two very distinctive categories, life before cancer and life after cancer. There is no point in trying to spend time in the former, when you have already been told you have enrolled in the latter. Acceptance is point zero. Everything else is just minus territory. You can’t begin to take on your disease until you get yourself back to nought. You simply draw a line, and there is only one direction to go from there.
In my case after acceptance the next step was to try and find somewhere in the world that would offer me treatment. That became the only thing that mattered so the next part of my role that evolved was to keep a Narrow Focus. You cross one bridge at a time and the only bridge in front of me now was finding treatment. I was prepared to go to whatever lengths I had to, to try and cross that bridge. A narrow focus keeps you strong and by then I had become so strong that the end result had practically become secondary. I just wanted a chance to fight. If I was to go down, I wanted to go down in the ring with my gloves on. Every cancer patient wants their chance to fight. If I didn’t get the chance to clear that hurdle, none of the rest in the race would have mattered.
So when the medical team were trying to warn me about the likelihood of a very poor recovery if the surgery was successful, it was all lost on me under the immense appreciation I had for them for seeing something in me, that convinced them to offer treatment to somebody they felt wouldn’t make it. I had found my chance. For now the only thing that was important was that I had a chance of staying alive. Future bridges would only be worried about after that one had been crossed. More importantly they had put faith in me, and now it was my job not to let them down on the making of that decision.
I knew my chances were very slim, that came with acceptance, so I believed that if I was to give myself the best possible chance every single detail of my cancer battle had to be pointing in the right direction. And some of those details were under my control. So from that day on I put myself on the medical team. I told myself that it was my duty to help everybody else help me. It was my job to be the best possible patient I could be. The medical team would run my treatment program, but they also needed me to respond and assist as best I could with everything they asked me to do.
So every day during my treatment, I reminded myself that all I had to concern myself with was whatever was set out for me that day. “You are having a colonoscopy at 3 and the physio is coming at 5”. That was all I needed to worry about and my goal was to do both of those things to the best of my ability. Now was not the time to concern myself with future recovery or visiting America or going to a wedding. You can only climb the part of the mountain that is under your foot.
My operation was so complex it took a month to prepare. I returned to Ireland and rather than just wait, I wanted to put that month to good use. So I went out and ran every day. I decided the two key areas I needed to have addressed before I faced into the surgery were my mindset and my physical condition. And running was perfect for both.
Running is never easy. Most days before I ran a part of my brain would ask if I really needed to do it today. Overcoming this little mental revolt, every day, not only strengthened my focus and my mindset, it was the best preparation I could have had for overcoming much more difficult obstacles that were to come in the months of difficult recovery ahead. The very essence of running at my level is that you never give up. And running also provides you with excellent thinking time. I used that time to dispel any doubts or fears I may have had over what lay ahead. If I was to survive I could not afford to have even one chink in my armour. If I did my cancer would find it and devour my resistance through it.
Those days of running were my preparation ground for ensuring there would be no gaps in my mindset. I would be ready for everything and nothing would stop me taking the fight to the very end. Finally, of course, running also made me as fit as I could possibly be and that was also an essential element of my best possible patient strategy. When the trolley came to get me on the morning of the operation, I wanted it to be collecting the finest possible specimen of Liam Ryan for the surgeons to do their work on.
No Stone Unturned
Three days before my surgery I dealt with the elephant in the room of most cancer stories. The likelihood that you are going to die. I felt I had to. In my case the elephant was very big and the room was very small. I knew I couldn’t afford to have an Achilles Heel. My fight would only be as strong as its weakest link. So one night, lying in my hospital bed, I just told myself I would not be here this time next week. Fact. How did I feel?
I was simply amazed where my mind brought me from there. The more I tried to look at the part of my glass that was half empty, the more I was only allowed to see the section that was half full. Sure, at 40 I would be dying a young man, but what a life I had had. I had come from a great family, gone to school and college, got married, lived in a wonderful place, ran my own business and lived long enough to see 3 of my own children come into the world. I had reached the top of the hill and was beginning to go down the other side. For the first time in my life I saw how much more fortunate I was compared to the 3 year old with leukemia, the 17 year old who comes off a motorbike or the people who die every day not by disease or natural causes, but are murdered by their fellow man.
Then I began to see people who could live twice as long as me, but never have the life I had. The oppressed factory worker, the child soldier, the trafficked sex worker. The more I tried to look at my death, the more I only ended up appreciating my life.
Cancer had no hold on me after that. I had taken its greatest card out of its hand. I was not afraid to die and if you are not afraid to die there is nothing left to be afraid of. It knew at that point, I was going to take it all the way. It had picked the wrong guy. I just put all those thoughts away then. Knowing they were there was all that I needed. I didn’t want them to take from my fight until there was nowhere left for my fight to go. At that point I knew I would have time to die and they would be there for me when I needed to return to them. Until then this cancer of mine was going to be dragged down every possible road available to me, kicking and screaming.
It was a huge turning point and the mindset it gave me became an essential piece in the jigsaw that kept me alive. In a nice twist, by not being afraid to die, I lived.
Part II to follow…..
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