ON YOUR MARKS, GET SET…THE MYELOMA CHALLENGE

I’m 39 years old, no history of illness, Ironman finisher who has been diagnosed with myeloma. Did not see this coming. This blog summarises my journey from unexpected diagnosis through the treatment path. My aim is to use myeloma as a catalyst for living a better, more fulfilling life and documenting the changes I am making in all aspects of my family and work commitments.

BREAKING YOUR OWN MOULD CAN ONLY MAKE YOU STRONGER AND MORE CONFIDENT TO REACH HIGHER LEVELS IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL AND PERSONAL LIFE

This week, I drafted and delivered a presentation to a police force on the subject set out in the title above. I wanted to share the content with you all.

10’000 Donors has to go bigger. Presenting is one way of delivering against that goal. 

As always, feedback welcome

Thanks all…


Good evening everyone.

First and foremost thank you for inviting me to speak to you.

Cheshire may seem a long way to come, but as you’ll hopefully appreciate at the end, the next hour could prove to be the most important of my life and very much involves each and every one of you who are kindly taking time to hear me present.

From the outset I want to be clear that I am not here seeking pity or be seen as a victim. 

Quite the opposite in truth. I’m here to use my experiences for a much greater cause.

So, I’ll start my story reflecting on the month of January this year, when I turned 41.

Sadly, according to my doctor, it  may prove to be one of only five or six birthdays I may have left to celebrate.

It all really began back in September 2016, when my life as it was, was turned upside down by an unexpected diagnosis.

I had just completed an IronMan triathlon, and was by all accounts fitter than I had ever been.

2 days after finishing, I found myself in the Countess of Chester hospital with pneumonia, sepsis and legionnaires.  

4 months after getting over that heady concoction, at 39, I was called in to see my GP who gave me a diagnosis of myeloma; a blood cancer, which was manageable but incurable.

I was subsequently told that if I made it through the next 7 years I would have done well.


It’s at this point I will stop and reflect upon the theme of today’s event.

Breaking your own mould can only make you stronger and more confident to reach higher levels in your professional and personal life

I’m going to spend the next 30 minutes:  

  1. Reflecting on my experiences since diagnosis
  2. Set out my learning, on my diagnosis and how I have dealt with what has been a very challenging time for me and my family and 
  3. How I have used my experience both before and during my cancer journey up to today.

I’ve summarised my story using the following structure:

Life before and after

Key lessons that have helped me and continue to help

My ask of you


  • Life before…
    • I walked a well-trodden path. Education, steady career, family, mortgage and responsibility. Nothing special or unique about me
  • Life after…
    • I’d love to be able to tell you I had an epiphany and the meaning of life, the answers to all the big questions; were laid out in front of me to appreciate and share. But no, sadly not . 
    • Life was turbulent but carried on. I still had a job to do, bills to pay, children to raise. That said…
    • The following 48 hours post that diagnosis day were the darkest of any I can recall. Especially at night when I had no one but myself  to engage with. 

So many questions…

Why me? What did I do to merit this? Too many kebabs a Uni? Mobile phones? 

And then I looked beyond the immediate frustrations and the true nature of a diagnosis of cancer really hit home.

Things closest to me, that defined me all bought into question. My world crumbled

As a Father

As a Husband

As a Professional

I had to say to my wife Jenn, despite it sickening me to my core, that I was ok with her meeting someone else as and when the worst happened.

I became so angry, contemplating someone stepping into my life when like so many of us, I felt that I had worked so hard to build this for my family and me.

I found myself in what I can only describe as like being in a whirlpool, where my inwardly focussed negativity was sucking me into the centre and away from more stable thinking.

But you simply cannot stay sane by holding on to such thoughts. I had to take a step back and contextualise my new norm.

It was then I started to see all of the losses, the questions, as being insular, self pitying  and offering no meaningful answers.  Only frustrations and negative emotions, which were fuelling that whirlpool; drawing me away from the real world.

I took a decision to educate myself on what life might actually be like accepting and living with cancer. I took on board the really big picture.

I learnt that every 20 minutes someone in the world will face the same message me, being diagnosed with a blood cancer.

I learnt that 1 in 2 people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. 

Yes I am in the thick of my own struggle, but all of us could be facing a life changing illness. 

You’ll recall that one of the first questions I asked myself was why me? 

But that was just a dead end question.

In reality there was only 1 question that demanded an honest answer however unpalatable.

That being; 

Why not me?

As I said in my introduction, I am not special. Not immune from such brutally harsh and unjust scenarios. 

Strangely, when you accept this truth; really think about your place in the world, you find yourself liberated from the injustice of the situation and able to focus on making the important choices open to you.

How to make best use of your time. 

You could descend into a spiral of self-pity and despair and I can see why some might do just that.

But why waste what life I have feeling that way?

Which brings me to my first point of learning…

CAPABILITY

– “Remember, when people give you their advice, they’re giving you advice based on their particular skills, experiences and perspectives.  So know that when you get their expert advice, it’s often people telling you about their journey, and every journey is different.  

Rick Rubin

– “Life is not designed to hand us success or satisfaction, but rather to present us with challenges that make us grow” 

Terry Laughlin

On reflection, I was mentally more prepared, more capable, than I gave myself credit for based on life experience alone. It is all too easy to underestimate what you have learnt over time or the value of the small, seemingly insignificant events that you go through and sometimes unknowingly, learn from. 

A failed test. Job rejection. Solving a Rubix Cube! 

At this present moment in time, you are the most advanced you, you  have ever been. You, are the best you, possible at this moment so do the best you can with the tools you have been blessed with or talents you have nurtured. 

Lesson: TRUST MYSELF. 

TO LET MY BODY DO WHAT IT NEEDS TO DO TO PROCESS THE CURRENT AND TRUST IT WILL SERVE ME WELL IN THE FUTURE. 

TO NOT FIGHT EMOTIONS BUT RIDE THE WAVE. WE ARE THE RESULT OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF EVOLUTION. DOES NOT MEAN WE DON’T NEED RESILIENCE TO GET THROUGH STRESSFUL SITUATIONS OR THAT WE CAN’T IMPROVE OUR ABILITY TO “COPE” THROUGH GOOD CHOICES E.G. EXERCISE, DIET, COPING STRATEGIES ETC… BUT DON’T FIGHT THE “NOW.” 

I WAS FIGHTING MY DIAGNOSIS FOR MONTHS BUT IT WAS A BATTLE I COULD NOT WIN. MY CANCER IS INCURABLE. I CANNOT CHANGE THAT. 

SO WHY WASTE MY ENERGY TRYING TO DO SO?

Despite this, compared to some people, I have been lucky in many ways. 

The way I found out about my illness. Without that CT scan, the Radiographer would not have had the opportunity to spot the lesions on my skeleton that were the first noted signs of cancer. I could have carried on and it could have got to a much more severe stage of the illness before it was identified. 

And the emotional support me and my family have had has been fantastic too. 

But ultimately, nothing anyone else could do or say could take away my cancer or make me feel better. That had to come from within. I had to navigate that path and believe that tomorrow would bring something new; for better or worse. And accepting both sides of the emotive battle was a big part of my ability to cope and progress. Regardless of what the final outcome might be.


So, back to the story and my question 

 “…why waste what life I have feeling self-pity and despair?”

It was at this point I could have done 1 of 2 things. 

I could have been a passenger and just jumped on the conveyor belt of the NHS, of my emotions and simply accepted everything that happened to me. 

Or, I could let go of the things I had no control over (drugs, pain, time away from family…) accept it and focus my energy on what was in my control. 

Which is what I did.

The key lesson here being

CHOICE

– “We cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it. Having a meaning in life is essential”

Fedor Holz

  – “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them.  They went out and happened to things”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Just because you feel and think something does not mean you have to accept it. We can all choose how to act in a given situation.

I have spent too much time in hospitals in the last 2 years and surrounded by very poorly people. But all too often I see, rightly or wrongly because I don’t know their story, people expecting all the hard work to be done by the professionals; that they are passengers; passive in the face of horrific situations. 

And that victim mentality inadvertently places a negative and subservient mindset on a person. That they have no or little control. 

We can all choose to be a victim of circumstance, wallow in self-pity and play passenger to the situation. Or we can take ownership and responsibility for the situation and take the decisions on our terms to get through it. This gives power and accountability to us rather than being powerless and helpless.

e.g. look at the situation from the perspective of a victim vs being responsible and make your choice on which path to follow. 

Victim mentality is not me and I don’t believe it is a helpful attitude to have when facing any scenario in life. It implies some divine right to an easy life. 

Life owes us nothing.  If anything we are in debt the world. Take control of what you can and own those tasks. E.g. 

  1. Who you associate with.
  2. What you learn
  3. Managing your emotions and not being a slave to them

Lesson: I HAVE A CHOICE. 

BEING A VICTIM WILL SIMPLY HOLD ME BACK. 

I HAVE BEEN GIFTED LIFE. SO APPRECIATE THIS AND USE IT FOR GOOD. 

REPAY MY DEBT WITH EFFORT, TALENT AND DEDICATION TO SOMETHING I BELIEVE IN. HENCE I AM HERE SPEAKING TODAY

This is not to say I am not acutely aware of mental health and its importance. We all have different tolerance levels and reactions to stress. 

But in life, in the western world in particular where we live in a democracy, we all have the gift of choice over so much of our lives. 

I believe this is taken for granted all to often. 

I also believe we have more control over our emotions than we do, or like to, acknowledge. 

I wonder, in your line of work as police officers; how often you attend an incident where a perpetrator says “it wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t help it…” or something to that effect. 

I imagine in a court of law, someone assaulting another person because they lost their head, is not viewed in a positive light. 

I happen to believe that we all have responsibility for our actions and that includes our mindset. We just need the tools to tap into managing them.

For myself, facing an incurable cancer took much soul searching and many sleepless nights. 

And through a lot of reflection and education (reading, talking to people) I learnt to take what positives I could from this god-awful situation. 

Importantly, I learnt to Re-Frame my “negative” emotions and acknowledge my next point.

Resilience

 – “In a real sense, to grow in life, I must be a seeker of stress.

Protection from stress only serves to erode my capacity to handle it. Stress exposure is the stimulus for all growth and growth actually occurs during episodes of recovery.  Avoiding stress, I have learned, will never provide the capacity that life demands of me.”

Dr. Jim Loehr

If Capability is all about acknowledging past influences and Choice is about using them to good effect. Resilience is the facet of the dynamic that allows us to stay in control and deal with what ever is thrown at us for as long as we are able to cope.

We have been gifted with a balance of emotions. Both positive i.e. we enjoy and negative. i.e. do not enjoy.

But even after a life-changing event, life does not stop. The world continues to turn. Bills still need paying. Your kids will still get on your nerves! A new lens may be placed over your view of things but even the drugs, doctors and disruption are normalised after a time of initial upheaval.  

It is a new norm. 

For me, my old life ended in March 2017. It sometimes feels like I am living a parallel existence. But you can survive if you find a way to accept and move on. 

The human body has a very helpful ability to deal with even the most extreme of situations and stabilise. 

And I think it is important to look at the time you have as time to be spent as well as you can. 

If you are not pressing ahead you are at best static and that, when the world is still carrying on is as good as walking backwards. 

What are we here for if not to learn, grow and add value to the world around us? As I said before, we are in debt to this life. 

And knowthat sometimes you will fail. If you take risks, you will sometimes fail, but that does not mean you are a failure.

Being resilient is crucial to navigating this dynamic.

We have to be able to cope with all events, and a life changing one like cancer is turbulent, emotionally demanding and tests your ability to carry on like nothing I have ever experienced.

Without resilience I can see how people can crumble and give up.

Perhaps I was lucky, I felt able to cope even when I was at my lowest. I had something within me that I could call upon to fight back. But perhaps not everyone realises they also have that.

I happen to believe that we can all grow our resilience. 

And time and experience are how we do this. 

We are often encouraged to avoid risk, stay safe and not upset the apple cart. While this can be very sage advice, I also happen to see this as counter beneficial to personal growth and development. 

I’m not saying we all take up bungee jumping, but pushing the boundaries, both physically and mentally are how we can prove to ourselves we are more capable and able to achieve more than perhaps we thought possible of ourselves.

We are of course wise to protect ourselves from extremes of negative emotions; stress, pressure, anger, sadness. But through my experience, through choice, I chose to leverage my negative emotions. Not to ignore but to reframe and take from them what I could. 

I believe that we weaken our resolve, our resilience as humans, when we protect ourselves from all stress. Like muscles, if you want bigger arms you take on bigger weights that break down the muscle then regrow. I try to acknowledge negativity, to take ownership of it and strengthen my resilience. Phrases like “if it doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” derive from this. Exposure to stress should be rebalanced by a period of recovery (relaxation, fun, family) and you will grow, mentally, stronger. You will have tested a boundary and survived it. You have a new reference point from which to make future decisions, knowing that you have the proven capability. 

I am standing here today having navigated this and I continue to navigate it every day.

As children did we ever see ourselves capable of driving a car? We may have had the aspiration but it took lessons and hard work to get that licence. 

Did I ever think I could ride a bike from London to Paris? Never, until I took that first training ride.

Lesson: FORM A RELATIONSHIP WITH MY BOUNDARIES.

ACKNOWLEDGE DISCOMFORT AND STRETCHING MYSELF. 

WE KNOW OUR PHYSICAL LIMITS BECAUSE WE FEEL PAIN. SAME WITH OUT MENTAL LIMITS WHERE WE FEEL PAIN, STRESS, DISCOMFORT. TAP INTO THAT AND GET COMFORTABLE WITH MY REACTIONS. TO SLOWLY PUSH THOSE BOUNDARIES WILL SET YOU APART. I AM CAPABLE OF MORE THAN I MIGHT FEEL AND THINK. 


Looking back over the last 2 years, I have always been grateful to have many messages of support and positivity. Often I hear people say they don’t think they would have coped or acted in the same way I have in terms of not sitting back.

I always feel energized by this but recognize that all of us are more than capable of being proactive and taking ownership of our lives. 

Which leads me to my final point.

Humility 

– “Don’t try to be something you are not. Be proud of who you are and confident in the skills you have”

Steve Cas

I very much acknowledge that it is not all about me. In fact I am very insignificant in the grand scheme. The world will keep turning when I am gone. Acknowledging this is saddening, but humbling and also a cathartic realisation. It takes off some of the pressure of feeling obliged to appear invincible and fearing mortality

I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say on this issue as for me, it felt important. I had it all set out until last Sunday when I had a rethink at this particular point of reciting what I intended to say. 

I literally binned 2 pages worth of notes at this point because it just felt a little contrived

Who am I to be standing in front of you all, who by virtue of the very jobs you do, will have seen so much more of the real world than I am likely to have experienced?  

So I asked myself, what specifically could I bring to the table? 

Cancer might be the catalyst for why I was recognised in the first instance to come here but that is not enough.

1 in 2 people will experience this terrible illness so even if no one here has been directly exposed to it, I am sure you know someone close who has.

Throughout this presentation, I have used quotes that over time, I have collected as they rang true to me and still do to this day. 

I am not a man of faith but I take much from what others have said and done. I have always tried to learn from what is around me and I find it amusing that so much of what is marketed, as new thinking today, is literally a rehash of what societies faced hundreds of years ago. 

Technology might change but the fundamental issues that arise when people exist in close proximity span the ages.

Policing is an obvious case in point. 

And to give you a bit more insight into my mindset, I am one of those people who has never found comfort in stability or following the well trodden path. Don’t get me wrong, every decision I have made has been safe. Even if I did not realise it at the time. And my life has been wonderful because if it. But I never crossed the line that could take me into the true unknown. Where work, family, car loans, taxes and the like don’t offer a known entity.

I’ll watch Ben Fogle’s Lives in the Wild and marvel at the adventures, but never take the leap to do it myself.

I have already said that I was not unique before my diagnosis and had no epiphany on the meaning of life after. 

But what I did have to face was an intense and very personal appraisal of all my decisions to date.

I always wanted to live a unique existence; but always took the easy path at key, sliding doors, moments in time.

Without having done so I would not have my family so I can confidently say I cannot regret what I did. But that does not stop me asking the question and forcing a more granular thought process around all such decision-making points that arise in future.

I am anchored to the conservative decision because of my responsibilities and it has become and engrained behaviour. But that line I mentioned before has now become much more enticing. Risk is less of a concern because my clock just happens to now tick a bit faster than that of other people.

And so far, as I have pushed my own boundaries more often, it has worked out more interestingly and with more excitement than had I not pressed on where before I might not have. 

People I have met, things I have done. 

All because I said yes more often than no.

Things feel more possible, which sounds daft given my diagnosis, but perhaps I didn’t realise how capable I was, how resilient I was if only I chose to believe in myself a bit more a little sooner.

Taking the leap into the unknown can be scary, but doing it with an educated mind and a smattering of self-belief can compensate for any concern, which will dissipate as you navigate the new path.

In reality, the only question you have to ask of yourself and answer, is why not? 

If I could change one thing perhaps I would have been braver in the past, but if I can thank cancer for one thing, it would be that it forced me to face up to my true aspirations and go after them with all the energy I have; not finding excuses and hiding behind them.

I am here today because I decided to do something new. 

10’000 Donors was my response to helping myself and gave me an avenue to channel many of my underused interests into something I really believed in. 

Humility is something I have always acknowledged but only came to truly understand post my diagnosis. It has kept me grounded in the face of some unpleasant realisations but also opened doors as I have stepped up to face my illness head on and been able to call upon beyond expected support and opportunities. 

Lesson: BEING CONFIDENT IN ABILITIES CAN BE THE CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THOSE WHO DO AND THOSE WHO DO NOT. BUT BEING HUMBLE IN THE FACE OF THE PEOPLE AROUND US, OF ANY OBSTACALE; WILL KEEP YOU GROUNDED AND AWARE OF YOUR PLACE IN THE WORLD. FOR ME, I HAVE HANDLED THE STRESS OF MY SITUATION BETTER THAN HAD I CARRIED A CERTAIN LEVEL OF ARROGANCE. I TRY TO BE MORE CARING AND GENEROUS AND AS A RESULT, HAVE FOUND THAT RECIPROCATED 10 FOLD AT EVERY TURN

            _______________________________________________________________

So to draw all this together…

The theme of the presentation was 

Breaking your own mould can only make you stronger and more confident to reach higher levels in your professional and personal life

I did not break my own mould. It was broken for me, so I was forced to change. Like so many people are every day. 

It was only on reflection that I started to draw my thoughts together into what I have spoken of today. Until Suzi asked me to talk, I had not overtly realized how much I had changed within myself. 

I was more capable than I thought I was and this is a realization I think we could all do with reflecting upon occasionally. 

I cannot and could not influence everything, but I could choose what I did, when I did it and how I went about that every day. 

I do think differently about myself. I’m kinder to myself and more forgiving of mistakes. And I am bolder in my decisions taken. Take a risk and you might fail but treat these experiences as opportunities to learn from. 

And I take personal responsibility for enjoying the now.

Tomorrow will look after itself as long as I make the most of today.

In fact, this was a realization I had at the very start of my journey.

Right as I crossed the Ironman Finish line.

I have been asked so many times, how I felt given I had committed 6 months of my life (training 6 days a week twice a day) to get there. The pinnacle of the sport.

I usually get surprised looks when I tell people I literally felt nothing. 

I had pictured myself crossing that line for months. Jumping for joy. Awash with adrenalin and happiness. 

But I felt nothing. Literally empty.

Perhaps it was the fatigue. I had been on the go for 14 hours. Perhaps it was the pneumonia or the cancer that was bubbling away unbeknownst to me. 

Or, as I now believe, was it just the fact I had been so focused on the end game that I was misdirected in what I was really getting out of running an Ironman.           

In life we can, as I have, sacrifice today for a greater good tomorrow. 

e.g. I will stay late at work and not see the kids after school to better my chances of a promotion.  

On reflection, Ironman was all about the journey. The training. The personal development. Breaking boundaries. The friendships. 

I got more pride and satisfaction out of each day of improvement without even realizing it. So crossing the line although fantastic, was an anti climax because it was all over. 

I was so focused on the tomorrow that when it came, the goal did not deliver the expected response.

Life can be very much like that. 

I’m not saying don’t plan ahead. Setting goals is a great way to improve, stay focused and deliver wonderful things. 

But, as we are here, right now; the most important thing is my interaction with you all in this room. I want to get the most out of this opportunity. 

If I get that right, tomorrow will look after itself. 

For those of you who have seen Fast and Furious; Vin Diesel’s character Dominic Toretto said;

I live my life a quarter mile at a time.

I don’t have his looks or physique, but if you are looking for one statement that gives you a glimpse into my new world, my mindset, it’s right there.

Thank you 

<END>

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2 Comments

  1. Mrs Margaret Walker 25th May 2019

    My dear Peter,

    You are more an Ironman now than you have ever been.

    My love and admiration always.
    Love Aunty Margy xx

  2. Dave 25th May 2019

    Peter,
    Yet another masterclass in your skills as an orator of standing, well done once more mate !!

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