Liam Ryan - Staring Death In The Face

by GEM Magazine / Sep 29, 2015 / Comments

I had never been ill. I had never smoked. I was fit and healthy. Minding my own business, working as an architect in a lovely little town in Ireland with my wife Pam, and our three small boys growing up around us.

But then, out of the blue, I began to get headaches.

A sinus complaint we all thought. There was no reason to suspect anything else, and I was eventually admitted to my local hospital for a routine sinus wash.

This is the pivotal point in every cancer story, the day you get the news.

I entered that hospital as a carefree patient for a routine procedure and left it with one of the worst cases of head & neck cancer seen.

When my consultant, and his team arrived to see me the following morning I was sitting up on my bed and greeted them with a big smile, expecting them to let me know my release time. But for the smile I was emitting, I was only receiving serious faces in return. Nothing was said until he leaned down to me and uttered those earth-shattering words;

“Liam, this is very serious”.

The world as I had known it simply fell from under me.

Serious head & neck cancer cases are rare. The worst case was I'd be dead in a month.

It was like being thrown out of an aeroplane without a parachute.

When I found out, I simply went to pieces.

I was embedded in; “Why me? I have three small children, this could not be happening to me."

It didn't take long for it to sink in and once it did, I knew what was in front of me. I then felt in a better position to begin to take it on.

Your fight can only begin with acceptance.

And my fight had to begin now. That was the duty I owed to everything I believed in.

From the point of diagnosis, I always knew that if I did survive, I would have come as close to death, as you possibly could, without actually dying.

I knew therefore, for my fight to be flawless I could not ignore the possibility of my demise, or pretend it wasn’t going to happen.

It was, after all, the elephant in the room. And the room was very small.

My fight would only be as strong as its weakest link. I couldn’t afford to have a chink in my armour. If I did, my cancer would find it and devour my resistance through it. For that to happen, I needed to be not afraid to die. That would be part of my armour.

So part of my fight was to deal with the possibility of dying. And when I looked at my death I only ended up being blinded by my life. I was glad I had lived so well, for so long.

I had turned a frightening negative into an immense positive.

Perspective is the antidote to fear of death.

This newfound appreciation meant that if my time had come, I was able to accept it. My cancer had no hold on me after that.

I was referred to one of the best head & neck cancer centres in Europe, but even there, they didn’t think I would make it. One consultant told me my stage 4 tumour would be more accurately classed as stage 44.
But they wanted to give me a chance.

5% chance of survival.

The problem with the complex treatment required was, if I was still alive after surgery, I was likely to be without my sight, speech, hearing, mobility, brain function or any combination of all five.

Survival was all that was on the horizon. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.

I underwent a huge 12 hour operation, followed by 7 weeks of radical chemo-radiotherapy. Serious setbacks then arose when I got meningitis and a deep vein thrombosis, which nearly killed me by themselves.

I simply had no business still being alive, but somehow, I was.

All of that was an amazing 13 years ago.

I am now working, talking, running and functioning again just as I did before. Apart from my eyepatch, it is almost as if I never had cancer.

My recovery has become bigger than my miraculous survival.

I have emerged with minimal consequences. I can only open my mouth about half an inch but remarkably can still speak perfectly. And I seem to see more with one eye, than I ever did before with two.

On the tenth anniversary, I wanted to draw closure to the amazing survival and recovery element of my journey. To achieve this I ran my first marathon, post-cancer and I wrote a book. I wrote the book, not only for cancer patients, but for anybody who has a mountain to climb.

I have become the living proof that nothing is for certain.

I have been given a second life and with it comes an opportunity to encourage, inspire and give something back.

The longer I live, the more I believe very little really matters.

It won’t matter where you lived, who you knew or what you had. What will matter is what you did.

When my deathbed does come I want to be able to say this story came to me and I did not disappoint it. I used it to show that hope is never lost.

I used it to inspire and empower, and to show how easily we all forget what it truly means to be alive and well.

By Liam Ryan

Liam is an architect from Ireland, who helped develop Liverpool’s The Beatles Story Museum. He is a marathon runner and has just released a book; Cancer 4, Me 5 (after extra time). His mission is to inspire and empower those who have a big challenge to overcome.


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