Well, it is quite frankly hard to believe that 6 months ago to the day, I was informed via a phone call from a cancer specialist at Nuffield Healthcare that I had been found to have a large tumour busy growing on my abdomen. Frankly, I had absolutely no idea that I had cancer, instead I thought that I had a virus. But, no, the CT scan was very clear: there was a large tumour that to my knowledge had probably been growing since January. And here I was, in September, being told to go straight to hospital. Do not collect 200 pounds as you would in Monopoly, and as the song says, just get there when you can.
So I did. If truth be told, I had no real time to stress or worry about it. Rather, a bit like learning to swim, I was straight in to the deep end without any wings. To be fair, from the moment I walked in, the NHS machine took over, and they were brilliant, and have been for the last 6 months. In truth, I have nothing but praise for the care, kindness, and professionalism that I have been fortunate enough to experience from the outset. I have chronicled in previous blogs my experiences in hospital, and just how close to meeting my maker I actually was (I had only a few weeks left, had it not been found and would have been dead by Christmas). So, I am clearly a very lucky man who truly appreciates the life that I have and the wonderful people in it.
So, what have I learned six months on? Well, in honesty, having cancer has not been as bad as I thought that it might be, had I had any time to dwell upon it. Do not get me wrong elements of it are simply ghastly, but they are few and far between. The side effects of chemotherapy are many and varied and amount, if truth be told, to a collection of annoyances, rather than awful daily experiences. There have been odd moments of very unpleasant moments but you just have to get on with it. There is absolutely no point in feeling sorry for yourself or wasting time, effort and energy trying to figure out why you got it in the first place. It is pointless, and serves no purpose.
Much more importantly in my view is to focus on the positives that having cancer has somewhat surprisingly exposed. Top of the list has been the groundswell of kindness, support, care, and love, that I have been fortunate to experience from so many people, from all elements of my life both professional, private, and within the Karate fraternity. The way that I have described it is that all that goodness is like a well of positive thinking, care, and support, that I have been able to draw on whenever the need has arisen. Ironically, when the bad things happen (stoma bag unpleasantness, insomnia every day, painful tingling in the face and fingers post chemo, extreme pain when biting food for short periods after chemo, having to carry a bag full of chemo for 48 hours around your neck while it infuses the chemo into your system, etc) after all that malarkey, is just when that magic well of kindness just sustains you and gets you through whatever nasty challenge the big C chooses to throw at you.
What I have found to be quite brilliant has been the kindness of folk, and the fact that I have met some amazing people from new worlds that I would never have engaged with before the arrival of cancer. Lovely people from the Tai Chi world, the hospitals in Warwick and Stratford, the nurses, patients, cafe staff. The wonderful staff at Nuffield Gym in Rubery, Bartley Green dojo, the parish priest and congregation of the Catholic Church in Stourbridge. The lovely guys at uTrack, Verita HR Polska, I could go on but the list would be endless. What I have learned is that the basic intrinsic kindness of the human spirit is alive and kicking in a world that sadly is rather full of anger and division. And even more ironic, when it comes to training I can still teach Karate, learn a new skill at Tai Chi, and continue to peddle like the clappers at the gym spin class. However, what has also been a shining beacon of support, apart from my family, and loved ones (especially my Yvi and Abi) has been the Karate family.
It is true that the outpouring of goodness that I have been most fortunate to receive has been simply wonderful. It inspires me to keep the fighting spirit of my Shihan (Cyril Cummins, 8th Dan) and his dojo’ very much alive. Never give up, never give in was what he taught us, and he lived by that mantra every day.
The nurses are kind enough to tell me that my positive attitude is infectious, why would not it be? I am alive and well and irrespective what challenges cancer gives me (and it has given me a few), I will not allow, indeed I categorically refuse to allow, the idea of being beaten by this callous disease to enter my head.
Karate gives the practitioner many benefits, one of which is the power of focus and Kime; positive energy is a vibrant and living force. And I have sadly witnessed myself, cancer patients who appear to have simply given up. This is for me an absolute mystery. Life is so precious that every fibre of your being should be targeted on fighting anything that threatens that most unique and wonderful gift of life.
So, 6 months down the line, I am still battling. I have set new goals and targets, not least of which is taking my 6th Dan next year when I will be eligible. It will also be the year that I reach 60 years of age, and I will be having a whopping great party to celebrate the fact. Hopefully, I will be cancer free but if not, I will continue with whatever treatment I need, no matter how challenging, to keep myself alive and kicking.
Austin Birks, 5th Dan, Chief Instructor Enso Shotokan Karate Club, overall happy chappie and proud owner of a stoma bag, and did I mention it – cancer patient