I want to start off by saying that having the opportunity to write this piece is incredibly cathartic for me. The story I’ve lived so far is riddled with pain, sadness and anxiety, but mostly and importantly, it’s a story of self-belief. A story of triumph and of pushing yourself to places you never thought you’d reach. I can only wish that by sharing this, it provides hope to those who think they have none.
My name’s Ryan, 27 years old, born and raised in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. At the age of 11 months I was terminally diagnosed with Urinary Neuroblastoma – Cancer of the bladder and surrounding areas. Due to being so young, I don’t remember a single aspect of my diagnosis, care or surgery but I know that I received several rounds of both Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy as well as major surgery to remove the tumour which had wrapped it’s self around my bladder, urinary tract and most critically, my Aorta – the bodies major blood vessel.
I’ve been told I had a very low chance of survival due to the size of the tumour and also because of my age at the time – and if I was to live, I’d be riddled with health complications for the rest of my life. Gladly however, the team at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, run by Professor Thomas and Mr Squire managed to save my life. Candlelighters did an amazing job also, providing areas for my parents to take me to during chemo sessions and providing emotional support during a time that no parent should ever experience for their child. I finally entered remission when I was 10 years old.
As expected, the complications which followed my surgery meant I did not grow up like a normal boy. My urinary system had been diverted to create a stoma, which attached to a urostomy bag. The radio therapy impacted my spine and ears, meaning both became slightly hindered and of course, I had a 9-inch scar running down the centre of my body – leaving no room for muscles to develop normally.
I remember always being self-conscious of how I looked, especially at school and definitely during swimming lessons – which hit me the hardest as I was always drawn to the water (more on that later).
Thankfully, at the age of 17, I was offered the option of re-constructive surgery. Parts of my bowel would be used to expand my bladder’s surface area that meant, combined with a complete urinary re-plumbing, I’d finally be able to live to what I would consider to be a “normal” life. Mr Subramanian’s team at St James’s Hospital performed what I still consider to be medical miracles during 10 hours of surgery and thanks to the support of Candlelighters and the Stoma Nurse’s, 3 months of aftercare soon went by and I could move onto the next stage of my life.
Ever since I was a child I had an interest in sharks. One of my earliest memories is being 7 years old, watching a documentary on tiger sharks and then immediately after, one quite gory clip of shark finning. I took the video in to primary school to show my Year 4 class and needless to say, it left a room full of crying kids, followed by a letter to my parents telling me how inappropriate my ‘presentation’ was.
I’ve only recently thought about why I was drawn to them from such a young age, you’d normally think it was something to do with their power, ferocity and size (as all young boys like that sort of thing). But I think it was more that I saw them as the outcasts – persecuted, misunderstood and feared by normal people because they were different, living in a place where we humans are quite literally out of our depth. I saw those traits in myself growing up, with being different to everybody else – trying to live in a place where more than often, I felt like I was drowning.
In 2015, I visited South Africa to volunteer with a Great White Shark cage diving company and ever since, my life has changed completely. It took a lot for me to get myself there, out of my comfort zone, after living in a cautious box for so many years – as many people can relate, childhood trauma is quite attractive to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
But I was hooked, I knew that this life and the chance to work with sharks was something I had to pursue. I learned how to Scuba Dive, I volunteered with conservation efforts in Peru, Indonesia and of course South Africa and in October last year, I finally decided to pack in my ‘normal’ job and follow the dream. I’m pleased to say, that as of right now, I’m still living it. I’m proud and honoured to be an Intern at the world-renowned Bimini Biological Field Station aka SharkLab in the Bahamas. Here we live in a small wooden house, 4 beds to a room with limited power and saltwater showers. There are days where you clean a toilet in the morning, you fish for bait in the afternoon and at night you’re holding the dorsal fin of a 3 metre Tiger Shark – its all quite surreal.
I look after myself the best I can, I take antibiotics to prevent Kidney Infections and also have to replace my Mitrofanoff dressings every day or so – but from where I was, this is no hindrance to me.
Every single day here is a blessing, I try to remind myself of that every day – even when the days are tough, as we all have our grey days.
I wouldn’t be where I am without the unyielding support of my family and friends, the care of organisations such as Candlelighters but crucially, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the trials I’ve faced since I was 11 months old. It’s taught me that life is the most precious thing and that we should not try to waste one second of it.
For those who are going through Cancer or are struggling with it’s after effects – my message to you is: Challenge yourself where you can, love those around you unconditionally and never give up your fight.
Thank you – Ryan
Banner Photo Credit: Sophie Hart