After treatment for Burkitt lymphoma Ian took on an extreme challenge where he found support, encouragement and friendship which he found really healing

Ian abseiling

‘In 2009 and at the age of 47 I had a demanding career as a Chartered Surveyor, project managing large building projects. I was also looking after my son on my own. 

I enjoyed taking on challenges for charity and had agreed to do the Three Peaks Challenge with my local Round Table. I had prepared well for the event but even as I started to tackle the first mountain, Ben Nevis, I knew something was really wrong. About half way up I started to feel really rough. I stopped for a while half way up but decided to carry on, hoping to work through how I was feeling. When I got to the top I felt absolutely terrible and could hardly breathe. We then moved on to Scarfell Pike and, although I was still feeling awful, I was so disappointed with my performance I dug in and virtually ran up and back down. I collapsed part way up and had to rest. I didn’t even try climbing Snowdon.

I went to see my GP who thought I had bronchitis, so prescribed me some antibiotics. A couple of weeks later I still felt awful – the antibiotics were having no effect whatsoever. This went on for around 8 weeks and I was gradually feeling more and more anxious about what was wrong with me. I went to see an ear, nose and throat specialist who said I would need a biopsy to get to the bottom of things.

I had a fine needle biopsy and an endoscopy and they said I had a tumour about the size of a grapefruit in my throat. They had to surgically remove a sample for diagnosis.

When I went in to receive my diagnosis, I don’t think anything could have shocked me. Frankly, I was past caring about the diagnosis. I was just anxious to start doing something about whatever was wrong.

I was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, a fast growing high-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I had barely heard of lymphoma, much less Burkitt lymphoma, so wasn’t surprised when my doctor told me they didn’t often see people with Burkitt lymphoma.

I had barely heard of lymphoma, much less Burkitt lymphoma

It was explained to me that the chemotherapy used for Burkitt lymphoma is stronger than many other regimens, so I would be spending quite a lot of the time in hospital. In fact I was in hospital for 4 months and was given CODOX-M and R-IVAC. The first part of the chemotherapy was awful, my mouth was swollen and eating was agonising. I was passing out quite regularly and there was the nausea, but I knew I had to keep going. 

CAT and PET scans showed that the chemotherapy was working, but because the tumour had been so big it paralysed the nerves in my vocal chords.

Because of the damage to my voice, I received speech therapy for 6 months but the damage was permanent. I had a lot of psychological counselling. Before cancer, I would have been quite dismissive of this type of support, but I found it enormously helpful.

I was really keen to get back to work and to return to some routine. I spent time with the occupational health team because of my difficulties and we agreed that I should start back on a part-time basis. But it became clear that I would not be able to perform my role at the same level, as my job was very taxing. So I took early retirement. Although it sounds great to retire at 50, and I understood it was probably the best decision, for me it felt frustrating and quite frightening. 

Because of my age and because I am bringing up my son on my own, I am concerned about financial issues. I also worry about the impact on him as he was only 7 when I had the diagnosis six years ago and I know it has been difficult for him as well. 

I had put on a lot of weight after treatment, so decided to focus on losing some weight and getting my fitness back. I took up yoga, and have found it great for both my physical and mental wellbeing. I managed to lose 2 stone and noticed that my fitness was much better. I also went back to playing basketball once a week, something I used to enjoy but never really had the time to do. 

I needed to put a line under my work and treatment and start a new period in my life

I spotted a course on the internet which immediately appealed to me as it looked like a real challenge. It was run by a retired SEAL called Don Shipley and was initially designed for young men thinking of joining up, but over time has progressed to include older chaps looking for a challenge. The course was based in Virginia USA and I saw this as something to really aim for. 

You may have seen the SEAL experience on TV recently which gives a sense of what an extreme physical experience it is. The course is very demanding with activities including open water swimming, running, paddling Zodiac boats at night and obstacle courses. All the instructors were serving SEALs and as such standards and pressure were high.

I had expected to be the oldest on the course but in fact I wasn’t - although most of the chaps were much younger. We were divided into 2 boat teams, I led boat team 2, planning night navigation and assault exercises. The teams were evenly matched in terms of age and physical ability. Because of the humidity in Virginia I had breathing problems and at times I thought I was going to pass out. Everything was a race, with the losers being invited to try again whilst the winners had a breather. It paid to be a winner. 

The course puts you under tremendous pressure and Don had warned us that sometimes the cracks will appear. I found I became quite emotional toward the end and recall feeling really tearful in the middle of a night. The whole hospital experience came back to me; I could taste the chemotherapy and smell the ward. I was concerned as I was supposed to be leading my team and I wanted them to be able to look up to me. Don was enormously supportive, something I will be eternally grateful for. He made it clear that everyone brings strength and experience regardless of age, fitness or emotional wellbeing. The course puts people under great pressure, but in that I found great support, encouragement and friendship which I have found really healing. 

I am now back home and have discovered a lot about myself beyond the physical. I find it much easier to breathe in the cooler, less humid UK air and I see every day as a gift. I was concerned that after the course I would struggle to find motivation. On the contrary, being with the SEALs, and Don in particular, has made me more determined and keen to keep fit. I am now looking forward to moving on.

I would dearly wish my story to be of help or inspiration to those in chemo, or getting over it. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and for me it really helped to have a target.’

October 2015