Life: Is it the end or just the beginning?

Liam’s 2nd piece for Careers in Government, posted October 2014 It is available at http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-gov/education/life-end-just-beginning/#sthash.0YZ5WfO7.XbmcUyvk.dpuf

Life.  Is it the end or just the beginning?  I went to a funeral yesterday. I have gone to a lot of funerals over the last 12 years of people who expected to be going to mine. It reminded me again of how we can all be so busy living, we forget about dying.

We want to forget about dying.  But we are all going to die. It is the worst kept secret in the world.

In the middle of my treatment I was asked if I got ready to die. This was done by people who either knew me well enough, or whose curiosity was brave enough.  From my diagnosis, I always knew that if I did survive, I would have come as close to death, as any human being possibly could, without actually dying.

I considered therefore, that I would have been foolish to 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.

I also knew 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.  Being not afraid was part of that armour.

So one night, as I lay on my hospital bed, I told myself I would not be here this time next week. How did I feel?  After an initial very deep breath I was amazed at where I was taken from there. It was only when I forced myself to focus on the part of my glass that was half empty did I begin to see what I now recognized as the portion that was half full.

I had lived a wonderful life. At 40, I had reached the top of the hill and was just beginning to go down the other side. I had come from a great family, gone to college, became an architect, married a great woman and lived to see three of my own children come into the world.

Suddenly I began to see the people who hadn’t lived a life anything like I had. The 3 year old diagnosed with leukemia. The 17 year old who comes off a motorcycle. The 20 year old who leaves home, only to never return again.

Then I could see people who would live twice as long as me but who would never have anything like the life I had. The child soldier. The oppressed factory worker. The many people in the world whose entire lives are blighted by illness or violence or poverty. Perspective is the antidote to fear of death. I was now glad that I had lived so well, for so long. I had turned a frightening negative into an immense positive.

I felt I had sat at a poker table with the Grim Reaper that night. I took the aces out of his hand. Now he had nothing on me. My cancer knew everything had changed. If it was going to claim me, it would only be after being dragged, kicking and screaming, down every single road available to me.

Had I not looked at my death, I would not have seen my life. My appreciation of that life meant that if my time had come, I wasn’t afraid to die. If I wasn’t afraid to die, there was nothing I was afraid of. I was indestructible now. My pain threshold went through the ceiling.

I just put all those thoughts away then. I knew they were there. That was all that mattered. I didn’t want them to dilute my fight. I would only return to them when there was only one outcome left. That outcome didn’t come. But they will still be there for me when it eventually does.

We all spend too much of our lives inhibited by fear. Fear of being different. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of what others will think. Fear of dying. Fear often clogs up the lives we should let ourselves lead. It blinds us as to how beautiful and precious life IS, not can be. If we all dealt with the fear that one day we will die and put it away we would be amazed at what it would do. It would stop letting negatives dictate to us. It would free us to value and appreciate and do things differently. It would make us strong.

I wouldn’t be here without it. By not being afraid to die, I lived.

The Gift of Life

Michael Hurwitz of Careers on Government in the U.S. came across Liam’s story in August and was so taken with it that he asked him to write a piece for a monthly blog he collates called Gov. Talk. It goes out to public sector workers all over America. The Gift of Life was posted on Sept. 11th 2014 and received a great response. He has now become a regular contributor to the Careers in Government monthly blog.

The original article can be accessed here – http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-gov/public-sector-trends/gift-life/

A variety of routes exist that will take you from anonymity to being noteworthy. Most will travel by way of exceptional achievements in business or politics or sport or entertainment. In my case, the route was a little different. It selected me, rather than I choose it.

12 years ago I was very much minding my own business in the world. I was an architect in a little town in Ireland. I was never destined to one day be asked to write a blog for Careers in Government.

I had never been ill. I had run 6 marathons.

Then, out of the blue, I began to get headaches.

Over two days at my local hospital a suspected routine sinus infection dramatically transformed into one of the worst Head & Neck cancer tumours ever seen.  My consultant told me I was the second worse case he had ever seen. The worst case was dead in a month. Very few hospitals in the world, he told me, could offer any hope to a case like mine.

The end of my life just appeared right in front of me.  I simply had weeks to live.

Eventually, impressed by my fighting spirit, Professor Simon Rogers and his team in Liverpool decided to offer me a chance. But even there, they didn’t believe I would make it. They wouldn’t tell me that so they told me I had a 5% chance.  The problem with serious Head & Neck cancer is the complex treatment required will generally put you in the grave before the cancer gets to.  If I was still alive after surgery I was likely to be without my sight, my speech, my hearing, my mobility, my brain function or any combination of all five.

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

None of that mattered then. I just wanted to be alive. If I was alive I was winning, and cancer was losing.

I underwent a huge 12 hour operation. They told me it was as big as surgery comes. It was followed by 7 weeks of radical chemo-radiotherapy but in between I got meningitis and a deep vein thrombosis. Both of these nearly killed me by themselves.  By the end of 2002 I simply had no business still being alive, but somehow, I was.

All of that was 12 years ago. My amazing survival has now been outdone by my even more incredible recovery. I am 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 consultants are simply amazed. Through their great work I have become one of the greatest cancer survivors of all time.

From nowhere, I have become noteworthy.

In 2012, on the tenth anniversary, I wanted closure to the amazing survival and recovery element of this story. To achieve this I ran my first marathon, post-cancer and I wrote a book. I wrote the book, not just 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 and inspire.

I have now had responses to this story from all over the world. The greatest say “I was giving up, until I read your story”. When I speak in public I like to offer not just inspiration, but perspective too. I remind everybody that the lost account can be replaced, the crashed car can be repaired, even the prison sentence can be served. I ask them to watch the news again only this time swop roles with the man in the war zone who comes home to find his wife and four children blown up or the woman who finds her entire village washed away by a tsunami.

They are the real heroes.

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 time does come I want to be able to say this amazing story came to me and I did not, not do something with it. I tried to use it to show everybody of how lucky we really are. To demonstrate how easily we forget what it truly means to be alive and well.

I have been given a chance to live again so that I can die better.

– See more at: http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-gov/public-sector-trends/gift-life/#sthash.SNRleWFh.dpuf

Talk in Connemara Coast Hotel, Galway

This is Liam telling his story to a corporate gathering for the first time in Galway in January 2011