Stardust and Gravel – Interview with Liam Ryan

This is an interview Liam did with Sarah Scheele for her Stardust and Gravel  Blog that was published in January 2015. It is available at

Pic 1Describe yourself in 3 sentences. Who is Liam Ryan?

This question is not as straightforward as it appears because there are two Liam Ryans! The first one was an architect who was very much minding his own business in the world and was never destined to reach beyond his own circle or write a book. Then after being diagnosed with one of the worst cases of Head & Neck cancers ever seen in 2002 and given no hope, Liam Ryan No. 2 eventually emerged with a story that has inspired and encouraged people all over the world and nothing would ever be the same again!

Liam Cancer BookWhat motivated you to write this book?

It was always going to take something special to get somebody who has never been a great reader to write a book. About six months after my treatment I wrote short account of my ordeal. I wrote it for myself, my own record of my own disease. That initial script got passed on from friend to friend and I eventually got responses to it from places as far away as the U.S., Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It was then I began to realise the story I now had, Cancer 4, Me 5 (After Extra Time) carried great inspiration for everybody coming behind me.

When I was diagnosed I also went looking for a book. But I was looking for a book that was written by an ordinary person. Somebody, just like me, to take me through all the things that must faced as you take on cancer against all the odds. A book to help you keep your head in the right place so that you are the best cancer patient you can be and help everybody else help you. So I wrote it as the book I went looking for myself 10 years earlier, knowing what it would do for me if I found it then. The book also contains a memoir because I felt I had to bring the reader through my life to the point of diagnosis. This, I now realize, was also subconsciously being put in place in case I wasn’t around years later to tell some of those stories to my young family.

What moments that you recorded in the book are your favourites. And why?

With the diagnosis I was given, and especially when the meningitis and deep vein thrombosis during my treatment are taken into account, there would appear to be no logical reason why I did not die in 2002. So without trying to give a glib answer to this question, almost everything has been a favourite and a bonus since then, both little things and big. My first time to walk, talk and eat again were huge events and were all key building blocks in restoring my life back to where it had been before. All family moments in that time are also hugely cherished. My youngest boy, Abe, was just one when I was diagnosed so the likelihood was that we would never really get to know each other.

Pic 19So all of the little landmarks of his life are quietly acknowledged and appreciated by his Dad as events I have been blessed to still be here to see. To run again was also nothing short of miraculous, so my first marathon post-cancer, was an amazing day and an unbelievable testament to the quality of the recovery I had made. My consultant was waiting for me at the finish line and that was a wonderful moment for both of us. But I guess if I was to pick one moment it would be the day I brought personal closure on the ordeal I had been through. The day I went from being a cancer survivor to getting on with the rest of my life.

When my recovery reached a stage where there was no doubt that I had completely rebuilt my life to the one I had known before cancer, I wanted to go somewhere for closure. I wanted to make a journey to somewhere special, the mark the end of the journey itself. That place was to be Medjugorje in Bosnia and Hertzegovina. I knew Medjugorje had a small holy mountain called Krizevac and I was determined to climb that mountain, on my own, as the final act of this amazing cancer survival story. Krizevac, as it turned out, was also about the same height as a mountain beside where I live called Tountinna. Just after I was diagnosed I used Tountinna as a great source of calm and strength when I would run past it daily. Two small mountains, one in Co. Tipperary in Ireland and the other in Bosnia and Herzegovina would now bookend my entire cancer journey. The book outlines in detail the wonderful week I had in Medjugorje and the emotional experience I had climbing Krizevac. Out of nowhere it became like an incredible re-enactment of all I had been through and as I sat on the top of the mountain it was as if I was looking down on my ordeal and all of my life to that point in time.

The remainder of my life would then be waiting for me when I got back down to the bottom. In a book of many favourites and highlights, it was probably the most momentous of all.

You are quite a traveler! What place outside your native Ireland did you most enjoy?

I have only been a good traveller in a very limited part of the globe! I have never been to Africa, Asia, Australia or South America! From the travelling I have done my favourite destinations will always be underdeveloped or so-called, third world countries. If you go to Paris or Italy or even New York tomorrow they all tend to be so well documented you almost know what you are going to see before you get there. The sensation and surprise for the first time visitor is often diluted to some degree as a result.

But if you go to British Guyana or Mozambique or Nepal you will have no idea what to expect unless you undertake extensive research beforehand. Often you will discover that they have sights that are just as impressive as the more well known destinations. What I also like about travelling in these countries is you generally don’t know what you will be doing tomorrow. It will depend on who you meet today and what recommendation they pass on to you. Like minded travellers seem to find each other much easier in these countries and complete strangers can become wonderful travel companions in a matter of hours.

The best part of travel, for me, will always be the people you meet. Long after you forget the sights you will still remember the little old man in the bar who helped you find your accommodation or the family who invited you in for tea when your car broke down. I met some wonderful people travelling in these countries, both fellow tourists and locals, and my two favourites were Guatemala and Turkey.

Pic 2Are there any Irish locations that you would recommend for people contemplating a trip to Ireland?

Not unrelated to my answer above but I always like to see that when visitors come to Ireland they get to see the “real” Ireland. Tourism these days, in many countries, can be over packaged. It can consist of meeting people at an airport with a coach and then shepherding them around for two weeks in hotels that could be anywhere in the world and taking them to places that often the natives wouldn’t dream of going to! In Ireland it is well worth breaking that circle and getting off the beaten track. You will arguably get more dramatic scenery in other European countries and you will certainly get better weather so, for me, the greatest thing about coming to Ireland is the warm, friendly people and our relaxed way of life. If tourists don’t get to connect directly with that, I always feel they have missed out.

A good guide book is essential and I would recommend to anybody coming to Ireland to do their homework, decide exactly what kind of vacation they want to have before they arrive and take control of it themselves. The further west you go the slower and nicer it tends to get. I would recommend basing yourself in one of the smaller pretty towns where you find your feet quickly and get the know the locals. Somewhere like Kinsale, Clonakilty, Dingle, Clifden, Westport or Sligo. I have also been very lucky to have ended up in wonderful, friendly place that I couldn’t recommend highly enough. The twin towns of Ballina and Killaloe are separated by a narrow stone bridge across the river Shannon, on the edge of a beautiful lake and surrounded by mountains. It is a lovely place to live and I wouldn’t pick anywhere else!

Where can readers connect with you and buy your book?

My book is very personable and I have had responses to it from people all around the world so I am delighted when I get the chance with anyone who is going to read it, especially cancer patients. I wrote it, with myself in mind as the reader 12 years ago. Somebody who covers all the things that go through your head as you face into a life threatening cancer diagnosis and tells you what they did to try and ensure the fight is maintained to the very end.

I would be delighted to hear from anybody by email – and my book, Cancer 4, Me 5, is also now available on Amazon.

Do you prefer T.V. or Movies or neither?

I rarely get to the movies these days and really only watch news, sport and an occasional movie on T.V. so I am going to cheat here a little with a compromised answer – movies on T.V.! I have an eclectic collection of favourite movies that I never tire of, including Paris Texas, The Fifth Element and Remember the Titans!

Three places in the world to visit that you haven’t already been to?

From an earlier question I can just put Asia, Africa, South America and Australia! New Zealand appeals to me and I have always liked islands so I would like to go to the Azores and after my experience in Guatemala, anywhere in South America!

Is there a hobby or activity that you never thought you would take up but are growing more interested?

I suppose it has to be writing! I was never destined to write a book until an amazing story started to come my way 12 years ago. The book has been well received and now I get requests to write blogs, newspaper articles and inspirational pieces which I really enjoy. Otherwise I feel fairly well set. I think I have reached that stage of my life where less is more. I have a collection of activities that are precious to me like running, family, work, sport and music and I seem happier to look after them rather than seek out new ones.

Oldest, youngest or middle. Has your place in the family affected your viewpoint?

I am the youngest and only boy in our family and my three sisters will probably correctly concur that as a result, I was spoiled terribly by my wonderful mother. But I hope I emerged from those years to be a good brother to them today. The four of us have always got on very well. I think the youngest child does benefit from older siblings and possibly from a looser parental rein but in the main, I feel the bulk of your personality is the result of your genes rather than your influences.

Quality you most admire in other people and wish you had more of?

I would have given a much different answer to this question 12 years ago. These days I seem to be much more aware of the fragility and brevity of our lives on this planet. I guess it’s part of the makeup of my “second” life. In the end I think very few things will really matter. The little things will be the big things. How you dealt with people every day. Trying to always select the positive, rather than the negative. It won’t matter where you lived, who you knew or what you had. What will matter is what you did.

In the movie Schindler’s List, Oscar Schindler regrets on his deathbed that he didn’t do more. If he was regretting it, then we all will be. So I often wish that I sometimes had better focus to do more of the things that I know are important. Simple things like calling to see somebody. Giving more of my time for something I know is the right thing to do. But we all get sidetracked. We all lead lives that pull us in different directions. I admire people who make up their mind what the right thing to do is and just do it! Without letting any interruptions get in their way.

It’s been so nice having you here, Liam. And readers, don’t forget to check out Liam’s book here!