Cancer, Broken Bones and Squats
I’m Derran, and I run Real World Fitness. I’ve always buried this story in the depths of the website and not wanted it to be a ‘big thing’ (although I’ve ‘outed’ myself on social media a couple of times), but as I’ve got older I’ve realised that whenever people have read this, it seems to have helped at least one or two. So maybe I’ve been a bit too reticent in making a huge deal of it. Anyway – if it helps, it’s now more visible.
I’ve been active all my life, but only really got into any structured training when I was around 28 years old. I discovered the gym, and did the typical half-assed approach of ‘whatever machine was free that day’. I got significantly better at it, and did pretty well in terms of adding some muscle and some strength. But then things went a little wrong.
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in September 2007, after discovering a small lump. I had an operation to remove the affected testicle, and it seemed all was well. I went back to training when I could, just some light running and upper body weights. However, a follow up blood test the month after revealed that the cancer had spread elsewhere in my body. CT scans showed tumours in my abdomen and attached to my right lung. That was it, I started chemotherapy less than 72hrs later.
I had BEP chemotherapy, at the time a relatively new combination of three different chemotherapy drugs. Whilst it is a highly successful form of treatment that has drastically improved survival rates (from around 60% to over 90%), it is also a very aggressive and debilitating treatment. Over the course of the four months I was undergoing chemotherapy, I lost around 3 stone in weight, all my hair, and all my energy. Some kinds of chemotherapy allow you to live a normal-ish life while under treatment. BEP doesn’t. I remember my consultant telling me to just accept the next three months would see me drop out of life, but that we’d get through it.
I got a tentative all clear two days after my 30th birthday. To me, it signaled a new start and I couldn’t wait to get on with life again. The lack of energy held me back, though, and I had lost a great deal of muscle tissue. This was hard for me to take; I’d always been very active: in the gym, swimming, playing football, tennis, and squash. I didn’t accept what I had been told by my doctors, that it would be months before I should be expecting to get back to my old activity levels. I wanted to be normal again NOW, not in six months.
So, I started by simply walking around Edinburgh and pretending to be a tourist again. Each day I would get home after four or five hours, and countless coffee breaks, feeling like I had run a marathon, and every muscle in my body protesting about the effort. I kept it up, though, and made some real progress. Less than six weeks after finishing chemo, I half-ran, half-crawled up Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh – a fantastic mini-mountain that is a landmark on the edge of the city. That signaled to me that I could get back to normal, and I could achieve things again. I spent the next couple of days recovering, but to me, it was worth it. Soon after that, I started back in the gym and really began to take training and nutrition seriously. In the next three years, I managed to build myself back up to 14 stone through weight training, and by far surpassed the levels I had reached before my illness.
Whilst I was undergoing chemotherapy, my appetite took a real nose-dive. I drove my then-girlfriend mad. Some days I couldn’t bear the taste of a particular food, and the next day I would crave it. Sometimes, cooking smells from the kitchen would make me nauseous and I’d have to leave the house and stand outside. One thing that remained constant was a never-ending appetite for Wine Gums and ready-salted Hula-Hoops. I’ve never managed to work out why! To this day, though, there are still some foods that trigger a powerful nausea in me. I’m sure it is simply a memory quirk, but it can be frustrating, especially if I’m out with people who don’t know I have been ill in the past.
My diet had never been great before I was ill. It wasn’t awful either, but I was a real vegetable-phobe, and to an extent I still am. Nowadays though, I make myself eat more natural foods. I cook almost everything from scratch, and I rarely have overly-processed foods. I try to eat the things I know are good for me, regardless of whether I like them. I’ve discovered that a good blender and a slow-cooker are great allies in making foods I don’t like, more bearable.
Emotional support is important, but some things you can only do yourself. You can’t rely on other people to make you feel like yourself again; it has to be something you achieve yourself. I was lucky enough to have a very supportive and understanding girlfriend, and family and friends who, in the main, weren’t afraid to talk to me about my experiences. Nothing stops you feeling a little alone – because at the end of the day, it is YOU going through it – but a support network that is there if you need it is a comforting safety net.
I took my driving test in that March, something I had always put off. I went back to work, and started my own small internet retail business in my spare time. Somehow, having been so ill gave me a kickstart to do some things I should have done years before. I now run Real World Fitness, which ensures I continue to take this real passion, health and fitness, forward. Basically, if I can get fit and strong again after cancer and chemo, anyone can – and I want to help other people to improve themselves, whether they’ve battled illness or not. I believe that what holds most people back in the road to recovery is their mental attitude and determination, or lack of it. You can achieve whatever you want, within reason. You just have to work hard at it.
I’ve taken my training up a gear over the last couple of years. For anyone that knows about training, I can squat 210kg, deadlift 205kg (I’m working on it!) and bench press 155kg. I entered my first powerlifting competition in September 2015, and qualified for the BDFPA British Nationals, taking place in February 2016. It’s a bit of a turnaround from the situation just before my previous landmark birthday!
I had one setback, four years ago, breaking my leg and snapping my ACL playing football. I couldn’t do anything with my lower body for several months, and I swerved the surgery that my consultant was insisting on because RWF was in it’s infancy. The rehab period for the surgery would have been 9 months, and I couldn’t afford to be out of action for that time. So, being pig-headed, I thought “you can’t really make it any worse” and got back into the gym. I followed some advice I’d seen from American doctors who treat ACL ruptures vastly differently to the UK – basically, they advise getting under load again as soon as possible.
It hurt like hell, but I stuck with it, and a few months later went back to my consultant. He was ready to schedule my surgery, but I demonstrated a perfect single leg, pistol squat on my ‘damaged’ leg. He scowled and said I was lucky and would still need surgery – I refused and 4 years later I’m still OK, but my tennis and football days are over. I can’t do a lot of multi-directional, impact activity and running is always problematic because it over-stresses the joint. Gym work though, in a controlled environment, is largely fine and I genuinely credit squatting and deadlifting with my avoidance of surgery. I’m also, go figure, stronger by far than I was before the injury. I do have some lower back issues because my hamstrings over-compensate on one side, but that’s a work in progress and I’m starting to understand it more and more, and work around it.
I have no lasting effects from my illness other than a mild tinnitus caused by damage done by chemotherapy to the nerves, some reduced lung function that only really bothers me in the winter or after getting a cold, and occasionally a balance issue. There is also a constant back-of-my-mind anxiety about health, as anyone who’s ever been critically ill will probably attest to, but that’s behind me now.
Whilst the worst part is certainly long over, it’s never a million miles away from my thoughts. I still count myself lucky that, most days, all I have to remind myself of my cancer is a ringing in my ears!
Now, I work with clients of all ages and abilities, and many diverse health issues. I think that my experiences make me a better trainer, a better listener, and more able to empathise. More negatively, it probably makes me very intolerant of laziness and excuses. I struggle to appreciate how people with a healthy body can allow themselves to decline into ill-health through lifestyle and inaction – but perhaps that’s my problem, rather than theirs!