• Austin Birks

Reflections On Christmas Day 2019 Against 2020

It is, quite frankly, quite difficult when I take a step back and try and reflect on all the events that have occurred in this awful and extraordinary year. No one to my knowledge had ever predicted exactly what was going to happen around the world, with the impending arrival of the pandemic, care of some Chinese bats.


My year started off badly if the truth be told, after I had been told by my oncologist in early October that the cancer was back with a vengeance and my prognosis was not good. Indeed, he told me that I had a 25% chance of living for two years.


This, by any stretch of the imagination, is a blow, and I had been mulling over the implications and decided to conclude that at the end of the day, these prognoses are based on statistical averages, I therefore decided not to be average, and to become decidedly unaverage.

Yes, it might sound like nonsense, or indeed, dare I say it arrogant. It is not meant to be. I simply took the view that the majority of bowel cancer patients are elderly (most are in their 70s and 80s, and I’m only just 60), so I figured that I had youth on my side. The second issue is physical fitness. I was absolutely focused on keeping myself physically and mentally fit, always have done and always will do. The third element was my secret weapon, namely my lifetime involvement with Japanese Shotokan Karate, and the Samurai or Budo code of “Never Give Up, Never Give In”.


After training for nearly 50 years, you learn a lot of good things. Karate is not simply a means of learning to defend yourself, to punch, kick, and block, no, there is far more to it than that. The real benefit of training is in the development of building better human beings, and about seeking perfection of character. Obviously, an impossible aspiration, but an aspiration all the same. A core part of that is to build an indomitable spirit.

There is a saying among the Samurai warriors of old Japan, that says: "get knocked down 7 times, get up 8". That typified from day one, my personal relationship with cancer from the moment I was told. To this day, my resolve has never wavered, and in truth, I think that is a key reason why I am still alive to this day.


As Christmas Day approaches in 2020, I can’t help but think about last year, where I spent the day with my partner, my daughter, my ex-wife and her partner in a very nice restaurant called The Bell. We decided to push the boat out and enjoy the Full Monty, with someone else cooking it, serving it, and washing it all up. In a light-hearted way, I made what at the time was an innocent throwaway comment as Wham's Last Christmas boomed out of the restaurant tannoy. I said: "Oh nice, listen they are playing my song!" On reflection, it was tasteless and crass, and for me it was a cheap gag. To others present, it was anything other than funny. The thing was that I never for a second actually thought it would be my last Christmas, I just felt, or knew somewhere deep inside that I was going to beat this vile disease. Trouble was, others did not realise that was how I felt.


New Year’s Day was forgettable and as we entered a new shiny decade, I felt ready for the year ahead. As it happened, I had to have chemotherapy on Christmas Eve. All 9 and a half hours of it, but it was fine. You just get on with it, warts and all, as they say. So, it was with a sense of renewed hope and positivity that I stepped into the year 2020, optimistic and hopeful that I was going to make sure that I was going to be at the table for Christmas dinner on December 25th, 2020.


Little did I know just what lay ahead, with a whole raft of new words about to enter the national psyche and become very common, words like pandemic, Coronavirus, face mask, lockdown, tiers, Captain Tom, saucepan banging, and COVID deaths.

Fast forward to March, for major life-saving surgery at the Priory private hospital in Birmingham, a third course of chemotherapy post surgery, and then against the odds the all clear for now in October, leaving me coping with the transition from cancer patient to rehabilitation, and then slowly back into the world of work, and dare I say it the challenge of transition. But without doubt a good problem to have, and I would not have it any other way. Cancer kills people, it has almost killed me twice, but I’m still here and intend to be here for a lot longer.


But, as I have learned with this savage disease, it makes up its own rules, and it does not play fair, however, a firm resolve and and a positive attitude and strong physical regime to keep fighting the good fight are indeed essential tools to have in the locker, when you face living with the shadow of cancer. However, and this is the crucial point, you can learn to live with it, and live a very normal and full life, you simply have to work around it, the thing is you see the gift of life is too good to relinquish without a fight, and I fully intend to keep that fight going for as long as I can.


Austin


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