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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

Review of 2020: Ten Good, Ten Bad

Hello, my dear chums!

Well, here we are on the brink of a brand new year, after one of the most challenging and disturbing years in living memory. Few of us predicted that the year would create a whole new language with lockdown, face mask, sanitiser, hoarding, and COVID dominating everyday lives.

In addition, life went on. Having cancer did not stop and all the challenges and successes that go along with it. No, in many ways for me personally this year could have gone one of two ways. I either survived it or I did not. I’m not being over dramatic, at the end of 2019, my life expectancy was not good. I was in the full throes of a tough chemotherapy regime that was taking its toll.

So, after some reflection, I have decided to do my top ten of the good and the bad of 2020. So here goes, I’m going to put them both together, and they will come in no particular order, so bear with me.

1 - Good

I’m alive to celebrate New Year’s Eve 2021. In October 2019, I was told that I had a 25% chance of lasting 2 years. Well, as it stands, I did that so far with flying colours.

1 - Bad

My life-saving operation at the Good Hope hospital in Sutton Coldfield was cancelled at 17.00 the day before the operation March 24th, as all the ICU beds were full of Coronavirus patients. This was a deal breaker, as by this time I was in serious trouble with three cancers attacking my bowel.

2 - Good

My family coming to my rescue by being able to reschedule the operation by going private and having to raise £51,817 within a week, at a time when due to COVID lockdown all the banks were closed. So it was impossible to raise the money. Somehow, miraculously, the money was raised, so the Priory hospital in Edgbaston Birmingham were able to operate on Saturday, 28th of March.

2 - Bad

Going to the toilet 63 times in a 24-hour period. No joke, I can tell you. The reality was that as the cancer got more aggressive, especially in the rectal stump, it meant that there was a constant discharge of cancer mucus evacuating itself. Not only gross but debilitating, as sleep was impossible. I actually took to recording every journey writing down every time I had to use the "facilities" as they say. Also means that I was unable to leave my flat from early February onwards. So my lockdown began then rather than in March, when the nation was put into full lockdown mode.

3 - Good

Passing my 6th Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate on September 26th at a formal grading with Sensei Pete Manning 8th Dan, and a panel of black belts at a physical grading, held at the Mere Dojo in Wiltshire.

Being the stubborn person that I am, I had decided that as part of my challenge with cancer, I wanted to take my 6th Dan in Shotokan Karate do. In truth, I did not need to, as technically what I had to do was submit a Karate CV to the senior committee of the NAKMAS governing body, who would assess and decree if I was worthy or not.

However, I wanted to do a physical exam to prove to myself that neither cancer, chemo, or COVID was going to stop me achieving this ambition. This meant getting special permission from Sensei Pete Manning and Shihan Joe Ellis. After several discussions, they both agreed to the grading, but I had to pass on merit, my medical condition was irrelevant.

This was exactly what I wanted, so a special syllabus was recorded by Sensei Pete, and as soon as I was able after my surgery, I was at it every day. I practised in the garden, I even hired out my local village hall when lockdown allowed, to simulate the grading conditions. I trained every day, some days before doing chemo, and some days after.

Dedication and persistence were the order of the day, I put myself under constant pressure, and felt nothing was going to stop me.

On the day itself, we did an hour and a half training session for senior grades, which I really enjoyed. Then after the panel gathered and changed into their formal grading suits, the dojo was emptied and it was down to me.

I wore the belt given to me by my very dear friend Mrs Dorien Cummins that belonged to my Sensei and very dear friend Shihan Cyril Cummins.

And I got stuck into it, seeking to do my best to justify my earning the grade, but equally important applying every kick, punch and block into my direct and very personal fight with cancer.

In truth, after it was finished, I honestly did not know if I had passed or failed. All I knew was that I had done the best that I could, and if I failed I would come back again until I did. The sense of relief when Sensei Pete told me that I had passed was palpable.

3 - Bad

Yvi getting COVID three weeks after my surgery. One of the biggest threats after my 5-and-a-half hours of surgery was my vulnerability to illness due to the extent of the surgery (indeed I was gutted like a fish according to one of the two amazing surgeons who operated upon me).

In addition, my low white blood cell count also made me especially susceptible to contracting Coronavirus, so three weeks to the day after my surgery, and the day after all 63 stitches (actually these days they are staples) were removed, my partner Yvi self-isolated to her own flat as she felt unwell. Indeed, she spent 5 days in bed and lost her sense of smell and taste.

How I did not contract the virus was one of the many miracles that took place, fortunately being the fit and positive woman that she is, she beat it.

4 - Good

Landscaping my garden during lockdown. I had long since furnished ambitions to convert my shambolic garden into a nice, neat, Japanese-style garden that I could also use for practising Karate.

So that was what I did, so Yvi and I designed it and I got stuck in, after all I was not allowed out as one of the most vulnerable people due to my cancer and surgery I was only allowed to go to hospital or the surgery. So, taking advantage of the great weather, I started to landscape it, and guess what, I actually loved it.

I got it a stage where I needed a professional gardener to help me so step forward. Steve Bedford, he did a brilliant job, and after a new patio, and beautiful new cedar fence we have to date achieved 95% completion. In fact, after I passed my 6th dan, Yvi got me a Japanese rake so I can change the shape and design whenever the mood takes me.

4 - Bad

In July, at one of my telephone consultations with my wonderful oncologist Doctor Peter Correa, I just casually mentioned that I had noticed that my back was hurting. At this, his normally relaxed demeanour changed, and he told me that I needed to have a CT scan to make sure all was ok, as soon as possible.

Frankly, this spooked me and I made a big mistake, I checked Doctor Google, not a good idea as it suggested that back pain post extensive bowel cancer surgery could indicate either a tumour on the spine or the cancer has infected the lungs. Obviously, try as I might to ignore this, it preyed on the mind, so it was with a combination of trepidation and enthusiasm that I had the scan, then to wait two weeks to get the much hoped for all clear.

Indeed the feed back was that due to the extensive physical training (Karate, gardening, exercise at home) my back as showing signs of ware and tear.

5 - Good

Reaching the age of 60, on Sunday, May 3rd, I turned 60 years of age. My hopes to have a large party for 150 at the rather beautiful Hagley Hall just around the corner, were of course scuppered due to lockdown.

However, as a truly amazing and wonderful surprise, Yvi had organised video messages, songs, memories, and well wishes from over 100 of the guests.

The final video clip was from one of the actors from The Inbetweeners, classic comedy James Buckley, who not only wished me a happy birthday, but in homage to my life-time career in the bus industry, called me a bus w*****. Ha, genius, could not make it up, and I have all those memories recorded forever.

5 - Bad

The challenge of isolation during lockdown. No different to anyone else to be fair, and with my constant insomnia due to the steroids and the chemo, I was literally caught in the Groundhog Day syndrome. Yes, it was easy to slide into the Netflix, ice cream, and slob world that was easily accessed during this surreal period. So, I made a conscious decision to make successful outcomes to challenges set. So that is exactly what I did.

6 - Good

Finishing my book and getting it out to the publisher. One great time filler during lockdown was to revisit all 1,212 blogs that I had written for the uTrack website from 2012 onwards. I set myself a challenge of writing 3 blogs a week, so when it was suggested by a good friend of mine that I should get a book published of the best ones, the gauntlet was laid.

So, systematically by week, month, and year, I selected the blogs that I enjoyed the most. It was actually really interesting, as I had long forgotten the events, the experiences and memories both good and bad that had filled the pages of blogs.

It took me from April to July, but by the middle of July, the 400+ blogs were duly dispatched to the wonderful Viv at Purple Parrot Publishing where the work is presently being done to create the final volume early in 2021.

6 - Bad

Stoma bag bad days. Not a general topic of conversation that I would normally encourage but if truth be told, all part of the rich tapestry that comes with bowel cancer. Truth be told, 9 times out of 10, we get on very well, but sometimes it has a bad day. Obviously, prior to the cancelled and actual operation I had to take strong laxatives. This was an experience from hell. In a nutshell, the stoma turns into a flamethrower that requires a good and constant presence in the lavatorial facilities. A most necessary evil, and predictable. What however is not quite so predictable, is the odd bad day where it decided to spend the day on the naughty step. Suffice to say one is best left to one’s own devices, on such days.

7 - Good

Giving a presentation about cancer at the University College Birmingham. One of the results of starting The Bag for Life is that I have met some wonderful people that I would never have met, had I not contracted cancer.

One of these is my friend Nigel Smith who encouraged me to give a presentation in front of some 50 people back in February about my personal journey with cancer and life. It was called Staying Alive in homage to the mighty Bee Gee’s and, of course, the fact that I am still alive. It was filmed by Yvi and the amazing Simon Tomlinson, a filmmaker of the highest quality, it was great fun, and also emotional mostly because my wonderful daughter attended with her boyfriend and friends.

There were some great questions, and I truly enjoyed it. Indeed, I intend with Nigel to do a follow up presentation next year, either live or on Zoom. The February film is actually on the website, along with two other films (one about Karate and cancer, and the other me doing stand up comedy at the Glee Club for Cancer Research UK).

7 - Bad

Insomnia. It’s a curse to be honest and I’ve had it since I was admitted to hospital in September 2018. It has never left me since, and trust me I have tried everything from the good, bad, and illegal with no difference. The cause is not known. Possibly the toxins pumped in at chemo, or the steroids that stimulate the brain, or maybe after all this time: habit. My advice is relish your sleep, when you do not have it, you so miss it.

8 - Good

Learning to Cook. It might sound like a strange choice but after Dr Peter suggested I change my diet and start to cook proper, natural, and healthy food. Not only did it make me feel better, but I discovered a real pleasure and satisfaction in selecting, preparing, cooking and experimenting with menus and dishes.

Indeed, most Christmas presents this year revolve around cooking, including a pie making online course that my brother got me. Can’t wait.

8 - Bad

Learning to live with cancer, and learning to live when controlling cancer. This might appear an odd statement, but one thing that I have discovered is that when you are having treatment for cancer, you have a regime. Your weeks are planned around your blood test, the chemo treatment in hospital, the chemo bag that you have attached to you for 48 hours, the removal of the bag. The two days of steroids that you take, the week of stomach injections that you self administer.

It gives you a role, it’s your job, it’s what you do, so when all that stops overnight it leaves a void or a vacuum that you have to learn to fill. Don’t get me wrong I would always want to be in that world compared to the treatment and risk that goes with cancer treatment, but it is something that I never anticipated. It has taken me a while but I am now balanced and have devised structure and routine and it feels good.

9 - Good

Buying a bike turbo trainer and joining Zwift. When lockdown came, so did isolation from things that I took for granted: the gym and the dojo both evaporated overnight. I was locked in and needed an outlet for physical exercise, something always so vital in my life. So as ever, it was Yvi who suggested that we invest in a turbo trainer that basically allows you to physically simulate riding a bike outside. Hook this up to a software programme called Zwift that allows you to complete hundreds of bike races and courses around the world, and you compete with people from all over. The genius is that the turbo will change gear depending on the severity of the incline, so really do work your butt off.

From day one, I was completely hooked. I did an hour every day and got super fit. It also allows your competitive demon to be released so having both physical and mental benefits.

9 - Bad

Getting Older. No complaints from me. I have the added and unexpected luxury of being allowed to get old when in truth I should have been dead twice, but I am not.

I recall vividly, just as I was about to have my second operation in March, and I was being prepped by the doctors and given the anaesthetics required to knock me out, I had a very clear recollection as I began to count backwards from ten, that I was absolutely not going to die, this was not the last thought that I would ever have, and it was not.

The reason I was so determined was because there was a statistical chance due to the enormity and risk of the surgery, that I might die. Funny thing is, that post recovery, I have noticed a definite change. My flexibility is nowhere near what it was before surgery, I can’t do the splits anymore, but I will work on that. My back hurts but I can take medicines for that. My eyesight is worse, but then again I’m 60 years old and bizarrely for all that, I never felt fitter or stronger. So, age is clearly a state of mind.

10 - Good

Getting the all clear from the CT scan in October from Doctor Peter to confirm the operation and chemotherapy had stopped the cancer. As I have learned, you never quite get the all clear when you have level 4a bowel cancer, rather it is controlled. Well, that will do for me, as they used to say.

Equally important is the goodness of people, not only the angels in the NHS, but my own family and wonderful friends. They have kept me alive through all of this, but the one constant that I have always had in my mind is my own daughter and my wonderful partner. One is my motivation to live, one is the reason that I am alive. Words do not do just justice but they need to know and I hope that already do.

10 - Bad

Negativity. I don’t believe in it; my glass was born half full, never half empty. My mantra has been simple: Never Give Up, Never Give In. As taught to me by my Sensei and dear friend Shihan Cyril Cummins, who fought his own battle with bowel cancer. He finally succumbed, aged 79. He taught me tenacity and to keep strong mentally, physically, and emotionally. For anyone reading this who have been touched by cancer in their lives, never let it beat you, fight the good fight, refuse to go quietly in the night.

The gift of life is precious today more than ever before. Trust me when you almost lose it, you realise how vital it is. Embrace everyday, live it like your last!

Happy New Year,


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1 komentarz

Tony Riddle
Tony Riddle
31 gru 2020

Hi Austin, well the end of the worst year ever ,how you have survived this year is nothing short of a miracle. We ha

we hope 2021 will be a better year for everyone , but will have to wait and see.

Have a very happy new year to the both of you, may you continue to get better.

Carole and Tony Riddle.

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