What Matters is What You Do



Liam Ryan on battling a terminal diagnosis and reclaiming his zest for life through adversity

I wrote the book for all those who will come after me.

I have become the living proof that nothing is for certain.  


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”.

Perhaps the greatest inspirational value of my story is that everybody can relate to it. I was not a famous sports star or somebody familiar with facing big challenges in their life. I was an ordinary man

In 2002, at the age of 40, I was an architect in a little town in Ireland with my wife Pam and our three young children. I had never been ill. I had run 6 marathons.

I was never destined to one day possess one of the greatest cancer survivor stories of all time.


But then I began to get headaches.

Over two days at my local hospital a suspected routine sinus infection dramatically transformed into one of the worst cases of Head & Neck cancer 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 had just appeared right in front of me.  I simply had weeks to live.

My condition was diagnosed as Squamecell Carcenoma. A massive, stage 4 tumour was discovered in the middle of his head. Another consultant later admitted to me that my tumourwas so bad it would have been more accurately classed as stage 44. It had filled my right sinus pocket, had eaten into my cheekbones and had found its way around my eye to my brain stem. 


The problem with serious Head & Neck cancer is invariably the treatment required will put you in the grave before the cancer gets to. If treatment was to be found it would be incredibly risky and so destructive that any quality of life beyond it would be a huge bonus.

I would be glad to still be alive to be blind, deaf, dumb, disabled, in a wheelchair or any combination of all 5.

He referred me to Liverpool, which has a centreof excellence for Head & Neck cancer and, impressed by my fighting spirit, Professor Simon Rogers and his team there decided to offer me a chance. But even they didn’t believe I would make it. They wouldn’t tell me that so they told me I had a 5% chance.

But my tumour was so advanced I also required radical radiotherapy. I needed not just one, but two exceptional treatments that could probably only be found in few places in the world. My consultant surmised that if treatment was to be found the likely scenario was that the surgery would be in New York, but the radiotherapy would be in Tokyo.

But I needed both of them to be in the same place.

A positive result would have been to survive the surgery itself but the price of that was that I was likely to lose my sight, my speech, my hearing, my mobility, my brain function or any combination of all five. Survival was all that was on the table. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.

But harrowing surprises were still waiting for me. Before I recovered sufficiently to begin radiotherapy I was rushed to the neuro wing of the hospital with bacterial meningitis. I was in a coma for three days and when I recovered from that a deep vein thrombosis was waiting for me. Both of these nearly killed me by themselves. They came from nowhere to try to steal cancers glory.

But none of that mattered then.

I was so strong at that stage that even if I ended up in a vegetative state I would still have been proud of victory.

I just wanted to be alive. If I was alive I was winning and cancer was losing.

 I underwent a 12 hour operation. It was as big as surgery comes. It was similar to anything that would take place after a major car accident.

When I opened my eyes in intensive care I knew the very first hurdle had been cleared, I had survived the operation. My long and slow recovery would begin from there. I would accept however far that journey took me from there.

For the next two weeks I was more machine than man. I was breathing through a tracheotomy and being fed directly into my stomach by a peg tube. I could not walk, talk, eat, drink or sleep. Everything was still extremely critical. 


Eventually I was released from hospital and deemed strong enough to begin 7 weeks of radical chemo-radiotherapy, although there was now a lot of concern about the gap that had occurred between the surgery and the radiotherapy.

 By the end of 2002 I simply had no business still being alive. But somehow, I was.

And I was just glad to be alive. The prospect of returning to any kind of normal life wasn’t even a consideration at that point.  

 All of that was now 13 years ago.

This amazing story just goes on and on and gets bigger and bigger.

The longer I live, the bigger it gets.

My recovery eventually reached a stage where it had become an even bigger story than my miraculous survival. Apart from my eyepatch, it was almost as if I never had cancer.

 In 2012, on the tenth anniversary, I was back in the real world and functioning again exactly as I had before cancer struck so I wanted to draw a line under 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 did it. And if I did it, there is no reason why you can’t do it too.

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 that hope is never lost. So don’t ever give up. I have been given a second life and with it comes an opportunity to encourage and inspire. When I speak in public I like to offer not just inspiration, but perspective too. I remind everybody that the lost customer 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.

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