real life

'My battle with cancer is like a gruesome triathlon. I will only win by moving forward.'

In early November 2013, Sydney businessman Martin Chimes completed his novel Into the Lion’s Den. It had been an all-consuming undertaking and he felt a sense of relief mixed with excitement. Little did he realise that on this same day, he’d enter his very own personal lion’s den, a battle with an aggressive, deadly cancer. He writes for Debrief Daily about his incredible life-affirming journey.

Having grown up in South Africa, at least I had a familiarity with these dangerous, beautiful creatures but Mesothelioma is a malignant species of beast as terrifying as it is unfamiliar. Meso… what!?

Years of writing, thinking, creating, dreaming and reminiscing have yielded my first novel. The book is finished and I’m elated – but also in denial. The writing has been a welcome distraction these past few days as I await the biopsy test results from my lung. I’ve been doing all the writing but I’ve turned a blind eye to the writing on the wall – the two litres of bloody fluid drawn from my left lung at St Vincent’s Hospital two days ago, I reassure myself, must be explainable, innocuous, benign; anything but cancer.

We receive word from Dr Stone, a brief missive: “The pathology has, regrettably, shown the presence of malignant pleural mesothelioma. It’s a rare form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.”

Martin Chimes

Nothing prepares you for the shock of that moment. My beautiful wife, Sara, hugs me and holds me tight. Although her own pain is almost insupportable, her first instinct is to support me, and she does, heroically, bearing her burden and mine, from that first awful moment and every step of the way of the long road ahead.

All my life I have been a health and fitness nut. Some might say, I was not just strong, I was invincible - in my own mind at least. So how can it be true that I am now diagnosed with a terminal illness with just 4 to 10 months left to live. It is as if death is lurking just around the corner, so close that I may as well lie down and wait for its arrival, for it will all soon be over.

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Yet I have never walked away from a challenge in the past and the simple act of throwing in the towel is one that I have failed to master. It won’t be the first time I’ve surprised everyone. And while it will be me in the ring, I know I’ll have an army of family, friends and doctors in my corner who will do everything to ensure I came out on top of this bout.

Dr Stone offers us a glimmer of hope by proposing a radical tri-modal treatment of chemotherapy, intensive surgery and radiotherapy. There are three stages to this race then; it is a rather gruesome kind of triathlon, and like every other race it will be won only in one way, by moving ever forward, one foot in front of the other, no matter what, until I cross the finish line. Mentally and physically I will be tested like never before and  life and death are the stakes.

Not everyone is as fortunate as me. My physical condition qualifies me for this uncommon and dangerous triple-shot therapy that will see me lose my left lung, pleura, diaphragm, thoracic tissue and the membranous structures surrounding my heart. But the sobering reality when all the bravado fades away is that, going on statistics, all I’m doing is buying a little extra time. Even after this treatment program, the 2-year survival rate is less than 5 in every 100.

Desperate to save me, Sara begins researching any and all alternative treatments that might help to prolong my life. She scours the net, poring over every medical resource she can find.

She discovers the work of a gifted Israeli doctor, Michael Har-Noy, and his company Immunocare, who are pioneering an experimental treatment that utilises immunotherapy drugs to harness the power of the immune system itself. It is at the forefront of cancer research and if successful will revolutionise the way this most dreaded of diseases is handled. If.

Now there’s another stage to this already long race. I undergo all four treatments one after the other, as if a triathlon were not gruelling enough.

By the time the immunotherapy is over, I have endured 19 months of continuous treatment and believe myself to be free of disease. I feel lucky to be alive. I have witnessed others, much younger than me, succumb to cures which for them proved to be more deadly than the disease. Where so many have fought their final bout and failed, despite all their valour and the love and support of those around them, somehow I have prevailed.

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Still I have to endure innumerable days and longer nights of feeling sick and tired of being sick and tired and lie awake full of discomfort and loneliness, staring into the darkness. I search my soul seeking the strength to deal with the emotions of hope and desperation that course through me. The rollercoaster of peace and uncertainty that leave me finally in what I can only conceive of as the presence of God.

It is all a most profound experience and as bizarre as all this may seem, even if I could go back to the day of diagnosis, I would not choose a different path. Everything that has happened has changed who I am and this terrible testing has made me a better person and one who is more determined than ever to make the best of my life. Now it will be rich and rewarding in ways that would have been impossible for me to know and fully appreciate otherwise.

I have learned much about myself and felt myself grow closer to God and to feel secure in the knowledge that the fear of death is as much a stranger to me as it ever was, though my appreciation of living has never been stronger. For both Sara and I, our children are the centre of our world and yet another reason to cling as tenaciously to life as one can.

Purpose and direction has always been my touchstones in all I do in life, my motto being ‘It doesn’t matter how you feel, it’s what you do that counts’. So regardless of how I feel, most days I meet my training buddies for breakfast,  even if I have to drag myself there to do it. I’ve been training with and competing against this motley crew for over 30 years both in sports and business and their love and unstinting support have shown me what true friendship is really all about.

Fired with enthusiasm for our novel, amidst all the other demands of this trying time, we found the energy to approach publishers with the manuscript and were delighted with the level of interest in professional circles. Finally we accepted an offer from Harlequin/Mira to publish it on father's day this year.

In between treatments I found some pleasure in rereading my book Into the Lion's Den. Mixed with that pleasure is a certain kind of wonder at how so many elements of the story which deals with one man’s indomitable will in the face of a relentless enemy. The same values of the importance of family that imbue the book have also contributed so much to sustaining me in my own battle.

All of this has provided both Sara and I with a strong sense of purpose and direction and many moments of excitement and joy in what has otherwise been an exhausting struggle.

I know that I will be well. Sara and I will have a good life. We will look back at this time and know that together we met the challenges and triumphed.

Through it all, Sara has been my rock. Of all the wonderful things I have learnt, nothing has been as miraculous as the depth of her care. As terrible as the threat was, her faith and love have been seemingly endless and have inspired me with nothing short of awe. While science and medicine contribute to the cure, it is this wealth of love with which my life is blessed, which makes life too good to contemplate leaving ahead of time. Not that I have a choice, Sara has made it clear she will simply not let me die in peace.

At least, not yet.

Into the Lion's Den by Martin Chimes is published by Harlequin books, RRP $29.99. You can purchase the book here

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