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The lessons I learned from the teacher I never wanted

by | Jun 17, 2024 | Kidney Cancer UK News, Personal Stories - Blogs, Uncategorised | 0 comments

A blog by Phil Richards MBE – June 2024

Firstly, thank you for taking the time to read my story and I hope you can take something of value from it.

Phil Richards MBE 4If I could set the scene, I was a 39-year-old man, with a lovely wife and two incredible teenage daughters that formed a tight-knit family unit. I had a successful career, I exercised 3 to 4 times a week and I looked and felt happy and healthy. If I were to go back to my younger self and show him the life he was to have, I’m sure he would have been delighted, why wouldn’t he be? My life however was reframed on the 19th March 2017, by an unexpected, unplanned life event that shouldn’t happen to anyone, let alone a 39-year-old man. With no obvious warning signs, I started passing blood in my urine and gradually became crippled by stomach and back pain, all within a 12-hour period. This wasn’t something I could ignore, even if I wanted to. I would liken the realisation to the engine management light flashing up on your car, and this needed urgent attention. Of course, the first thing we do in emergencies is consult with our good friend Dr Google and I was able to self-diagnose myself with kidney stones. We all know that Dr Google is never wrong, right? To get a second opinion, my wife urged me to go to A&E, so doubled up in pain, that’s where I went. That Saturday night in A&E turned into a memory that will never leave my mind. After numerous tests including bloods and CT scans, the doctor came in to see me with the results. He then proceeded to deliver the news that nobody ever wants to hear. “Mr Richards, we’ve found an 11cm tumour on your right kidney, I’m so sorry”.

At that moment, time just stood still. Don’t even ask me what was going through my mind, I couldn’t tell you, I just felt empty, and I felt lost. What transpired was that it wasn’t just an 11cm tumour, it was a stage 3 cancer diagnosis that has no cure. In devastating situations like this, you enter what I call forced acceptance. There was no ‘Back to the Future’ flux capacitor to reverse time so, accepting what’s happened was my only option.

In the days that passed as my mind attempted to process the news, I soon discovered that the cancer diagnosis wasn’t the hardest task I’d have to face. How do I tell my wife that the future she’d dreamed of had now changed? How do I tell my teenage girls that the man in their life that promised to never leave them …… I’m sure using your own imagination you can fill in the blanks. The next few weeks were a blur! Having my right kidney removed and focusing on my recovery was the easy part.

What nobody teaches you is how to cope with a life-changing disease. The fear of metastatic reoccurrence was always at the forefront of my mind, and I spent months of looking in the bathroom mirror telling myself I was going to die. I’m naturally an optimist with a positive outlook on life and I wanted to flip the script in my mind. One day I looked into the same bathroom mirror and told myself I wasn’t going to die today, not today, not this week and not this year. I made a commitment to stop the negative self-talk and start taking positive actions. My disease was being managed through observation; CT scans every 3 months moving to six monthly. There definitely is such a thing as Scanxiety when it comes to results day. To be fair, I never worried about the results day as I was pumped full of adrenaline. It was always the day after that I had an incredibly low day, almost like that feeling as a child on Christmas Day when all your presents had been opened and there was nothing left to look forward to. It didn’t matter if the results were good or bad I still felt low. It took me a few cycles to become aware of my feelings, and to prepare myself to manage the situation I would always clear my diary on that day, giving me some alone time to reflect.
In December 2018, my fear became reality, metastasis spread into my lungs! I won’t lie, this was an emotional setback for me, my family, and my friends, but also one that had to be faced into. There were some options of treatment at this time, but there were also clinical trials in progress with the potential to have more impact in prolonging life.

I made the decision that I was going to decline the offer of treatment and focus on the parts of life that only I could control. My mindset was that if I could be laser-focused on nutrition, exercise, and sleep, I had the chance of slowing down my cancer until more treatments with better successful outcomes were available. This by far has turned out to be one of my best decisions in life. Not only did I slow the cancer progression down, but I also felt energetic with a real zest for life. Making memories with family and friends became a priority, and at work, I was performing at the top of my game. My health became my most valuable asset, and working on the elements inside my control helped me cope with those outside of my control.

Phil Richards MBEBeing diagnosed with kidney cancer was by far the saddest moment in my life, but the truth is that I needed cancer so that I could find myself. I invested time in finding my purpose in life and as a result, I know what that it is now – It’s to help others! Working with charities really helps me to gain a sense of fulfilment and that wouldn’t have happened without my diagnosis. To date, I have been awarded an MBE for services to charity and the economy, I’ve spoken at Downing Street on how charity work enhances the NHS, and I’ve met some incredible people all whilst creating fabulous memories. I’m not saying that you need a Kidney cancer diagnosis to win at life, far from it, but for me, it was an example of how trauma can lead to triumph. As we approach the mid-point of 2024, my disease has progressed, but the treatment options are far more advanced now than they were 5 years ago. At the start of the year, I began a combination treatment of targeted and immunotherapy, which gives me hope to keep living the life I enjoy.

I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read my story, and through my life lessons I’d like to share some final points:

If you are currently living with kidney cancer (or any cancer for that matter):

  1. Don’t look at this as the end of your life but make a commitment that whilst there is still air in your lungs, you can do something that puts a smile on yours and others faces.
  2. Take control of your diagnosis in the same way as you do with your finances. Don’t let anyone make decisions without it being the right thing for you. That includes treatment options. Quality of life over quantity of life wins every time.
  3. If you would be prepared to die for your loved ones, put that same effort into living for them. Control the controllable, eat well, sleep well and exercise regularly.

If you aren’t living with cancer, try and keep it that way:

  1. With the statistics increasing on getting a cancer diagnosis, early detection is the key to living longer. Do not ignore the warning signs, however trivial they may seem. If you get regular fatigue requiring naps, night sweats consistently or lower back pain/ache that is causing discomfort, keep a diary and get to the doctor. The more evidence you have, the more likely you are to be put on the correct exploratory pathway.
  2. If you can’t find an hour a day to work on your health, then be prepared to find 24 hours a day to be dead. It sounds drastic but if you can learn to look after yourself, you’ll live longer.
  3. Start working on your eulogy rather than your CV. I’m pretty confident that at your funeral nobody would be mentioning the leadership course you attended or the revenue you made on a quarterly basis. Start doing the things in life that leave a legacy to your loved ones.

I wish you all the health and happiness you deserve.

Big love

Phil Richards MBE.

<a href="" target="_self">Malcolm Packer</a>

Malcolm Packer

Malcolm is Chief Executive Officer at Kidney Cancer UK and Kidney Cancer Scotland and has worked with the charity in various capacities for over 15 years.