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Stephen's story


life before cancer

From soccer to boxing to Muy Thai, Stephen had always been a very active person. At 20, he was living with his girlfriend, dividing his time between working, surfing, and a new sport that would soon become his passion – Brazilian Jujitsu.


“The beauty of Jujitsu is the technique beats any size, any strength, so people from all walks of life can do it,” Stephen explains. “There are no big egos walking around the gym. It’s just like ‘Let’s wrestle.’”

getting the diagnosis

Stephen's collageTraining with his Jujitsu club twice a day, six days a week, Stephen didn’t notice any of the symptoms sometimes associated with cancer. “I remember stretching my neck in April and I felt a marble, but I thought nothing of it cos it was just tiny. Then in September I came across a big lump, and by that time it was all through my upper region.”


When the lump appeared, Stephen knew who to ask for an opinion. “My dad’s a nurse, and he told me to see a doctor, straight up. I was lucky that the doctor I saw was onto it straight away. They ruled out glandular fever and broke the news to me that it was probably some type of lymphoma. I had the biopsy and was in at hospital within two weeks.”


Stephen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma – also known as Hodgkin’s disease – a cancer of the lymphatic system. With such a short period between noticing his symptoms and starting cancer treatment, Stephen says it took some time for the gravity of the situation to sink in.


“I didn’t really know what it meant,” he admits. “I remember driving back with the CT scan images in my car. At my Jujitsu club we’ve got these big windows and I put the scans up to the light. I had no idea how to read CT scans, but I looked at them and went ‘Nah, nothing there’. I diagnosed myself!”


But once his diagnosis was confirmed, Stephen accepted the fact that he would need to undergo chemotherapy. “I like to think of myself as pretty sound of mind, quite grounded, and my reaction is to intellectualise processes. So I thought ‘Ok, well, this is where we’re at. I’ve got to do chemo. We’ll just deal with it’.” 

the challenges of treatment

Stephen had a choice between two chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s. He chose the faster of the two, which was also harsher on his body. “It was a tough six months,” he explains. “I describe it as a grind – like a marathon. I went into remission probably after my third cycle, but I had to do six cycles of treatment.”


“My body would feel disgusting, and I hated going to hospital. I was lucky though – I only had to be a day patient, so I’d only go in maybe for four hours. If they were running late I might be there for the whole day.”


Getting to hospital involved its own challenges. “I remember one morning we were travelling up in peak hour traffic and I’d forgotten to take my anti-nausea medicine. I had something like 17 different tablets I had to take every night, and I couldn’t stand it. So at 8:30am I was out the window, because I’d forgotten to take the anti-nausea meds.”


“I put on 12 kilos throughout treatment, which is great apparently. Every time I’d come to the hospital they’d say ‘Stephen! You’ve put on weight! Fantastic!’ I was all puffy and had prednisone face – ‘moon face’ they call it – where all the swelling goes to your face. I remember thinking ‘Ok. I can’t do the stuff I used to. I have to take care of my body and not push it.’ That meant watching films, writing, reading – just finding different ways to exercise myself.”


“So treatment was tough for all the transport, for the long days, and for the grind,” Stephen says. “I’d count down. The weeks I was ‘on cycle’ I’d just have to put myself in the headspace and get it done. Use all my willpower to just get through.”


Along with these physical difficulties, cancer treatment also involved understanding a whole new world of medical jargon. “A lot of the time I would just phase out in the consultations,” Stephen admits. “Then I’d come out thinking ‘What even happened?’ My partner and mum would get quite emotional, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. So I’d take Dad to the consultations so he could re-hash it all for me afterwards.”


accepting cancer and finding support

“You’ve got two ways you can go with a decision,” Stephen says of his approach to cancer treatment. “You can either resist it, or you can go ‘This is what I’ve got to do.’ Simple as that.”


Along with the support of his mum, dad, his girlfriend and her family, Stephen says it was his Jujitsu club that got him through treatment, even though training was out of the question. “Whenever they knew I was at home I’d have a phone call or a Facebook message,” he explains. “They’d come and pick me up so I could at least watch and take notes, or we’d go for coffee and just talk.”


“When I finally came back to training my coach said ‘I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’ve got better,’” Stephen adds. “I guess I had all this stuff in my head that just wanted to come out.”


support from Redkite – the “golden ticket”

Stephen in LAStephen accessed Redkite’s financial assistance and the annual Dare to Dream scholarship. He used his scholarship to take him far away from the world of cancer treatment to  compete in the Brazilian Jujitsu World Championships in Los Angeles.


“It was just like a golden ticket at the end of treatment,” Stephen says of Dare to Dream. “It was something I could keep working towards – it was so valuable. When I got there, I rolled with world champions, multiple European title holders – these people that I watch on YouTube. I did it for three weeks and I thought, ‘Man. This is living the dream.’”


As well as giving him the chance to compete with Jujitsu champions, Stephen says the World Championships helped him rediscover a spark that was all but lost in the slog of treatment. “I think it was my fifth day in LA,” he remembers. “It was hot, it was disgusting, and I was so exhausted that I actually forgot I’d ever had cancer. Totally forgot. I was just fighting my guts out. I had to fly halfway across the world to do that, but I could because of the Dare to Dream scholarship.” 

post-treatment: “chemo brain” and other side-effects

Despite warnings of long-term side effects from some aspects of his cancer treatment, Stephen only has positive news about his return to training. “I just had my 12 month check-up. My lung capacity is better than it ever was and my haemoglobin counts are higher than they’ve ever been. So we’ve been able to blow those reference points out of the water, and I think it’s because of the fact that I had the ability to go to LA.”


But when it comes to other areas of his life, things haven’t been quite so straightforward. “I have a constant fog in my brain – ‘chemo brain’” Stephen explains. “Up until very recently, I would lose my phone, wallet and keys all the time. I couldn’t retrace my steps. I was always quite articulate and really quick, but I’m nowhere near as quick anymore. It’s ok though, I’m fine with that. I’m just rebuilding my brain.” 

taking the next step

Stephen and competitorsOne strategy Stephen found helpful when facing cancer is simple, yet difficult to put into practice: “Stay off the internet.”


“You can go down a black hole,” he explains. “You will find things that confirm your ideas. So stay off the internet and just talk with people. Talk to your doctor. Take it day by day.”


“It’s really important to widen back on the whole situation,” Stephen adds. “You can get really focused on what’s happening and go down the path of ‘Why?’ ‘How come?’ and ‘What?’ But that’s not going to help you during treatment. When you’re healthy you can deal with that stuff, but when you’re sick, deal with being sick. Care for your body, and let your friends and family in. Really let them in. It’s a big gift to let someone care for you, because their attention is off them.”


Stephen has now finished with his undergraduate degree in teaching and is gearing up to start his Master’s, focusing on screenwriting. To help him start out on this new path, Redkite has once again granted Stephen a Dare to Dream scholarship, giving him the chance to develop a script in a place where inspiration isn’t hard to find – New York City.


Of course, Jujitsu is still a big part of Stephen’s life, and his enthusiasm seems to be spreading. “My doctor has actually just started Jujitsu down at another club,” he says with a smile. “I really want to go and roll with him, go down and help him out – that would be a nice dynamic.”


- May 2015


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