“And I could see them coming towards me on his rounds, and any cancer patient listening to this will know the next few seconds I’m talking about, – the day you get the news. I describe it as like being thrown out of an airplane without a parachute…

And I could just see as they came in, things were not right. I was laughing and joking with these people yesterday, and suddenly, they’re not even responding to my facial expression. So he just kept coming, didn’t say a word, pulled the curtain around the bed, and he said, “Liam Ryan, this is very serious… In all my time, you are the second worst case I’d ever seen, and I have to tell you now, the worst case was dead in a month.”

…they [had] discovered a massive Stage 4 … tumor that had filled my sinus was running around my eye, it was backed up against the brainstem, and the top of the spine, and by now, it was so advanced, and so settled in there, it was beginning to eat into my cheek bone. It had gone through all the soft tissue it could find, and it was eating into my cheek.

And I just got across to them that, “Look, if I am going down here, I just want to be let into the ring. I want a chance to put me gloves on, and give it a shot.”

Liam Ryan

Given a month to live in 2002, still here in 2021, after being diagnosed with one of the worst cases of Head & Neck cancer ever seen, oncologists around the world now say it has become one of the most inspirational cancer stories there is.

Survival would have been a miracle by itself, but it is now the length and quality of Liam’s recovery that has made this story as big as it is

Ladies and gentlemen, any words I add to Liam Ryan’s amazing story, would add exactly zero value, so all I will do is request that you stick on the kettle, grab a coffee, count your blessings and listen in wonder to the most amazing conversation on The Coffee at Eleven Show, Season 4, Finale replay in your preferred way.

Quite literally jaw-dropping! (sorry Liam, couldn’t resist 🙂 )

Liam Ryan Highlights

Yours Truly: Ladies and gentlemen, you are more than welcome to this, another episode, Episode 112 of The Coffee at Eleven Show, brought to you by WIG-WAM, and supported by Limerick Post newspaper #KeepingLimerickPosted #LimerickAndProud, and it’s lovely to have you here.

And in particular, it’s lovely to have our very special guests for this, the Season 4 finale. It’s a friend of mine that I’ve known for several years, and I’m really looking forward to having a conversation with him, and that is, Liam Ryan. Liam, you’re very, welcome, please pop in and say, hello, cheers us with the coffee mug.

Liam Ryan: Thank you. I don’t have one beside me-

Yours Truly: That’s okay.

Liam Ryan: … thanks Colm. I’m delighted to be here, and I have a wonderful story, and every time I get to tell it, it will do good somewhere in the world, so thank you for the opportunity.

Went to school, I actually went to boarding school for my leaving cert, I went to Roscrea in Tipperary, my first connection with County Tipperary. And at the time of my leaving, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I was quite good at maths, so I ended up going to Trinity College in Dublin to study computer science, thinking it was the right fit for me, but I knew by Halloween it wasn’t.

So I left at Easter, and it was around then I was thinking I wanted to become an architect. So my dad knew an architect in Athlone and managed to get me a job in there for some work experience. And as a young lad in my late teens, early 20s, it was the best thing I ever did, because it crowned me. I was still … I don’t know if immature is the right word, but I just didn’t know what I wanted to do, and to work somewhere, and see the job you were thinking of in operation on a daily basis, was really good for me.

So I kept applying for Dublin, I could only get into Bolton Street, and it seemed to be a closed shop. I tried for several years, couldn’t get in, and there was an architect in Athlone at the time, and he was from England. And he just said to me, “Have you ever thought of applying to England?” At that time, it wasn’t really done, but I did take him at his word, I made several applications to the UK and lo and behold, not only did I get invited over for interviews, I was actually offered places in three different universities.

So I went from one extreme to the other. I couldn’t find anywhere to take me, and all of a sudden, that College doesn’t even know what I’m like, and they’re offering me a position. And I’ll give you a nice little postscript on that, about four years later, I think it was either The Evening Press, or the Evening Herald at the time, had a graduation photo of the class I was in, and it was the first degree course in computers, I think in a lot of Europe at that point. They were naming their salaries in jobs in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Munich, London, wherever they wanted to go. They’re all multimillionaires now, and here was me in an architect’s office on 20 quid a week work experience. But anyway-

Yours Truly: And as my dad-

Liam Ryan: … I still-

Yours Truly: … as my dad would say, “But are they happy, Liam, are they happy?”

Liam Ryan: Exactly. The post postscript line was going to be, “You should still follow your heart, because I still wouldn’t change it.

One of the most inspirational cancer stories there is

Liam Ryan: I had an absolutely outstanding doctor from Castleconnell, Blathnaid McCurtin, some people might know her, and Blathnaid checked me over.

So to all intents and purposes, I had a sinus infection, there was no reason to suspect anything else. So she gave me a prescription, but to her credit, just in case, she had an inkling in the back of her brain, “There might be something else here, I’m going to book him in for a week’s time, because I know he’s the type of guy, he won’t come anywhere near a doctor again for another year if I don’t.”

So a week later, I went back to Blathnaid, the headaches were still there. Then we went to the dentist just to see I didn’t have an abscess in my mouth. So the next step then was, we checked into the Regional Hospital in Limerick as it was known then, for what’s called, a routine procedure called a sinus wash. And the thinking then was, I did have a sinus infection, but it was too strong for antibiotics to shift.

So, John Fenton brought me down the next morning, all gowned up, laughing and joking. He said, “I’ve done thousands of these, you’ll be knocked out for about half an hour. We’ll flush you out, you’ll be back in the ward to rest up over night, and the only issue will be literally, what time you going home tomorrow.” So we’ll fast forward to the next morning, I was dressed, I was sitting on the bed, I was in a two bed ward.

And I could see them coming towards me on his rounds, and any cancer patient listening to this will know the next few seconds I’m talking about, – the day you get the news. I describe it as like being thrown out of an airplane without a parachute, and it doesn’t matter, you don’t even know what form you’re going to end up with, but the news is a sensational shudder to your life really.

And I could just see as they came in, things were not right. I was laughing and joking with these people yesterday, and suddenly, they’re not even responding to my facial expression. So he just kept coming, didn’t say a word, pulled the curtain around the bed, and he said, “Liam Ryan, this is very serious.” So he went on to tell me, when they went in, they discovered a massive Stage 4 … one consultant in Liverpool later told me mine was so advanced, it could have been classed as Stage 44, the tumor that had filled my sinus was running around my eye, it was backed up against the brainstem, and the top of the spine, and by now, it was so advanced, and so settled in there, it was beginning to eat into my cheek bone. It had gone through all the soft tissue it could find, and it was eating into my cheek. So he told me there and then, he said, “In all my time, you are the second worst case I’d ever seen, and I have to tell you now, the worst case was dead in a month.”

I have a couple of great lines through my story, and one of them is, in the blackest of holes, there is still the most amazing chinks of light. And the chink of light was standing in front of me. The fact that myself and John Fenton had got on so well over a 48 hour period … and he said, “The Liverpool Center is probably the best in Europe, and it’s on a par with a lot of what you get in America.” Maybe not quite as … the biggest cities; New York, and LA, and Chicago, whatever, but he said, “At least there, you’ll be in the hands of people familiar with this condition. I’m only an ENT consultant.”

What the chink of life was, because he knew them, he could lift the phone, and he got me a referral within a week. And that was critical obviously, with the time bomb ticking, also decided, “This guy isn’t going to survive what’s in front of him, the surgery is just too big. If he does survive, his quality of life will be so poor, it’s not worth doing.” But they are incredible people, they’re not just assessing your condition, they’re also assessing you, and your wife and family. Could you cope if you did survive with disability, mental impairment, blind, deaf, dumb, were all very likely.

And the great thing in what he told me years later was, although I didn’t tick the main box, I ticked all the other four. I had great acceptance, I knew exactly where I was, I knew my death was the elephant in the room, and the room was tiny. And I just got across to them that, “Look, if I am going down here, I just want to be let into the ring. I want a chance to put me gloves on, and give it a shot.” By now, either imagined or real, I could feel this thing. It was like an alien, obviously inside me, I could feel it growing. And I could certainly smell it, like a burning sensation in my nostrils.

So of course, I knew the time bomb was ticking. I said, “Okay, can we have it tomorrow?” And here’s the learning curve for all of us. My surgery was so big, it took a month to prepare. They do the big surgery in Liverpool, the first Monday of every month, so that’s 12 a year, so there’s 12 of me every year. So they said, “No, no, it’s going to take a month,” so we came back to Ireland, and I have a month now with, “What do you do? I have an operation I may not survive,” and that’s a real test to anybody. How do you use your time rightly to help your yourself?

So I have a great friend, he’s an ex-Sergeant at Henry Street in Limerick, Ian Connolly and Ian and myself had done a bit of running up to this point. So I decided I’d run every day, sometimes on my own, and sometimes with Ian. And running ticked two boxes for me, A, I was determined that we were going to get the fittest, best specimen of Liam Ryan on that slab in a month’s time.

So I ran every day, I was going to be in the best shape I could be, but running, unlike other sports, it’s quite automatic once you’re in stride, so you have an awful lot of thinking time. It’s not like a field game, where you have to work out where is the pass going to come from. So, my running was also my mental exercise to make sure … and this is where faith, not afraid to die, tough as bloody nails, we are going down to that slab in fighting mode. You know, people don’t like the kind of battle scenario with cancer, but it’s hard to replace, because that’s what it is. This thing is trying to kill you, so you’ve got to react in the same way.

So he told me it was a 12 hour operation, and he said, “Liam, it was surgery as big as it comes, it was what you would have after a major car accident.” Are we okay to lift the eye patch? He said, “We cut you from your ear across to your nose, we broke your jaw, and we cut right down to your Adam’s apple.” He said, “Then we just folded away your jaw.”

The next bit he described is like trying to work on the engine in a car. There’s something wrong with the engine, but to work on it, you have to disconnect all the various wires and hoses and pipes it’s sending out to the rest of the car. He said, “It was exactly the same with you, we had to sever all the nerves and tendons going through your face, and up your spine to your brain, that were doing nothing wrong, but they were in our way.” And he said, “That is extremely complicated work in itself, and it wasn’t even what we were supposed to be doing.” He said, “Then we went after all the soft tissue tumor we could find, that was going around your eye, to the bottom of your brain and the top of your spine.” He said, “Once we were happy, we took out half the roof of your mouth, half your top set of teeth, and he said, “Then we went after as much of your cheekbone as we could, where it was starting to eat in.”

He said, “By then you had a massive hole in your face, so we had to take bone off your hip to try and rebuild your face, and then we took a lot of lining off your stomach to fill out the hole in your face, and we took extra lining to try and seal the roof in the top of your mouth.” The big miracle really, was that nobody could know how the jaw would go back after they … they couldn’t have predicted that before they went in. So the greatest miracle of all is that I can speak, and as you can all hear, speak perfectly. I can only open my mouth half an inch.

Yours Truly: So, the final word goes to you, Liam Ryan.

Liam Ryan: Okay.

Yours Truly: On behalf of The Coffee at Eleven Show. Namaste.

Liam Ryan: Delighted to be here. Thank you very much. And I’m going to end with just a single line, “It’s goodbye from me, and it’s goodbye from him.”

END

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