10 Lessons I Learned on My Journey from Childhood Cancer Fighter to Adult Cancer Survivor

Robin is dangerously ill,” my father wrote in his journal.

At the age of nine, I was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw. I wasn’t told at the time that I had cancer, nor was I told that I only had a five percent chance of survival. My parents initially thought I had mumps. When the swelling did not go down, I was sent to a specialist and then had a biopsy. My parents were informed that I had bone cancer and would need radiation therapy. The worst-case scenario was that I probably only had two years to live.

Into The Wilderness

I missed more than a term of school while I had the Radiation therapy and my first major operation. My mother took me to the hospital every day for two months. I found out some years later that I was receiving more than double the normal dose of Radiation therapy given to an adult, as the doctors were concerned about the possibility of the cancer spreading through my body. I remember going up to Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, famous as the venue for the first heart transplant, and having this special mask molded to cover my face, being wheeled into the tunnel of a large machine and having to lie still for however long. I don’t remember all the details, although I was afraid and dreaded hospital visits.

Radiation therapy made me tired and I had to take things carefully. After the Radiation therapy was completed, the swelling had reduced, but the doctors decided to operate and remove what was left of the cancerous tumor. During the next couple of years, I underwent two major operations, the first to remove the cancerous jawbone and some lymph nodes, the second to graft a rib which would grow as my new jawbone. The hope was that, once I had stopped growing and my face had adapted to this new jawbone, I would be as near normal in looks as was possible, and the final plastic surgery would cover the hollow in my cheek as a result of the operation.

Facing Adversity—Will It Ever End?

During the next few years, through to the end of my senior school years, I made regular trips to the outpatient clinic at the hospital, my significant memory being the healing hands of the amazing specialists who treated me.

I recall the day I returned to school and had to sit in the car until after assembly. The headmaster told the school that I was returning, was disfigured, yet needed to be treated normally. 

Many of my teachers reached out to me, encouraged and moved alongside me in different ways and at different times. Their acts of kindness impacted my life in a significant way, so much so that I decided, at the age of about eleven, that I wanted to be a teacher.

One occasion during my junior school years, which I remember as though it was only yesterday, was being called out of my class by the headmaster before lunch and told that my father was coming to fetch my brother and me. My mother had undergone an operation and was in hospital. My father had been called to the hospital early that morning. As we clambered into the car, we heard that my mother had died from a pulmonary embolism. My father took us to the beach that afternoon, but there was a silence, a sadness—possibly we all just felt numb. I didn’t feel like swimming nor exploring the rock ponds which I loved doing at that age.

The family had to adapt to my mother’s sudden and untimely death. After many tantrums and tears I was allowed to play sports again. I developed a way to cope with my disfigurement through my involvement in sports and my discovery that I had some talent. 

Going Deeper Into The Pit

About eighteen months after my mother died, my father married a close family friend of my godparents, a divorcee, who had suffered the tragedy of losing her son who was my age, when he was hit by a car as he ran across a busy road to see a helicopter land on a large common close to a children’s hospital. My step-sister was a little younger than me and we enjoyed a pretty good relationship overall.

This marriage changed the dynamics within our family. My older teenage brother and sister battled to accept two new people into the family. No matter how hard she tried, my step-mother could never replace my mother. It took her a long time to understand this.

Meanwhile, I journeyed through the confusing adolescent years, lacking in self-confidence, having to put up with the never-ending stares of young and old to remind me of my disfigurement, and the occasional hurtful comments from my peers. I was shy and an introvert within a family experiencing what can only be described as ‘interesting dynamics.’ 

Changing My Inner Narrative—New Choices

During the dark times I would ask, “Why me?” and feel filled with self-pity, though I had a way out of these feelings because I learnt how to change my inner narrative and make new choices.

My passion to play sports kept me going. I also joined a youth group for a while, following my brother there, but all the other members of the group were at other schools and knew each other. Cliques were formed and I was unable to break into any of these (not that I tried that hard), so I felt awkward, isolated, and eventually stopped attending. 

When I was about fifteen, I withdrew into myself and became a loner for about eighteen months. I shared very little at home, kept to myself and stayed at school as late as I possibly could playing sports. During this time, I built a wall around myself, not letting anyone into my most private thoughts, though I don’t actually recall more than a couple of people (both girls of my age) trying to get in. 

Triumph Over Adversity

I concluded that, because I was different from everyone else, I would need to prove myself. I set some personal goals and made many sacrifices and trained hard. I eventually captained teams and was awarded state colors in cricket, hockey and cross-country and also represented my school in squash racquets and badminton.

And that was how I gained the respect of both peers and teachers which had been one of my goals. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me because of my physical disability and I don’t think they did.

The Power of Mentoring

Some of my sport coaches became my mentors, one of these being my headmaster, himself a former international cricketer. I was like a sponge with these people, forever asking questions and wanting to learn more. I didn’t realize at the time that they were shaping my character and helping me form a value base on which I would build the rest of my life. As school captain in my final year, my headmaster taught me much about leadership, the importance of standing up and being counted, leading by example, never quitting and how to persevere through tough times.

I returned from a successful under nineteen interstate cricket festival and had my final plastic surgery operation to complete the rebuilding of my face. Later that year I made the tough decision to stop playing competitive sport as there were too many risks involved. 

The Swinging Door—Another New Inner Narrative

I felt shattered for a while and then chose, once again, to change my inner narrative and turn all my sporting goals into coaching goals, all of which I achieved in the years that followed. I graduated from university and taught for over forty years, but that is a story for another day.

It has taken me a long time to share my story, though 2020 has been an amazing year thus far. Who would ever believe that a nine-year-old boy facing death from cancer, would one day be offered three publishing contracts within nine months for three books promoting the spirit of mentoring and encouraging others to become positive people of influence in their community?

10 Life Lessons From My Adolescent Cancer Journey

There are many lessons I learned from my adolescent experiences which I have shared with many students, teachers and parents over the years to encourage them when they were facing tough challenges. About eight years ago I had my thyroid removed—as a result of the radiation all those years ago—and more traces of cancer were found and removed. Will it return? No matter, I will change the inner narrative accordingly and remember the following lessons I have learnt:

1. The choices I make, particularly about my attitude to life, define who I am.

2. I wake up each day thankful for the opportunities to spread a message of HOPE.

3. Find people who will be my cheerleaders, who believe in me and see the potential which I often do not see.

4. Learn how to set and chase my goals. Enjoy the triumph of hard achievement and turn obstacles into opportunities.

5. Support the underdog, the hurting and the broken because I have been there and can empathize with their pain.

6. Asking for help and learning to be vulnerable is a strength not a weakness.

7. Use my God-given gift of encouragement to make a small difference in the world, especially in my interactions with teenagers, teachers and volunteer adult mentors.

8. Never fear failure. Become a stand out in the crowd. It is worth the pain and suffering I have to deal with at times to stay true to myself.

9. Believe in myself, back myself and strive to fulfill my potential with humility.

10. Retain a healthy sense of humor—which includes being able to laugh at myself—and live a healthy and balanced lifestyle.



Photo courtesy of author.