When Walter White was told that he had terminal cancer on the acclaimed TV show Breaking Bad, it was played out for maximum drama, as these moments usually are.
But when, in 2019, former fitness instructor Iain Ward discovered he had a brain tumour, he told Kathryn Thomas, there was no slo-mo, hushed moment, no swelling score. He didn't even have any symptoms – the MRI he underwent was part of pre-screening for a medical trial he volunteered for.
"They had a brain scan, an MRI brain scan before you go in because they have to make sure that the health checks are, like, through the roof safe. And they were like, 'No, you've got a brain tumour... This is a serious medical condition. You’ve got to get that tested.’"
A second scan confirmed that Iain had a malignant brain tumour and was told he needed surgery as soon as possible. The surgery involved Iain being awake and responding to prompts from the surgeon who needed to know where the healthy brain tissue was so they could try to work around it:
"They were playing a basic version of Articulate with me, where they were like, 'Ok, which of these two photographs goes woof?’ and I’d say, you know, ‘The dog.’ And all they were looking for as they were poking around in my mush was for me to hesitate, so if I said, ‘Eh, the dog,’ that’s a sign, ok, this is functional tissue, we’ll see if we can take something away that’s not that."
Being awake while a team of surgeons cut parts of your brain out might be too much for most people, but Iain decided to try to ignore the enormity of the situation and see if he could prepare himself for the ordeal with exercise and meditation.
These did help during the surgery and were likely needed again when the doctors told him what their tests showed on the tumour:
"The prognosis was, ‘Alright, this is stage 3 cancer, brain cancer, very serious. We had a prediction that could be the case, but now we have 100 per – well, very accurate – tests saying that it is.’ So, from that, I already had the idea of doing the charity stuff, so I was kind of like, ‘Alright, well, the dial has been turned up to 11.’ And so I was, kind of like, playing poker and, you know, cancer had raised the stakes."
His surgeon told Iain that he was extremely lucky, even though he was unlucky, leading Iain to tell Kathryn that he was the "luckiest unlucky man in the world." The "extremely lucky" Iain is two-and-a-half years into what he’s been told is the five years remaining to him.
Kathryn spent a lot of the conversation trying to get Iain to tell her how he felt getting his diagnosis, having five years to live and dealing with the whole harsh reality of the hand he’s been dealt, but Iain, well, he avoided answering and kept his upbeat, funny patter going. Kathryn’s conclusion was that he must be wired differently from most and she might be on to something. And it’s evidently something that Iain himself has given some thought to:
"I know it sounds like the exact opposite advice that everyone always says about how you need to talk to about your problems and I hate that. I don’t think that one works quite well for me because, while I’m not, evidently, I’m not afraid to talk about the problems that are in my life, I still don’t think that the conversations themselves help with my happiness because I feel that I’m very susceptible to the environment that I’m in."
Does he fear death?
"No, it’s just lights off for me. I don’t think that there is anything to fear when it’s just sort of like a sleep that goes on forever except you’re not dreaming. I think that there’s nothing bad nor good from that."
Iain is raising money for cancer research and he wants to break the world record for the most amount of money ever raised for charity by running a marathon. He wants followers and donors, both corporate and individual. He’s a force of nature and his full conversation with Kathryn is well worth your time. You can find it here.
Iain can be found on social media with the username King of Chemo and his website is curecancerordietrying.com.