First off, apologies for possibly THE most distasteful Oregon Trail Rally/Oregon Trail Video Game joke/analogy ever conceived. With every tragedy comes opportunity - like making a drawing I could never have gotten away with otherwise.
I was asked to do a story on the Oregon Trail Rally from a co-driver’s perspective, presumably about my first ride in the Nameless Performance Subaru BRZ beast during its 2015 national debut, my reunification with the Rally America national champion/everyone’s favorite American to compete in the WRC, Chris Duplessis, or on my thoughts about my first rally back home in the US after almost 2 years of competing in Europe.
However, this time, my rally story is a about a bit more than just rallying. It’s about what happens when horrifying illnesses, rallying, friends/family, and a horrible sense of humor mixed with an overly analytical mind, all come together. It’s half about life, half about rallying, and half about science/sociology/economics/politics. I know that’s three halves, but it is 50% longer than it needs to be and contains content that debatably, I shouldn’t even go into. Now with that disclaimer, I’ll move on to the story.
On the evening of Tuesday, April 21 2015, less than a day before my departure to the Oregon Trail Rally back in the USA, I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, at a hospital here in London. Currently, it’s a very treatable condition if caught early (like me), with 90% of patients living 5 years or more. Before 2001, however, it was a terminal illness with an average life expectancy around 3-5 years.
In my time between the Circuit of Ireland Rally over Easter weekend and leaving for the Oregon Trail Rally, I had an incidental blood test that showed a high white blood count while all I had was a bit of fatigue and a small cold. I attributed it to standing outside in stereotypical Irish rain without a coat on along with some post-rally blues. My doctor thought differently, and while I fell further and further behind at work spending half of every other day at the hospital for test after test, the possibility that it might be the c-word started to become the probable diagnosis of choice for the doctors I spoke to. I was less than impressed that now, in addition to all of the time already wasted, and my own personal conviction that I probably just needed some time (that now was no longer available) to rest and get better, I would need to get a giant-needle-in-the-back test as well (I believe the medically correct term is “bone marrow sample”). Even more annoying than the grotesque length and girth of that needle, the resulting wound meant that I couldn’t exercise for a whole week. Fortunately, however, the wound in my back would at least be healed enough for me to start Day 1 of the Oregon Trail Rally 8 days later.
(catching some air in the rain at the Circuit of Ireland)
While in the five days between being told I probably have cancer and getting my test results back, I (much to management’s delight) at least managed not to punch any BBC employees in the face. However, it was extraordinarily difficult to focus or to force myself to get anything done at work or for this rally. Also, I needed to wait up until a few hours before departure until I knew what the diagnosis was. Either I’d be making this solo 5,000 mile trip across 8 time-zones greatly relieved, horribly devastated, or even more frighteningly, not at all.
I’d be making the trip horribly devastated.
None the less, I headed off to Heathrow airport feeling as relaxed as one can about the whole thing. While on the train, however, I got a call from the oncology nurse..
“Alex – we got your blood tests from yesterday, and your white blood count has jumped significantly higher. Please take it easy this weekend my love. If it gets too high, you can have blurry vision or pressure around the eyes or feel unwell. PLEASE make sure you take it easy, and go straight to hospital if you feel unwell, ok?”
How am I supposed to take it easy? I’M DOING A FUCKING RALLY..
Due to the slow progression of the disease and how early they caught it, they did give me a bit of an exemption to head to Oregon before beginning treatment. From an academic perspective, the outlook for CML (described above) sounds really good. However, from a personal perspective, you do begin to obsess over that 10% figure of people who don’t make it 5 years or more as well as obsess over the precise meaning of “5 years or more.” The prospect that, not long ago (i.e. before 2001), you’d be just starting your journey to an inevitable, slow, painful death becomes all too real, to the point where you slip into believing it will be your experience; and your own psyche sinks into a place where you almost feel it’s your fate
I get my breakfast at Heathrow airport and realize my food is completely tasteless, and it’s not because it’s some shitty, bland, English food. It’s because my mind has suddenly turned to a dark, dark place over a tiny bit of bad news; like maybe this isn’t going so well, maybe you have acute leukemia with how your blood counts are rising, and for one very last time you have taken things too far. Regardless, with 20+ hours of travel still to go, I realize it’s going to be a very long day.
How am I going to manage to compete at all with these horrific thoughts and feelings buzzing around my head?
At 28 years old and just a few hours into my diagnosis, I’m still fairly new to this cancer thing. However, all the encouragement I know like “think positive and you’ll beat it” and “you’re a strong person so you’ll conquer it” just remind me all too much of yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets and cheering “Go Get Em Lance!” I’m just entirely too skeptical, or maybe just entirely too cynical, of a person to believe those sorts of things unfortunately. Simply trying not to think bad things seems like a recipe for disaster when bad things actually happen, and you need to deal with it. After all, there’s so many people that do not “beat” cancer, and I refuse to believe that my own, or anyone else’s, potential failure to conquer this disease reflects a failure in the person’s character.
If I had to pick one trite motivational poster from back in my school days, it would definitely be “it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it.” While being a positive-thinking fighter may not have any influence on how the tyrosine-kinese inhibitors hopefully limit the production of cancerous cells with the BCR-ABL gene within my bloodstream (more on this in Part 3), I do, however, have control over how I deal with it. With cancer, I think it’s extremely important to understand the realm in which you have control, and then, do the most you can within that realm.
From now on, my focus is NOT going to be about thinking positively, but about thinking constructively.
The hardest part is, as a human being or really any other living being, we all instinctively prioritize prolonging life over anything else, while we really know that it’s the value of experiences - the so-called “quality of life” - that truly matters. While a long life bides you the time to have those experiences, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily will. This particular tragedy really challenged my commitment to my beliefs and values, that the content of my life, the enjoyment of my life, the experiences of my life, are FAR more important than its longevity; and while I’ll do everything within my power to fight this disease tooth and nail, I won’t abstain myself from taking pleasure and joy from my passions and the joys of life, even if I have cancer. If you can do that, if you can really enjoy your life, it’s no tragedy, but if you spent your last few years in agony when you had the opportunity to enjoy it, that is the biggest tragedy.
I think that I’ve always more or less thought this way about life, like many of us do that participate in rallying or any other sport with a plausible chance of serious injury or death yet continually consent to doing it anyway. The challenge, of course, is to reorient yourself not just to thinking this way, but to feeling this way as well, especially when you feel you no longer have control over whether or not you live or die.
At times, you almost feel like, if people see how happy I am when I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, they’ll think I REALLY fell off the deep end, like I’m so far in denial that I’m deluding myself out of my own condition. And who can blame them? If you had to pick from a population of stereotypically bad days from a hat, “I have cancer” is pretty much the worst one in said hat (if people were so insensitive to put something like that in the hat in the first place). No - I’m not happy I have cancer; I just overwhelmingly appreciate the shit out of my life right now, for everyone who has ever been a part of it, for any crazy experience I have from it, for the ridiculous life that I still continue to live right now. It’s all filled with such great stuff I wish I could share with you all, and now I’m just focused on that. Like I’m counting down to start a stage and my whole self is fixated on the task ahead. Focus. I’m completely focused on my own enjoyment, happiness, and fulfillment, and well, when you devote all your energy to something, it has a pretty big impact on how much it progresses. I’m not telling myself I’m happy; I’m just prioritizing my happiness.
Sitting in that plane, I realize how extremely fortunate am I to have the opportunity before I embark on any treatment (that could make me feel a multitude of ways), to participate in unquestionably my life-long passion, within the rally community from which I was raised, with the driver and team where my life-long dream came true of competing in the WRC in Finland. Rallying is an absolute passion of mine, and heading into this event, I have no idea when I’ll get to compete again, or if I’ll get to compete again, but this weekend, for at least one more time, I’ll get to do it. Not only will I get to do it, but I’ll get to race with my one of my favorite drivers, back home, in one of the most insane cars ever built to go down a rally stage, the Nameless Performance Toyobaru. I’m so happy to have the opportunity to do what I love most at least one more time, as well as the opportunity to do it the best I possibly can, while I still feel relatively well. Anyway, I’m no stranger to competing in rallies in a dilapidated state. At least this time it’s not as comically obvious (see picture above) or because of my own idiocy as before.
It’s so crazy to think that I could go from deepest and darkest places of the human psyche, all the way to euphoric happiness, while sitting quietly in seat 31A on my trans-Atlantic flight. I now have my first taste for the psychological battle this disease brings upon people, and to the extremes your mind can go, even when symptoms are barely present.
When I arrived in Portland at 10pm, I felt like I had more energy than I’ve had for the past month with this stress and disease. I literally could not wait to start recce at 6am despite the jet-lag and the implications it would have on the few precious hours of sleep I might get that evening. I might have been the happiest person within 36 hours of a leukemia diagnosis in, well..the history of leukemia diagnoses.
I also made the decision not to tell anyone until the rally was over. I didn’t want that distraction looming over anyone else’s head in a sport where you must concentrate so much for so long. I also wanted my own break, to enjoy and to focus on this rally, as much as humanly possible before returning to the reality of treatment.
...read on below for Part 2 - where I actually do a rally and take a break from all this cancer business.