By Jake Bailey
Jake Bailey’s powerful valedictory speech as he recovered from cancer made headlines around the world. In this extract from his new book, Bailey reveals the ways in which the disease gave him unexpected gifts.
MAKE THE STATISTICS WORK FOR YOU
My haematologist reckoned there was about a one in three to a one in four chance of the cancer coming back. That sounds like a lot until you flip it around – there’s a 66 to 75 per cent chance that it won’t come back!
Some people find that upsetting, but it’s just what I live with. The knowledge of it makes me much more proactive about looking after myself.
It changes the way I look at life, too. I could be back in hospital in Christchurch having chemo again within days, instead of living the life I want with [girlfriend] Jemima on the Gold Coast. Approaching life like that means I also treat the most important people in my life as well as I can. I spend every day that I get doing exactly what I want and as much of it as I want because I know my days might still be limited.
I’m not prepared to die knowing I’ve done things I didn’t want to do, or that I hadn’t done things I wanted to do. It’s a case of prepare for the worst and hope for the best. By doing that, the cancer doesn’t play on my mind at all. I don’t resent it. It doesn’t make me worry or keep me awake at night. It works as a really awesome motivation to get stuff done and I’m grateful for that.
I don’t see cancer as a thief, I see it as giving me the focus to do the things in life that I want to do.
NOW IS GOOD
People live life with the idea “I don’t need to do it now, I’ve got plenty of time”. Most of the time that’s true – but not always. And now it’s a race for me to see how many people I can move, how many lives I can change, how many cities I can visit, how many flights I can take, how much new ground I can break, and how many things I can do that most 19-year-olds don’t get a chance to do, before I die. Then, when I do die, I’ll die with a legacy, and that gives me peace.
I’ve donated a trophy for gallantry to Christchurch Boy’s High, my winning quote is going up on the wall there; there’ll be people who remember meeting me, there’ll be people who remember listening to my speech. When I die, I’ll know that I’ve given my best shot at leaving the world a slightly better place through my actions. People have told me my words have helped them hang on when they came close to letting go.
Of course, I’d prefer not to die before my time. I’d rather keep doing my thing, and I’d be really sad for my family and for my girlfriend, but my position is that dying is not something for me to worry about. I’m not scared of dying.
Every day that I get is another one longer than I might have had. Every morning when I wake up, I know that I’m on borrowed time. It makes me feel a little insecure and uneasy, but I am so grateful for it.
I know it’s frustrating to the people around me when they get upset about little things and I’m quite blase about it. It’s just that it’s hard for me to get wound up about something that’s not life-or-death. The core of it comes down to the fact that anything this side of death is manageable. It might be difficult, it could be uncomfortable, but it can be dealt with.
LIFE ISN’T GOING TO BE EASY – FOR ANYONE
If life isn’t difficult, then check your pulse, you may be dead already. Everyone I know has their own challenges. Social media and television may fool us into believing that we deserve a perfect life, and that anything less means we’ve been short-changed. That is not the reality. Life has no smooth road for any of us. What matters is our ability to bounce back from adversity – some people are crushed by misfortune, and others grow from it.
Your perception will influence your experience of the inevitable challenges you will have to face.
A phrase my nana, Elaine, imprinted on me was: “Is it as bad as Auschwitz?” Without exception, the answer is always no.
It’s a sobering way to keep things in perspective.
MARK THE MILESTONES
My story is not that I had cancer when I was 18, it’s what I’ve done since. The more people I get to meet and the more of life I see, the less relevant my cancer becomes to my overall story. I know now that I’m not grateful for life just because I nearly died, but because in the process of nearly dying I met people who did die.
I met children who needed three years of chemo.
I met people who had their lives destroyed. I learnt that I wasn’t unlucky to get cancer, I was lucky to not have something worse happen to me.
Whatever you think of Lance Armstrong, the following quote from him really resonated with me: “The truth is cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know why I got the illness but it did wonders for me and I wouldn’t walk away from it. Why would I want to change for even a day the most important and shaping event in my life?”
I completely get that. I wouldn’t change anything that happened to me. It’s nothing to do with the speech or being recognised or any of the things that have come into my path as a result. It’s about what it taught me. What I learned about life, what I learned about death, and what I learned about myself.
Going through a few really terrible months has set me up for the rest of my life, and my mindset is so different to what it would have been otherwise. I’ve sacrificed those three or four months in order to enjoy the rest of my life so much more. But it has completely changed my view of the world for the better and how I live day to day. Before, I was searching for something distant. Now, I’m in the present.
Once I wanted a corporate job in finance. While I still strive for greater things, I don’t want to strive for power or pleasure. I genuinely want to help others overcome their challenges. I have been given an opportunity to turn some of the cancer “mess” into a “message”. A problitunity. I want to make the most of it.
I’m certainly not suggesting I am more selfless or more altruistic than others. I’m not. What I am doing is reciprocal. When people tell me I have helped them find courage or peace I am truly surprised and humbled, but it also gives me a sense of purpose and it gives my life meaning. It helps me carve out that legacy I’m determined to leave behind. Thanks cancer, for these unexpected gifts.
I don’t know where it goes from here for any of us. For you. And sure as hell not for me. But I wish you the very best in your journey, and I thank you for reading about mine.
• Extract reproduced with permission from Jake Bailey: What cancer taught me by Jake Bailey. Published by Penguin NZ, 15 May 2017. RRP $30.