In the first of Richie's two-part series, he tells his tale of bloods, resetting expectations, and never losing sight of the big picture.
As told by Richie Sheerin, himself!
March 28th, 2018
Was supposed to be a happy date. Nine years before I met my lovely now wife Lisa, it was the date.
“ Answer your phone quick, something about bloods… ” That was the text I received from my wife.
Let’s rewind a bit. During the past 18 months, I ran two half marathons and multiple 5km races. I had found my love for cycling around ten years previously, but our boy Aedan was born in 2016, and I found it hard to find the time for cycling, so running was less time-consuming.
Break 19.5 mins in a 5km.
Complete the Derry Waterside half marathon.
I got chatting to old Gaelic football friends, and they talked me into coming back to Sean Dolan’s Gaelic Club (Lifesavers – literally).
My 1st day back up at the club in many years, familiar faces (older somewhat) everywhere, and the craic was mighty. We did multiple fitness tests, and on the last sprint test, I tweaked my right hip.
As the days and weeks went on, my hip progressively got worse.
I started physio, now coughing and sneezing started becoming painful. I booked a Doctor’s appointment about a hernia, and he found nothing, so my GP ordered a routine inflammatory blood test.
Now back to Tuesday 28th March, just a regular morning. Our boy hadn’t been well for a couple of days before, and my wife Lisa was considering taking him to the doctors for a check-up.
Fast forward to the afternoon, beep beep my phone went, it was that text. My heart sank. Straight away, I thought there was something wrong with our boy, and Lisa had taken him to the doctor. I rang her right away, and she said, “hang up the phone now, it’s about your bloods, and the doctor is trying to ring you.”
Once I hung up, my phone rang again. I answered, “Mr. Sheerin, can you talk?” I said, yes, what is it? “The hospital just rang about your blood test, and they need you over in the North West Cancer Centre tomorrow morning first thing. They suspect you have Myeloma, Mr. Sheerin…?”.
Yes, okay, and I hung up the phone. I went to my desk, brought up Google, and typed in Myeloma. Incurable Bone Marrow Cancer popped up. SHIT!
At this stage, I had a solitary Plasmacytoma in my iliac crest measuring 11x9x11cm. It was destroying the bone and all the connective tissue around it. No wonder I was in so much pain.
I started five weeks of Radiotherapy. I had no side effects, and within 3-4 weeks, I was walking without a limp and feeling much better.
3 months post-radiotherapy. PET Scan time, then I had my review with my consultant. My wife, parents, and I walked into the room. My consultant didn’t look me in the eye or offer a handshake, and I just knew it wasn’t good.
“So Richie,” the doctor said in a deep, saddened Glaswegian accent, “I’m afraid it’s not great news. Your cancer seems to have progressed. The PET-SCAN shows uptake (areas of cancer – where the scan has detected cells highly active consuming radioactive glucose administered just before the scan) in several places.”
- Uptake to the right of your throat.
- Beside your 5th rib on the left side.
- At the head of your pancreas.
- Besides your right kidney. And,
- Just above your belly button in your abdominal wall.
Again, more bad news. The tumors were now cm’s in size, and I started chemotherapy in January.
Lets Bin 2018 and Go Again in 2019
Let’s meet this head-on. I woke up one morning and thought, “naw stop feeling sorry fir yoursel” (broad Derry accent). I’m not having this. I’m getting fit and strong.
The advice was that you should stay off your bike as you could fall and have severe fractures. My consultant didn’t say anything about cycling indoors. I renewed my Zwift membership and hooked my bike to my smart trainer.
I logged into Zwift and started pedaling. I thought, “I’ll just do 20-30mins and see where I am.” 53mins later, I hop off the bike, invigorated.
I had just virtually cycled 36km. I was absolutely buzzing, and my addiction and love for cycling had returned instantly. I thought to myself, “This is it, this is my “VIRTUAL ROAD TO RECOVERY.”
Two days later, I was racing on Zwift. I never looked back. I raced once a week and did a few easy spins. The mental relief it offered me was incredible. I loved being on the bike and being competitive.
Started six months of Chemotherapy with a planned Stem Cell Transplant in the Summer.
The halfway point of the chemo, tumors were shrinking, and one had disappeared completely. I was also feeling great in my body and mind.
I started gaining weight and gaining it fast (76 to 96kgs) with the steroid treatment.
Walking CRUK relay for Life with my Sean Dolan and my ex-teammates.
I got a pain in my chest similar to the one I had in my hip. “Oh no!” I had a PET scan. Chemotherapy had failed, and cancer was more aggressive.
The doctors canceled my Stem Cell Transplant because my disease was spiraling out of control. Through the power of social media, I found a specialist in London.
I had a consultation with her, and she advised an intensive chemotherapy regime of 3 cycles called RD-PACE to get my disease under control. The doctor ordered not one but two stem cell transplants. The first was using my cells, and once I recover, a donor stem cell transplant to follow.
Started aggressive Chemotherapy (96hr infusion of toxic chemicals x 3), which hospitalized me for three months.
It reminded me how much time this disease robs us. I missed my Son starting Nursery and my birthday.
I received some good news. The Old-School Chemo was working, and the doctor booked a Stem Cell transplant for November.
Nov 2019 - Stem Cell Transplant Month
- Stem Cells Harvested & Frozen.
- An almost lethal dose of Chemotherapy called Melphalan kills your bone marrow.
- Infuse the Stem cells back in.
- Isolation for 2-3weeks. I could have visitors, but I couldn’t see my boy for the entire time I was there. That was so tough mentally. However, we did do video calls (thank god for technology).
- You get very sick before you get better. The Chemotherapy burnt my mouth and throat so bad that I couldn’t even swallow spit, never mind eat or drink.
I felt awful all of November and most of December and couldn’t even climb stairs without stopping every few steps. I lost count of how many times I had blood transfusions and platelet transfusions.
I came home for Christmas, back with my family. Aedan was the reminder I needed that life goes on, and we have to deal with our inner demons and pain away from the innocence of our young.
He just knew Daddy was in the hospital getting better. So when I arrived home in his eyes, I was better. Bedtime routine was throwing him on my shoulders and off upstairs to bed.
I was only home a few days, and he looked at my balding alien featured concave head and said, “Daddy, can I go on your shoulders?” I didn’t even hesitate and threw him up there.
When I climbed the first two stairs, I realized this would take a while. I was so out of breath and had to stop, lower my heart rate and go again. It was like interval training. But I was determined to show Aedan I was better.
Now Lets Bin 2019 and Go Again in 2020
I started the new year the same as 2019, with a positive mental attitude. “Let’s get back on the bike and get my fitness back,” I said to myself. I renewed my Zwift subscription again, and away we went.
PET Scan time to see if Stem Cell Transplant worked. In layman’s terms, they cannot detect cancer in my body from the report. I felt terrific, emancipated from cancer.
Then I was brought down a peg or two. “We need to get the ball rolling on the 2nd transplant,” the doctor advised. “You’ve had such a great response, and now is the time to keep it away.” I planned the treatment for March/April.
The doctors checked my four brothers to see if they matched (25% chance). My middle brother Damian was a match. It was amazing.
COVID = Transplant put on hold. The doctor put me on Oral Chemotherapy and Steroids until it was safe to complete the 2nd Stem Cell transplant.
“Let’s get on with life. I’ll cross the bridge of the 2nd transplant when the date arrives. In the meantime, let’s get back to racing as a top-level B on Zwift, and most importantly, let’s enjoy life with my family and friends.” These were the thoughts that changed my life.
I had convinced a few mates to get Zwift and give me some company on the virtual tarmac. Right away, it hooked them. I had another thought that would change my life, but I didn’t know at the time how much.
“Let’s help grow the virtual cycling community in Ireland,” I said to my mates. The rest is virtual cycling history.
To Be Continued
In the second installment of this incredibly inspiring series, Richie takes you along as he is hit head-on by more cancer bad news and how he uses it to fuel his passion for the virtual cycling community. You won’t want to miss Part Two.
Has virtual cycling impacted you during treatment and recovery from a significant illness or injury? Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclists are interested in learning from your experience.
For more inspiring stories of the extraordinary ordinary individuals of virtual cycling check out the Community page of The ZOM!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site. In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, http://www.TheDIRTDadFund.com. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.