Cancer 4, Me 5 (after extra-time): The cancer survivor who cheated death

Liam Ryan says battle with head and neck cancer made him realise life is a wonderful gift

By his own admission, and indeed the admission of the many consultants, surgeons and medical experts that crossed his path, Liam Ryan should not be sitting across the table from me.

Then again, he makes the point that he probably shouldn't be eating the decadent fruit scone that sits in front of him, but just because you're not supposed to do something doesn't mean you can't do it. In Liam's case, that something was survival, because, as he states starkly on his website, "he should have died, many times, in 2002. In fact, there appears to be no logical reason why he did not."

From a diagnostic perspective, there also appears to be no logical reason why he was befallen with one of the worst cases of head and neck cancer witnessed by the medical professionals that treated him. Then again, as he explains, with cancer, explanations are almost as rare as the severity of the version which came his way. “Eighty per cent of cancer cases have no trail before them,” he says. “It’s just a predator. Your history doesn’t matter.”

Neither does your persona, or your achievements or level of fame. Cancer doesn’t bow to any patterns or expectations. However, the same can be said for recovery, and in Liam’s eyes, that’s the great attraction of his story – he’s just an ordinary person. Ordinary, that has now been touched by the extraordinary.


This, he maintains, is the key element of his story, particularly when it comes to inspiring others. His ordinariness is the very thing that causes it to strike a resonance with so many, enabling them to access a more realistic type of inspiration that isn’t drawn from some kind of uncatchable aspiration.

He quietly uttered six words that changed the course of my life in a way that would have been inconceivable to me at the time: 'Liam Ryan, this is very serious'

Prior to the recent revelations, Lance Armstrong was one of the best known sources of motivation for cancer sufferers, yet, as Liam points out, Lance spent his days cycling through the French Alps, while he was busy designing rural Irish houses and raising a family. They didn't have an awful lot in common.

"We all know Lance has had his troubles since, but when I was handed his book he had already won the Tour de France seven times in a row, so I couldn't relate to it. My take was – the Tour de France would put most of us in the grave before the tumour did!"

There is no doubt that a brush with death, especially as close as the one Liam experienced, invests a special kind of power in a person. The magnitude of the influence they can deliver is amplified, their words carry with them a life-affirming energy that commands people to listen.

“It just so happened, this amazing story came to me. I like to think we all have a role to leave this world a little better for us being here. We can all leave a positive balance in our life account, depending on the skill set we have. It just so happens this particular skill came to me.”

The fall

15 years on, he can now describe the story as “amazing”, but only from the safeground of hindsight. The reality is that the opening chapters of his journey formed a bleak narrative that had little prospect of a positive ending.

The subtle way in which the illness crept up on him is a lesson on why precaution is always paramount when it comes to an individual’s health. He cites the influence of his wife Pam, as well as his doctor’s precise attention to detail, as the main reasons that his condition was discovered before it was too late. The game was just beginning then, but within the opening minutes he would soon be 0-4 down.

The symptoms didn’t seem overly pernicious – an onset of headaches in April 2002 that continued to persist. A trip to the GP here, a visit to the dentist there, there was still no improvement, so eventually he was sent was sent in to Limerick University Hospital for a standard sinus wash treatment. A very routine procedure for the hospital, no more than a brief interlude from a busy life for Liam.

“So here I was, two nights in hospital, routine procedure. Stack of newspapers I didn’t get a chance to read from the previous week beside me, Toblerones, Walnut Whirls, you name it. It seemed like it was only one notch down from a mini-hotel break.”

Liam's description of the fall from health to illness encapsulates all there is to know about the word "desolation", and it almost has a cinematic feel to it, in the worst possible sense. His consultant, Prof John Fenton, was a man with whom he had been laughing and joking 24 hours earlier. The subject of that day's conversation should only have been the time of his discharge, but it went on to take an entirely different route.

“So here I was, sitting up on the bed, a big smile across my face, I saw him coming down the hallway, and it all just started there. My life, as I had known it, suddenly began to unravel. It was like slow-motion.”

The entourage of young medical students trailing behind him was the final clue to explain the bewilderment that had set over him. Eight years of intensive study but now they were about to learn the grim reality of their profession.

“So he came in, stood, said nothing, walked up over to me, pulled the curtain right around the bed, and leaned right down into me. Then, he quietly uttered six words that changed the course of my life in a way that would have been inconceivable to me at the time.

“Liam Ryan, this is very serious.”

A late winner

And so began one of the most arduous, painstaking, and ultimately incredible stories you’re likely to come across. That statement shouldn’t be read as a publicity endorsement, because, as Liam stresses, that’s not the reason he’s seeking to broadcast his journey.

That journey is captured in his memoir, the title of which, Cancer 4, Me 5, (After Extra-Time), is a creative metaphor that synchronises the story with the man behind it. First and foremost, it's reference to his battle with cancer – the 4 represents the stage 4 tumour in the middle of his head. The 5 describes the 5 years of remission a patient is required to serve out before they are seen to have overcome their particular cancer. And of course the "extra-time" conveys what followed thereafter, namely two bouts of life-threatening meningitis and a contraction of deep-vein thrombosis – all three of which nearly killed him by themselves.

There’s more to it than that though. The sporting narrative is also used as a reflection of his personality, a soccer man with a flair for all games. Having endured a 4-goal deficit in the opening minutes, it would take him all of 5 years to bring things back on level terms. And then came his late winner, that coveted goal scored just on the verge of the penalty shoot-out. It’s a light-hearted slant on a not so light-hearted story.

A decade and a half on from his almost certain departure, Liam remains part of this world and has returned seamlessly to the community that supported him through thick and thin

The book hasn't sold 20 million copies worldwide, or made it to the top of The New York Times bestsellers list, but that was never the aspiration. That said, it has still found its way to most corners of the globe, but does so on a more personal level. "I nearly know everybody who has a copy, or have had contact with them. The book is as personal as I am. It's an extension of me."

In recent times, his reach has focused mainly on the United States, where he has featured on a number of radio stations, and also contributes motivational articles to the "Careers in Government" website, an online platform for all public sector workers in America.

His pieces synthesise the inspirational with the philosophical, all the while retaining a unique personal flair. One of his columns, suggestively titled “Football and Faith”, was written on the eve of the Super Bowl. It epitomises his love for the underdog, in this case illustrated by his devotion to the Cleveland Browns. It draws parallels with deeper spiritual issues, as is reflected in his words.

“Following the Cleveland Browns is a bit like believing in God. It’s not fashionable in many quarters and there are quicker routes to success . . . But that’s not what it’s about. Love of your team. It’s about belief rather than proof.”

Regardless of what beliefs a person holds, it can’t be denied that there’s an unmistakable sense of destiny about Liam’s story. His first consultant, John Fenton, had trained in Liverpool at one of the world’s most recognised centres for the treatment of head and neck cancer. It just so happened that Liverpool was also the city in which Liam studied, and of course the home place of his wife Pam.

The stars were aligned in his favour, but this would have all meant nothing were it not for the outstanding individual and collective effort involved. Both Pam and Liam may be architects by profession, but there were many architects in the story of why he is still here.

Fighting spirit

The motivation Liam is seeking to provide doesn’t just consist of words and personal anecdotes. There’s substance to the advice he gives. One of the most daunting and difficult hurdles on the road to recovery, in the case of any illness, is the challenge of how to preserve your fighting spirit. Daily living can be completely demoralising, and developing coping mechanisms are an integral part of the battle. He was well aware of the need to “stay occupied and keep his head in the right place”, and he attributes part of this mental resolve to the most peculiar of activities.

“The horses. Every day during the rehabilitation period, I did the horses – every race, in every meeting, that was taking place that day. And I’ve never done them since!”

His approach was systematic, his level of engagement measured strategically on his energy levels. He could tailor it to suit himself, some days exhibiting the analytical ability of an Aidan O'Brien or a Willie Mullins horse. And, on other days, when he literally had nothing, he just posed as a novice punter, choosing his horses by randomly sticking pins in the lists of runners.

"What I loved about it was, I could adjust it to suit whatever energy level I had. So if I was having a good day, I could go through them, look at a bit of form, and make an educated selection. If I was feeling poorly I'd just adopt the same system for every race. I might go with all the number 5's in Roscommon, all the second-favourites in Yarmouth, all the horses ridden by Frankie Dettori in Kempton . . . I got hours out of it every day. And that was all purely of my own invention, my mind's way of making sure I was keeping occupied.

“I conceived it myself, and its real importance lay in the fact that it was bringing me back into the real world. Those were real horses, at real race courses, with real jockeys on their backs. It was a technique to keep me engaged that was also reintroducing me to the world outside the hospital ward.”

The reasoning behind his methods is clear – “You have to keep yourself occupied”. Easier said than done when you wake up each morning facing the thought that death may be imminent.

A decade and a half on from his almost certain departure, Liam remains part of this world and has returned seamlessly to the community that supported him through thick and thin. His presence running the roads of Ballina/Killaloe will be eternal, while the mystery of the eyepatch – the only visual legacy of his experiences which is now so synonymous with him – is a source of intrigue for all who cross his path. Cancer is rarely considered in a positive light, but for Liam, it has invoked something that he may never have found had it not struck him. It's a huge statement to make, but there's a palpable sense of honesty in his words.

“Life is a wonderful gift . . . If it has taken cancer for me to fully appreciate that then yes, it is probably one of the best things that ever happened me!”