From the Champs-Élysées to Sheldon, 2015 has been quite a journey.
Paris’ world-famous, tree-lined avenue may have very little in common with the lesser-known Birmingham suburb. The fact I’ve mentioned them in the same sentence could be a first!
But they will forever be twinned in my mind as the scenes of two emotional celebrations that connect Cure Leukaemia’s work.
Before I signed up for what turned out to be an unforgettable project in April, I knew little about how the blood cancer charity gave hope to patients who otherwise would face certain death.
John taking a call from the press during Le Tour - One Day Ahead
My voyage – actually, ride would be more accurate – of discovery began when I started working with blood cancer survivor and Cure Leukaemia Patron Geoff Thomas in April.
To celebrate ten years of remission, the ex-England footballer was returning to the Tour de France to cycle this year’s punishing 3,360km route and raise vital funds for the charity he owes his life to. Joining him in riding the 21 stages just a day before the pros were ten amateur cyclists.
My main role was to manage the media interest in ‘Le Tour – One Day Ahead (LTODA)’, which had gone through the roof since Geoff revealed in the Daily Mail (Click for article) he had invited fellow cancer survivor Lance Armstrong to ride stages 13 and 14.
Lance’s return to the French roads on July 16th and 17th made global headlines, but as the Texan stressed at the time, it was Geoff’s fundraising mission that deserved the attention.
John (left) with LTODA rider Simon Gueller
I, for one, found watching them cycle on average 110 miles a day, over all manner of terrains, through everything Mother Nature could throw at them, while burning around 6,000 calories a day, utterly compelling and inspiring.
So it was only fitting, 24 hours before Chris Froome was crowned Tour de France champion a second time, the LTODA peloton was granted special dispensation to cycle triumphantly along the iconic Champs-Élysées before finishing under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
The cyclists’ main motivation for pushing themselves to their physical and mental limits was never far from their thoughts. There were emotional scenes when video messages of support from patients back in the UK were shown on the team bus during the once-in-a-lifetime challenge.
I’m ashamed to admit I’m scared of heights. And at around the same time I was cowering in a support van, petrified by the sheer drops as the riders descended the mighty 2,250km high Col d’Allos on Stage 18, a complete stranger was coming to terms with the worst news of his life back in Brum.
Kings Heath resident James Cunningham had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and given just six weeks to live. The 70-year-old’s only hope was a Cure Leukaemia-funded clinical drugs trial, to be administered by specialist research nurse Donna Walsh.
James Cunningham (left) and Donna Walsh (right)
I met James for the first time in September as part of Cure Leukaemia’s Just One More campaign, which aimed to raise, during Blood Cancer Awareness Month, the £40,000 required to fund the life-saving work of ‘another Donna’ for a year, which would give more sufferers access to potentially transformative treatments.
It didn’t take long to work out James was ‘a bit of a character’. No sooner had I got my head round the fact he also went by the name ‘Mick’ than a pal arrived and greeted him: “All right Colin?” Oh, and some friends call him George!
Confused? I was. But there was no mistaking a pledge he made to me: “I’m a fully-signed up member of Cure Leukaemia for life. I want to raise money and help others.”
Although his own survival was far from certain, James was determined to give other blood cancer patients the same hope he’d received.
None of us know how we will react if, god forbid, we’re diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
So having the capacity to think of others while enduring a drugs trial and the accompanying bouts of chemotherapy you can only pray will save your life, well, to me, that’s as selfless as it gets. And it’s a common trait among all the patients I have met.
‘Chemo’s’ appetite-suppressing side-effects were all too apparent when James attended Brummie food god and Cure Leukaemia Trustee Glynn Purnell’s Friday Night Kitchen fundraising event at Villa Park in October.
Former patient Barbara Waller with James at Glynn Purnell's Friday Night Kitchen
As the 400-plus foodies loosened their belts after wolfing down three sumptuous dishes, I insensitively asked James what he thought of the grub. “I’m not very hungry,” he politely replied. “All I can taste and smell is metal. But I did manage half a roast potato!”
A couple of weeks later, I was cooking at home when the phone rang. James had some amazing news: “Simmo, my old china plate, I’m in remission!”
James’ joy was palpable. He isn’t completely out of the woods yet. And he’ll need intermittent bouts of chemo the rest of his life.
But what a difference a few months can make. Or, more accurately, the work of Cure Leukaemia.
In the summer, my first-ever spell in Paris ended with a toast to a superhuman fundraising effort.
Last Friday, I made my way to Sheldon, another place I’d never visited, to raise a glass to one of the lives the LTODA team, and hundreds of other fundraisers within the ‘CL family’, have helped save.
With James being the former backing vocalist and lead guitarist for a reggae band, it was only fitting we toasted him with a glass of Red, Red Wine.
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