My virtual road to recovery
Saturday, 12 December 2020
Last Christmas Richie Sheerin, from Derry, could barely climb the stairs after undergoing his first stem cell transplant in a bid to beat a rare bone marrow cancer. This year he is looking forward to celebrating with his family thanks to medical staff and his own mental medicine, cycling. Now, Richie is inviting you to join him and hundreds of others taking part in a virtual cycle in aid of Friends of the Cancer Centre and the Irish Cancer Society on Sunday 13th December.
Explaining why he is involved in the event, Richie said:
“Cycling is my mental medicine and has helped me through a very difficult journey over the past few years, following my diagnosis with a rare bone marrow cancer called myeloma in March 2018. I am hoping that this Sunday 13th December, people will join me as I want to give something back after everything I have been through. The nurses involved in my care are unbelievable and so I want to help give something back to Friends of the Cancer Centre. I know Covid has really hit their fundraising hard this year, so it makes it more important trying to help them out."
Finding out he had cancer
Richie was a fit and healthy 35 year old who loved cycling, running and being part of his local GAA club before his world was turned upside down. In January 2018 he joined Sean Dolan’s Gaelic Club for some training and after completing multiple fitness tests, thought he had tweaked his right hip. After multiple physiotherapy sessions which did not improve the pain, he went to see his GP who did a routine inflammatory blood test.
Then on 28th March 2018 everything changed, as Richie explains:
"Our son hadn't been well for a couple of days before and my wife Lisa was considering taking him to the doctor for a check-up. Fast forward to that afternoon, my phone went, it was a text. My heart sank, straight away I thought there was something wrong with our boy. I rang my wife right away, she said 'hang up the phone now, it’s about your bloods and the doctor is trying to ring you."
Richie was told they suspected he had myeloma and he needed to go to the North West Cancer Centre the next day to be checked over. From there doctors ordered more blood tests, a bone marrow biopsy, full body x-ray and a full body MRI and a full body PET-CT scan. Tests found he had a solitary plasmacytoma, about the size of a mango, in his iliac crest. It was destroying the bone and all the connective tissue around it. So, he started a five week radiotherapy course in May 2018 which started to ease the pain. But three months later, a PET scan showed the cancer had progressed in several areas, including beside his right kidney and close to his pancreas. In December he received more bad news and in January 2019 he started chemotherapy.
Richie's journey hit another obstacle in the summer of 2019 as the cancer was more aggressive and he decided to look for a specialist to help him fight the disease. He found one at the University College of London who advised him to start an intensive chemotherapy regime of three cycles called RD-PACE, to get the disease under control. Then to have not one, but two stem cell transplants.
His first was in November 2019 and Richie describes how the three weeks in isolation in Belfast was very tough.
" I was allowed visits from my wife and parents but my boy couldn't because of his age and the nature of the ward, that was tough. I was weak as water when I got home and could barely climb the stairs last Christmas without taking a break before the top. My wee boy was three at the time and did not understand and wanted me to throw him onto my shoulders and wrestle."
But Christmas Day 2019 felt like a turning point for Richie and he started to get some energy back and things have got better and better in 2020. PET scans could not detect cancer in his body and his consultant wanted to get the ball rolling on his second stem cell transplant. His younger brother Damian was a match, but due to Covid-19 restrictions, the procedure could not go ahead until August 2020. All four of Richie’s brothers were tested but Damian was the one who came back as a match and Richie describes him as his “life-saver”. He goes on to explain "Sean Dolan's are my initial life-savers, if I had not gone back to the club I would not have hurt my hip and the cancer may not have been detected as quickly, but my brother Damian is my physical life-saver, I now have his immune system, we are two of a one now."
Virtual Road to Recovery
Determined he was not going to feel sorry for himself, Richie choose cycling as his way of getting a physical and mental focus. He renewed his Zwift membership, giving him access to an online cycling programme that allows users to train and compete with users across the world and got involved with a vritual cycling community in Ireland called Team IRL, also helping with their brand and web design. He explains, "I hooked my bike up and I thought I’ll just do 20-30mins and see where I’m at, 53mins later I hopped off the bike invigorated. I had just virtually cycled 36km, 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."
Despite being told his cancer was potentially incurable, Richie says, "The thing that has helped me is I have a four-year-old. When I first looked up myeloma it gave people three to five years, but I want to see him going to school, I want to be a pillar in his life the way my dad has been for me. That is what drove me on.”
Now he is hoping he is on the road to recovery after getting good news from his latest PET scan and this weekend will take part in a virtual cycle, covering 100km to help raise thousands for the charity which was there to support him, Friends of the Cancer Centre. The event starts at 8am on Zwift and all you have to do to register and join in is visit https://teamirlcycling.online/index.php/charity-drive/, make a donation, then choose your distance from 30km to 200km.