The fight of his life
When Style readers first met Stephen Wakelam, it was as our very first ‘bachelor’ in our November 2012 edition.
It has been an incredible journey for Steve since Style last chatted to this strong and positive individual; a journey Style feels our readers should all hear.
Steve lived in Toowoomba for one and a half years, working as a trainer at his own health and fitness studio Metabolic Precision.
Many members of his studio would remember the high standards he set for them, not content until they had given 100 per cent and left with heightened awareness of muscles they didn’t previously realise existed.
“In Toowoomba I had a lot of people training with me, I guess cause my philosophy is different, I’m not about just smashing people with exercise, I’m about getting the principles right,” he says.
“I love seeing the changes in people and the transformation process that people go through, not just physically, but in all aspects of their life.”
Steve was the epitome of fitness, living what he preached in both nutrition and exercise and — in what would turn out to be the most important characteristic of all — a disciplined, positive outlook on life which was to be strenuously tested.
Steve’s sickness struck him in his prime and from completely left-of-field.
Enjoying a salt-drenched surf trip to Samoa he came down with intense fevers and returned to Australia with severe stomach pain.
Assuming it was a travel bug, it was not until local podiatrist and friend Tony Parsons took him to hospital that the truth of what had Steve in its grips began to surface.
Many hospital and specialist visits later Steve sat still as the reality of his diagnosis sunk in: Non-hodgkin T-cell lymphoma, a form of cancer.
Lymphoma affects the immune system, particularly the lymph nodes, and can enter bone marrow and attack the white blood cells also. It was a shocking thing to hear. T-cells mount the immune response, part of the body’s guardians, but when they are affected by cancer they start mounting a response to nothing in particular and begin to attack the body itself through inflammation, fever and other symptoms.
Lymphoma also means the cells lose the ability to properly fight infection, which makes sufferers terribly susceptible to normally non-threatening ailments.
“My original diagnosis was B-cell lymphoma (the better one to get), but when I was re-diagnosed they told me it was a pretty bad one, T-cell,” Steve says.
“I never really though ‘this is going to take me out’, I just thought this is life changing and this is going to be a huge journey that I am on now. “I never thought I was going to die from it.” The effects were swift, with Steve’s sculpted physique dropping an astounding 20kgs in just a few weeks. “It absolutely wiped me,” he says. “I had no energy, I couldn’t even walk. “Getting strength back into my legs to even stand up and walk took me a long time.”
He remembers the first two and a half weeks in Toowoomba
Hospital as a blur, due to heavy medication.
A stint in hospital in Brisbane was followed by a move to Melbourne for continued medical treatment.
Steve was prescribed a rigorous chemotherapy schedule; one week in hospital every three weeks…for six months.
Not what a young, fit male wants to spend his days doing, however instead of letting bitterness and frustration compound the issue, Steve’s mindset and mental discipline came to the forefront.
“I guess my mindset was I really took the approach that I am the one responsible here and I am the one who has to do something here,” Steve says.
“You can probably imagine how hard it was trying to get out of bed early in the morning anyway, let alone getting up to train and go through chemo.
“Having the training and nutrition background it was easier for me to do that.” Easier perhaps, but extremely difficult, a certainty. Steve formulated a two-stage approach to battle his illness. The nutrition approach focussed on consuming extremely high-energy foods to combat the physical draining that coincides with chemotherapy.
The second was a physical counterattack, with Steve starting light training as soon as he was released from hospital (though still while undergoing chemotherapy).
“The doctors told me don’t lift anything heavy, don’t put stress on your body. “But I did just did enough to keep a bit of strength in my body.” This regime took him up to Christmas of that year. “I’m pretty determined by nature and I was determined to do whatever it took,” Steve says.
“I had a lot of good people around me who I could get advice from.
“Through my life I have worked hard on certain habits and disciplines and when this happened that was really put to the test.”
Doctors were genuinely surprised by his physical state each time Steve returned to hospital for his next chemotherapy treatment.
“Each time I’d come back looking better and each time they were surprised.”
“Chemo builds up in your system so as you go through the rounds you should be looking worse each time.”
It was a remarkable achievement of both mental willpower and physical determination, but the road was long from over for Steve, and it was pointed uphill.
After three months with no chemotherapy he was doing great and continued training with some good mates in his local gym in Melbourne.
“I’d walk up the stairs to the top of the gym, and have a rest at the top of the stairs,” he says.
“I wasn’t always positive but focussing on the fact this was my responsibility to get better and keeping that mindset is what got me through that.”
He then underwent the second major treatment; stem cell transplants, which knocked off another hard-earned 10kgs from his frame. “That took me out for another few months.” “When I lost all that muscle so fast, the doc said that process of muscle deterioration will continue through treatment.”
Steve proved that he wasn’t just your average patient however, and continued to put in the gruelling hours of self-work.
“Because I had focussed on building my muscle back, that helped get strength into my immune system so I didn’t have any complications after the transplant,” he says.
Steve’s is a story that puts our own lives firmly back into perspective.
Next time you are struggling to hop out of bed for that morning boot camp, think of this determined young man and find the motivation.
Now living in Melbourne’s St Kilda and working again in his passion — as a personal trainer — Steve has some advice for anyone who has hit rocky shores.
“Realise that being positive in those tough times is actually a skill to learn and it’s something that takes a lot of practise,” he says.
“I was constantly working on that every day to stay positive during those times.
“But also take that responsibility to do what you can, not just sit back and rely on everyone else to fix you.”
I never thought I was going to die from it.
Well known in Toowoomba for helping people reach their fitness goals, Steve was in for his greatest challenge yet