The fight of his life

Style Magazine - - Feature - BY LISA MACHIN

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

PHO­TOS: LAURA WAKELAM PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

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