FROM CANCER MAN TO WORLD CHAMPION – A STORY OF INSPIRATION
By Pete Fawbert
I am Sensei Pete Fawbert, a devoted karate-ka and Chief Instructor of the Shindo Wadokai Karate Association, members of TYGA Martial Arts International, based in the U.K. I wanted to share my story of the last year in the hope that readers of World Martial Arts Magazine would find some inspiration to always fight on no matter the adversity.
On September 18th 2016, my life was impacted in a massive way. This is the day I will remember forever in so many different ways – both negative and positive. After 2 weeks of undergoing tests on lumps in my neck, I was diagnosed with severe advanced stages of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Cancer. The cancer was found to be in not only my neck, but my chest, spleen and speedily approaching my groin. I was instantly put on an extremely intense chemotherapy treatment programme and asked to prepare for the worst.
Now, I know that there are many people who have been and still are facing this horrible disease and I am not claiming any praise here, I just want to share my experience in the hope that some people will also find the strength to continue the good fight and beat it.
When the oncologist told me that I had stage 3/4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I didn’t really comprehend what that meant because to be honest, I’d never heard of it. Therefore, I asked her what it was and her reply of ‘Cancer’ cut me so deep that I felt like a sword had chopped me down. I could not believe at the tender age of 33, a healthy man like myself could possibly fall victim to such a disease. The next thought on my mind was obvious – ‘Am I going to die?’ and the very blunt response was…. ‘Yes, if we don’t get treatment started now’.
People will always split into two groups at times like this – fight or flight. As a martial artist, I am trained to defend and self-preserve. I chose to fight and as far as I was concerned, cancer picked the wrong guy to mess with. This is where my cancer fight began.
My oncologist met with me a few days before my treatment was due to start to inform me what I was allowed to do and not do regarding work, karate, sporting hobbies, family life, dining out – in fact, every aspect of my life was on the list. I was also told about the side effects of chemotherapy such as hair loss, severe sickness, sleep deprivation, impotence and infertility – quite a lot to take in really.
Surprisingly, I took all of this relatively well as I am the type of person that just thinks about getting his head down and cracking on. The hard part was breaking the news to my family and friends. I could never find the right words as the tears would get to me before the words would come out. Once everything was out in the open, everyone around me was offering his or her love, support and ‘Can we do anything?’ questions as well as ‘Stay positive’ statements. This was great as I felt I had a lot to be thankful for but to be honest, it really, really annoyed me. I did not want a fuss, I did not want sympathy and I really did not want empathy. I wanted normality. I did not want to make changes in my life because of cancer. It was not going to control me. I was going to own it. So, I forced myself, family and friends to treat me the same as always and I gave them a firm telling off if I felt that they were being different with me in any way.
I listened to the advice of stopping work but totally ignored the advice of stopping my karate teaching, training and competing. Nothing in the world will ever tear me away from my life passion and there was no way cancer was going to try. I trained and taught 4-5 times a week and competed at least once a month. I wanted to prove that there are healing properties in what we give our lives to in devotion and dedication.
At this point, I want to say that I chose a way of dealing with my cancer, others will choose differently and that is perfect, whatever works is best. I decided that in order to fight something like cancer, you have to treat it like a bully –get on with your business until you are ready to deliver the knockout blow. I just delivered a knockout blow to it every day.
Karate played the biggest role in overcoming my cancer. Teaching my classes gave me strength to train, training as often as I could gave me strength to compete and competing empowered me with the belief I could win any battle I had to face. I think the irony of having cancer is that it’s not the illness that makes you feel awful, it’s the chemotherapy treatment that causes the effects of terrible illness. You end up feeling as if the daily battles against the side effects of chemotherapy are the ones you need to win in order to win the war against cancer. This drive to fight has ultimately led me to the most successful martial art year of my life in the midst of everything proving that no matter what adversity comes your way, you can still achieve your dreams, your goals and your aspirations.
In November 2016, just 2 days after my first chemotherapy treatment, I was on the mats competing in the London Open World Championships at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. I won 2 Golds, 1 Silver and a Bronze across kata, kumite, weapons and team kata categories. This was all the proof I needed that I was right and my oncologist was wrong.
On the back of this, I organised a big charity event – the Karate 4K Challenge – to raise vital funds for McMillan Cancer Support because of all the psychological and emotional support they were giving me at the time. Over 150 karate practitioners turned up from all over the UK to do 4000 techniques in a 2-hour period. We had demonstrations from World Renowned martial artists. Grandmaster Gary Wasniewski and his right hand man Master Tony Leslie ran a short seminar consisting of realistic street self-defence as well as performing kata. Master Ian Bishop stunned the crowd with his demonstration of the ‘one inch punch’ and his world record number of punches in 1 second and Sensei Phill Sedgemond broke 100 tiles with his hands and forehead. Altogether, we raised close to £10,000.
The next three treatments were very rough though and I struggled. I was violently sick in the ward (nicknamed by me as ‘cancer corner’), I was in constant pain as I could literally feel the poisonous treatment coursing through my veins and it felt like knives were cutting me from the inside. Still, this did not deter me from getting down to the dojo to teach every class and train a bit afterwards. I felt physically woeful but always improved a little when I trained.
Christmas came in a flash and I was not allowed to spend it with some family members as they were ill and my risk of infection was significantly high. This nearly broke me. To be told that you cannot be around loved ones at a time when you want to be the most is brutal. ‘Never mind’ is what I told myself and ‘it could be a lot worse’ I repeated to myself as I tried to mentally make the most of Christmas before it was time for treatment number 4…..another 4 hour session of intense pain. My family and friends were brilliant through this particularly tough time as they just made sure my spirit wasn’t crushed and did the little things that made the biggest difference, like telling inappropriate jokes, cooking me dinner when I didn’t have the strength to do it myself and taking out the trash.
As Christmas passed, January arrived and winter settled, I was half way into my six-month treatment plan. I was due a scan to determine how effective the treatment was – the results of which were due on my birthday. I went to see my oncologist a few days before and it was here I faced the harsh reality of what cancer can do. She told me that until the scan results, there is no way of telling if the treatment plan is actually working so it would be wise to plan ahead for the worst – “get your things in order” were the words that were most chilling. So for the next 8 days after I had the scan and awaited results, I was forced to write my will and organise my own funeral. This was the most surreal experience. Here I was, a 33-year-old man, making decisions for the end of my life in case the only treatment they had did not work. I decided to keep this from all my family and friends; after all, it was bad enough telling them I had cancer in the first place.
It was this point where I had the most life affirming, inspiring and amazing conversation. My Instructor, mentor and friend – Grandmaster Gary Wasniewski regularly helped me utilise the inner strength I had from Karate training and in my hour of need, there he was again, as if he knew I needed him, as if he somehow had a message to talk to me and help me out. We spent hours talking and his reassurance, advice and support will always be the point where I no longer hoped to get better, it is the point where I knew I was going to win. This marked the beginning of a phenomenal martial art year.
I began to train for about an hour a day, which was so hard to do. I felt so ill and low on energy so often that it was near on impossible to get out of bed but this was what I needed to do to fight. So every day, I mustered the inner strength to train and teach karate because I believed it would be my salvation.
My birthday arrived, the scan results came in and the results were unbelievable, so much so, that my oncologist had them triple checked. In just over 2 months, my cancer had reduced in intensity by 80% and the lumps in my neck, chest and spleen had reduced in size by up to 40%. I was winning!!
With things going so well, I decided to train more, teach more as well as enter more tournaments just to prove that nothing should stop you doing the things that matter most to you. Adversity is there in so many different ways during our lives and whatever your own personal adversity, just remember, ‘Head up, Fight on and Keep Winning’.
In February, just days after chemotherapy again, I competed at the WKS European Championships. All I wanted to achieve was to perform both my individual kata and weapons kata to the best of my ability given the physical state I was in, caused me to be far from my peak. I was obviously overwhelmed when I achieved bronze in both categories. I was even more overwhelmed when the tournament director honoured me with the tournament Grand Champion award for, in his words, epitomising what martial arts is all about.
It didn’t stop there either; March saw the arrival of the World Martial Arts Games qualifier for the National Martial Arts Committee Team GB squad. Qualification would mean a trip to Florida and the opportunity to represent my nation so obviously, I entered. I remember having chemotherapy on the Thursday afternoon, which caused me to have an extremely restless night. I woke up early Friday morning and against the wishes of my family, drove for 5 hours to the north of England. Luckily, I had family close to the tournament, which I could stay with. The qualifiers started early Saturday morning and as I was not allowed to fight, I was restricted to kata and weapons divisions. I honestly desired a podium placement in order to earn a qualification letter but as long as I got onto the mats and performed the best I could, I would consider that a success. Individually, my kata performance was good and I rightfully earned 5th place. The same thing happened in the team kata where I felt I let my teammate down, he was on fire but my tiredness and lack of strength stopped us from gaining a podium. This left just one more division – weapons kata. I gave it everything I had and in a strong division boasting reigning English and British weapons champions, I earned the last podium spot and a qualification letter to Team GB and the World Games to be held in Florida in September. Delighted is an understatement on how I felt. I cried tears of joy because never in my wildest dreams did I expect this to happen.
Time was passing so quickly now that I was concentrating my mind on such positivity in my life – daily training, teaching, regular competitions, spending time with family and friends. I disassociated myself with things I thought to be irrelevant and not important and concentrated on the things that matter to me most – love and happiness – and great things kept happening.
In April, I earned the runner up award for Overcoming Adversity at the Warriors Assemble ‘Martial Art Spirit’ awards hosted by well-known UK based martial artist Anthony Pillage.
Still going through the relentless treatment, I fought on with the desire to achieve more. In May, I became the Kent Open Kata Champion and was honoured by the tournament director, Gary Adams, by being awarded the Competitor of the day award.
In just 3 months since being in a place of despair, I was achieving so much and being recognised by my peers, which meant so much to me. To think that others respected me that much to feel the need to honour me in such ways, I feel truly blessed and deeply humbled.
Things got even better in June when GM Gary Wasniewski, UK Ambassador of the World Grandmaster Council and head of the London International Martial Arts Hall of Fame, asked me to run a seminar at the event to display my development of defence against sexual predators. I was so honoured by GM Gary’s invitation. I was even more grateful to him because it led to masters from different martial arts asking if I would visit their clubs to run a seminar covering in detail the techniques that they had seen me demonstrate. GM Gary also saw fit to award me with the highly esteemed ‘Humanitarian Award’ for the charity work I did early in my cancer journey.
A few weeks after this event, the final scan was due following the end of my intense chemotherapy treatment plan. My oncologist told me not to build up too much hope but that was like telling a child not to eat the sweets on the table. I could barely contain my hope of what news the scan would bring because having battled it for nearly 8 months, I knew my inner martial art strength along with all the help and support from family and friends had defeated it. I went back to work for the final part of the academic year and 2 days in, my oncologist rang me and told me the results of my scan;
“Mr Fawbert, the scan results are in and I am delighted to report that there is no sign of the cancer at all in your entire body!”
I was in my school staffroom at the time; I dropped to my knees and cried tears of joy and relief for the best part of an hour. My life was saved. I had been granted another chance and my vow there and then was to make the most of life and live it for the real purpose – Love, Peace and Happiness for others and oneself.
The year wasn’t quite done with me yet, I still had the World Martial Art Games to compete at in Florida. I went with a revitalised spring in my step and competed with the mind-set that I will just enjoy the experience, make new friends and perform with pride, because in my eyes, I was just fortunate enough to be alive to be there.
Well…….I didn’t just compete, I achieved so much more. That week in September, I became a WMAG Triple World Champion in Soft style Kata, Kumite and Full-Contact Continous Sparring whilst also earning a silver in team kumite, a bronze in weapons and a bronze in Hard style Kata.
What a year! What an emotional and psychological roller coaster! Cancer sufferer to World Titles in just a year!
All I can say is that if you have trials and tribulations or what appears to be a tough adversary, get your head up, look at it square in the face and fight. Give it the deadly martial art blow it deserves. You can achieve everything you want no matter what dares to stand in your way. After all, I did it and it worked.
My story is dedicated to the nurses of the NHS Yeovil Hospital who are the real heroes. They saved my life and I am eternally grateful.
Sensei Pete Fawbert