It’s June 2017, I’m just about to be given the worst news imaginable, except it’s not the worst news imaginable.
It won’t even alter my heartbeat, I will barely recognise the implications, it means nothing and doesn’t matter, ‘Efrem, I’m afraid I have bad news, the biopsy has confirmed that you have Prostate Cancer’ or words to that effect. Sharon’s crying, first thing is to get a bone scan, to check it hasn’t spread, luckily it hadn’t. The doctors help me make my decision to remove my prostate as quickly as possible.
Let’s rewind, to May 2016, I’m in Ecuador filming SAS Who Dares Wins (series 2), and I’m having a few health issues. I’ve noticed my stamina has dropped in the last two years, but that’s understandable, we’ve been through the mill recently. It’s an environment where any deficiency in your armour shows quickly, and I’m struggling. Added to that I’ve ‘pissed myself’ 3-4 times, that’s never happened to me before. It started the first time we had to work hard and it’s happened regularly since, including in the water, and you really don’t want that to happen here, they have Candiru fish (google it). I’ve been to see Sundeep (the doctor) he tested me for a urine infection and suggested I see my doctor when I get back for a PSA test. So when I got back that’s what I did, and after 12 months of invasive tests, they finally found it. Going on SAS WDW unquestionably saved my life.
So why did I go on SAS WDW? The answer is I don’t really know. I’m going to rewind again, back to 14th October 2013. This is the day before our lives changed forever. My son James (Jay) has deployed to Afghanistan for his second tour, this time as part of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) with 14 Signal Regiment as a LEWT operator. He’s part of a close-knit, small specialist team, and excited to be in theatre. On that evening, his girlfriend had come over for dinner, we had a nice uneventful evening. The following day (October 15th) was very different. In what was the middle of the night in the UK, Jay had deployed into Kakaran as a result of intelligence in order to stop a planned attack during Eid. During that operation they had become dangerously exposed and needed to extract quickly, during that process Jay was shot and killed. At the time he had stayed back to provide covering fire whilst the others were able to make their exit. His acts of incredible bravery cost him his life on that day and he was rightly Mentioned in Despatches 6 months later, he would have been incredibly proud, as we were to collect the award on his behalf
I thought I would feel something, I’d get some sort of a sixth sense, but I didn’t. I was at the gym when my daughter called me to say the Army were at home, and they needed to speak to me, they wouldn’t say anymore. I recall the drive back, I had that taste in my mouth, every sense was tingling, surely nothing has happened to Jay, he’s one of the strongest, fastest, most proficient men I’ve ever seen. He excelled at everything he tried. No, he’ll be fine, perhaps he’s been injured, perhaps he’s coming back with one of his colleagues………. All that changed the minute I walked in the door.
Life unravelled, effectively we were destroyed. There was no relief, nothing, literally nothing. We stumbled through the full catalogue of emotions, dealing with the repatriation, legal requirements, funeral and the interest of the public at large. That 4 week period was, and still remains a blur, it was just a matter of trying to survive, sometimes for a day, sometimes an hour, sometimes just a moment, we dealt with everything with utter dignity, and tried to keep everything in keeping with James and how he would have wanted things. The process was never ending.
Let me step back from this and explain to you about my relationship with James. We were close, really close. I LOVE my children, they mean EVERYTHING to me, without them and my wife, I am nothing. I was 18 when James was born, he changed my life, not overnight, but every day for the remainder of his life, he helped me improve myself, he gave me purpose, focus, responsibility and most of all his complete love and trust, it is the same with my daughter who is 2 years younger. James always excelled, particularly with sport, he was a natural. As well as his physical ability he also had incredible morals, he would stand up for the underdog if it was the right thing to do, even though this would put him against the crowd, he had natural courage and leadership in everything that he did “So very intelligent and compassionate, he was the one others turned to for advice. When he spoke the others would fall silent and listen. He was never afraid to speak out against popular opinion in defence of the underdog, His was a future filled with adventure, fun and happiness. He had the determination and self-belief to do well at anything he turned his hand and boundless enthusiasm to. James was and still is an inspiration to all the soldiers who worked with him. He was just that bit faster, that bit smarter, and that little bit better than the others, and they knew it and looked up to him because of it” Major Kelly Burnham OC 236 Signal Squadron.
So why did I apply for SAS WDW, the answer is it just felt right. I watched the first series and enjoyed it, much of it was filmed close to where Jay was based, so it felt like a good fit. I wanted to try and experience some of the things he may have experienced, the uncertainty, the camaraderie, all of these things drew me towards it. Most importantly, I firmly believe somehow James made sure I succeeded with my application, and so saved me from the cancer. Survival was the only thing we concentrated on for many months, even years after we lost Jay. Over time and with the progress of various events we were able to rebalance our lives and try and continue.
Part of the process that helped me was to try not to think too much. Don’t think into the future on the basis of our loss, live like a dog and deal only with what is in front of you. I have experienced two life changing events over the last few years and these experiences have changed me. Previous ambitions are gone, each of us has changed jobs, we have moved home, made and lost friends and family, in truth we have two different lives. The old life which seems so long ago with James as part of it, and now this new life where everything is different. We now see that we can still have a good life, granted it will never be the same, but we are determined to make the most of what we can and the experiences that come our way. From a personal perspective being involved with StrongMen with Dan Cross and Ollie Ollerton has been great, for Dan and I to be able to pass on our experiences and help provide a support group to empower other men in similar positions is priceless and incredibly cathartic. I have no doubt that StrongMen will go from strength to strength, helping improving the physical and mental health of people who need it more than most and have very few options. It took me 18 months to get over my surgery, I pushed too hard too early and it bit me, but I’m pleased that after nearly 2 years in remission I am feeling fit and strong again, Recently I decided to leave my employment in the search of something more fulfilling, somewhere where I can have an impact, this was a huge leap of faith, but ultimately I had no choice and am excited to see where the future takes me.
At the start of this I mentioned that I had no feelings regarding my cancer diagnosis, and the truth is stark, it’s not that I wanted to die, but I also wasn’t concerned if I did, the peace that death offered actually seemed appealing sometimes. Over the past two years things have changed, I’ve made changes in my life and I’ve addressed my own mental and physical health in my own way, it wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. I have always considered myself mentally resilient and let me assure you that it has been tested, really tested. Some of the hardest battles were unexpected, I won’t elaborate on these now, that’s for another day.
Often when things get difficult I’ll listen to music, it’s something I’ve always done, I also like to read, particularly poetry and quotes, there is always something that will resonate with how I’m feeling, this one often comes to mind;
“You have a place in my heart no one else ever could have”