by Annie Williams
A cancer diagnosis can be crippling and defeating, often bringing with it a sense of hopelessness and lack of motivation. Here is the story of one man who is proving it doesn't have to be like that and instead vows to use his journey to help others alike find strength through fitness.
Being diagnosed with cancer at any stage of life is a terrifying concept, so when healthy, fitness enthusiast Ryan Wetton-Byrne received the news at just 22 years old that his body was battling with Leukemia Cancer, it is safe to say it was something he hadn’t prepared for.
Leukaemia(s) are a category of cancers that affect the blood cells, particularly the white blood cells and bone marrow. These cells often divide too quickly and do not develop properly, compromising the immune system and ability to fight infections.
The most recent figures published by Cancer Research show that between 2015 and 2017, a total of 10,084 new cases of Leukemia were reported in the UK, this was most prominent in those aged between 85 - 89 years old.
Talking to OriGym about how he come to discover he had been secretly battling with Leukemia, Ryan said: “It all started when I was in Australia in 2019. I was out there travelling for a year and had decided to settle down, make a life out there and start working - but shortly after I fell really ill. I spent a good week to ten days feeling unwell and really down. After that, even when I started to come around and feel a little bit better in myself, I just never felt the same.
Ryan during his time in Australia, 2019.
“Because of that I decided I couldn’t stay out there like I had planned to. I knew I wasn't right. I knew I didn’t feel right in my health, so I moved back home towards the end of 2019.”
Fast forward to Christmas 2019 when Ryan returned to his hometown in Nottingham and his health continued to deteriorate.
In hopes that the illness would soon pass, he continued to crawl out of bed each morning, forcing himself to make it into work. He attempted to maintain a gym routine each evening, despite having to stop to be sick after performing just two exercises. His body was severely fatigued, but he kept going.
He explains: “This carried on until around February  time until one day when I was in the Carphone Warehouse. I was sorting out a new phone contract when out of nowhere I had a mini stroke. I managed to get to my car and then after that I passed out for about half an hour.
“Once regaining consciousness I went home and after telling my mum she said it’s time to get checked out now.”
Prior to this, Ryan had been actively avoiding seeking advice from a GP or health professional regarding what he had been experiencing for months. Despite knowing he was out of character, he admits that as time went on and it became more apparent that his symptoms were likely part of a long-term illness, he was scared about the potential result.
“I just kept thinking it would pass. It will pass” he said.
Adding: “I would still be having some good days; I’d wake up and I would feel alright so I wouldn’t think about it. But then a majority of the time I was really bad.
“I knew things weren’t right, but I never thought in a million years it could be cancer.”
When Ryan arrived at his local walk-in A&E that night [February 2020], he was soon passed to and from doctors and specialists until by the end of the night he had been transferred to three different hospitals between Nottingham, Mansfield and Newark.
With each facility came more blood tests, and by morning Ryan had been diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS Leukemia).
Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are a type of rare blood cancer where the body doesn’t have enough healthy blood cells - it is also known as myelodysplasia.
When asked how he felt upon receiving the news, he responded: “Emotionless.
“For five minutes I didn’t feel anything really. Then of course a sense of shock, but being honest, up until that moment I hadn’t had a very straight run in life mentally anyway, so I guess I just thought ‘Here we go again, just my luck’.”
The next four months saw Ryan undergo a total of: three rounds of chemotherapy, radiation treatment and a stem cell transplant.
Ryan during the time he was undergoing chemotherapy.
Discussing with OriGym about the process, he said: “The first round [of chemotherapy] wasn’t too bad; the second is where my hair began falling out and the colour of my skin started discolouring, turning yellow - you no longer look natural and that’s when it really started sinking in mentally.
“The third one… it's like you see in films. You never think it could actually be like that but it is. You turn into a zombie in bed. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Ryan talks about how the radiation would attack his body; how following the treatment he would feel it in every joint and limb within his body - however, confesses the stem cell transplant was the worst experience of it all.
During this time, Ryan experienced a number of uncomfortable procedures and medical treatments, including: being fed through a drip for a four-week period, relying on two morphine pumps for a total of five weeks to combat the severe pain and on top of that, he was prescribed a substantial amount of medication.
Prior to Ryan’s diagnosis, he had possessed a strong interest in fitness since his teen years: “Growing up I was very, very overweight. Obese. At 15 years of age I was a size 42 waist - and for the small lad I am, it wasn’t good!
“So as soon as I passed my driving test at 17 and could own a car, I joined the local gym and that’s where I got into fitness. A bit fitness mad really. I started gaining an interest in health and I became really passionate about the gym and improving my fitness. “
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However, this obviously became affected both in the run up to finding out he was battling with Leukemia and throughout his treatment. In addition to the aforementioned sickness he would encounter during exercise, Ryan found that his heart would start racing during his sessions, so much so he would be incapable of continuing.
He later found out this was just one of the many side effects he has been experiencing brought on by the fact his body was carrying just 48% of the blood a healthy body needs to function properly. This was also the predominant factor that provoked the mild stroke Ryan encountered the day he visited the hospital. As a result of this, Ryan underwent a number of transfusions that saw approximately 20 bags of blood pumped through his body.
While low blood counts are a very common side effect of cancer treatments and chemotherapy, to discover his body had a count of just over half the amount necessary prior to treatments was a worrying factor, and one that put his life at a serious risk.
Ryan during the time of chemotherapy.
While the symptoms of this included dramatic weight loss, the inability to keep weight on his body and a continued drop in energy levels, Ryan did not allow that to stop his training. He states that without working out, he would have found it much easier to give up on his fight and was the main source of what enabled him to keep strong, both physically and mentally, for so long.
The Nottingham lad’s struggle in life, however, did not begin with cancer. In addition to his fight with Leukemia, Ryan has also battled with another illness since his early teens; mental health.
He told OriGym that since the age of 12, he has seen himself dealing with both severe depression and a presence of suicidal thoughts.
“I’ve had a rough time with my mental health for as long as I can remember and I’ve always struggled with my depression. I’ve had many stints of being suicidal over the years, quite regularly, so when I was told the news about the cancer, it kind of felt like ‘well I’m not surprised’ almost.
“The main reason I went travelling was to get away and attempt to clear my head and it was probably one of the best things I ever did. Obviously, it didn't entirely work out for me over there but there is nothing I regret about it at all.”
Health and fitness has played a significant part in Ryan’s life when it comes to processing his emotions and has acted as the primary coping mechanism for his mental health. Without the ability to train, he believes he would likely have experienced a spiral in his mental wellbeing, even at times when his body wasn’t in agreement with him earlier this year.
In a bid to have control over at least one element of his life during the events of this year, Ryan wanted to maintain his fitness for as long as possible during his diagnosis and treatment, so with the help of friends, he made this happen.
He said: “One of my friends owns a gym insulation business and whilst I was undergoing the treatment he brought me a Spin bike and some weights, and I managed to keep a routine of full body workouts with dumbbells and 30 minutes on the bike every morning and evening up until the third round of chemo.
“I was even still smashing protein shakes. I mean, the hospital food was vile, so!”
Despite the circumstances, Ryan refused to lose himself to the cancer. He maintained his passions, he kept looking forward and he even continued to blast music from his hospital room, which may have led to a complaint or two - but he continued to fight to keep himself motivated, both physically and mentally.
“Fitness kept me mentally stable and brought me back to life again.” He added.
Fortunately, the tides began to change back in June when Ryan was declared in remission, meaning the signs and symptoms of his cancer had disappeared. His health has continued to be on the incline, with his hospital visits being decreased down to just once a week - and that is when Ryan decided now is the time to pursue his dreams.
He tells OriGym: “I’d always wanted to complete my PT qualifications, but it was something I found I never had the time for - just with work and life. But then, of course, this happened to me this year and meant I couldn't go back to work right away, so I thought now would be the perfect opportunity to finally do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Ryan earlier this year following treatment.
Ryan enrolled onto OriGym’s Master PT course as well as the Advanced Sports Nutritionist qualification, both of which he is currently in the process of completing.
Despite the unfortunate deck of cards life has presented him with, Ryan decided he will use it to his advantage, seeing it as an opportunity that will benefit his future PT career. Through the life experience he has gained and the new mindset he has since developed, he believes this will enable him to relate to clients, especially those who have been in similar situations, and will only better the personal trainer he is on track to become.
Once completing his master PT qualifications, Ryan intends to put everything into his fitness passion, however strives for more than a straight and narrow PT career:
“Eventually I want to open up my own gym and have a facility of my own. There have been many times throughout the diagnosis and beyond where I didn’t think it could happen or I didn’t think I would get through it and I just wanted to give up.”
Since being diagnosed with Leukemia, Ryan says he has experienced a huge shift in his mind process and how he thinks about life. He tells OriGym that he has now learnt to take each day as it comes, which beforehand he would never have done.
Ryan explains: “I try not to look too far into the future now and just focus on the day ahead. I’m now living in the moment and enjoy what I’ve got in front of me right now.”
While he now prefers to live in the moment, it doesn’t stop Ryan putting goals in place for his future and having milestones he is working towards. He is currently focused on building up both his physical and mental strength ahead of his one year in remission anniversary which will fall in June next year.
Ryan at present, in remission and studying OriGym's L2 Gym Instructor and L3 Personal Training qualifications.
The 24 year old is now in a place where he says his mental health is in a good place and he feels a lot stronger than he has in the past.
He told OriGym: “I’ve got a great group of people around me. This year has highlighted to me the people I can rely on and while it might be a limited group, they’re really there for me which has helped me a lot.
“I do try and think a lot more positively about things now and appreciate the smaller things in life. I spend a lot more time with my family as before I went travelling, I’d never really spend time at home or with them.”
On a final note, in reflection of what Ryan wishes he could go back and tell himself the day he received his diagnosis, and what he would tell anybody else who has just learnt of their diagnoses, he insists: “Keep a very strong mental state of mind - if you smash that you can conquer it all.
“The hardest part of it all wasn't the treatment. It wasn’t the chemo or the transplant. It was the mental battle. So if you can keep mentally well, mentally strong, mentally fit, you will get through it - whether that is cancer or anything in life.”
Ryan is well on his way completing OriGym’s Master Diploma, comprising of Level 2 Gym Instructor, Level 3 Personal Trainer, Level 3 Exercise Referral and Level 4 Sports Nutrition. If you’re interested in following in Ryan’s footsteps, head over to our Personal Training Courses page to find out more.
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