Gareth Dunn was about to achieve his greatest ambition, becoming an officer in the British Army. But it was not to be, as Catherine Scott discovered.
Gareth Dunn is a remarkable young man. He is a talented sportsman, bright, enthusisatic and popular. His passion for life is infectious, but Gareth Dunn is dying. The 26-year-old has been given a year to live and yet he has pledged to spend what time he has left raising £100,000 for Cancer Research UK.
It was just as Gareth was about to start the demanding officer training course at Sandhurst, that he was diagnosed with cancer and had to have his leg amputated below the knee.
“I thought I had actually fractured my foot and just went to get it checked out,” says Gareth from Horsforth. “But a scan revealed it was a massive tumour and I was told they they needed to amputate my leg in order for me to survive. The timing was incredibly cruel. I had worked hard to get my place at Sandhurst and had planned my life as an army officer in the Paras, but just as I was about to realise my dream, suddenly it was snatched away from me.”
But this determined young man refused to be down-cast for long. “Of course I was devastated and you do go through a grieving process for the life you had planned, but I soon realised that I had two choices. Either fall apart, or get on with life and deal with the cards that I had been dealt.”
This talented sportsman focused on joining the GB Paralympic squad.
“I had to undergo rehabilitation after I lost my leg, but I was back in the gym two weeks after my operation.”
Three months after surgery, Gareth was fitted with a prosthetic running blade and went on to successfully apply to train with the cycling, canoeing and athletics squad of the GB Paralympic team. He also embarked upon a new career challenge in international affairs with the aim of joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But just as it seemed he had his life back on track he was dealt the cruelest of blows.
“I’d been having regular scans just to check that the cancer hadn’t spread. You think that you are young and healthy and even though you have had cancer you just believe that you will survive.”
However, the scan showed a massive tumour in his left lung and 14 smaller ones in his right lung. “The doctors said that is wasn’t curable and I was going to die, and probably only had a year to live.” It is difficult to contemplate how anyone deals with a terminal cancer diagnosis but when you are just 26 and have a bright future ahead it is even more incomprehensible.
But after his initial fear and anger, this inspirational young man once again looked to the positive. “Of course it is petrifying but in some ways it is liberating,” he says. “I know roughly when I am going to die and not many people have that knowledge. I wish it was further into the future and that I would have a career, a wife and a family, but it’s not and so I have got to make every day, every moment count. I do have dark days, but that is just a waste of time.”
Instead of wallowing in self-pity Gareth has set himself the challenge of raising £100,000 for Cancer Research UK and in particular research into synovial sarcoma. With the help of family and friends he is already nearly halfway and has many fund-raising challenges planned including cycling from Leeds to Istanbul with his brother Rhys, hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, running the London and Paris marathons, and doing the UK Ironman – the list goes on.
On a personal note, he wants to travel to as many countries as he can in the time he has left, write a novel and organise an exhibition of war photography.
“I also want to spend time with my parents. It is really hard on them, in particular my mum. Nobody expects to survive their own children.” Gareth, who lives at home with his mum in Cookridge when not travelling, has convinced her to get a puppy.
“I always wanted a dog but we didn’t have one when I was growing up. Now she has agreed and I think she is actually really pleased with Florence.”
If that wasn’t enough, Gareth has to undergo more cancer treatment.
“I had chemotherapy when I was first diagnosed and a recent scan showed that the big tumour has grown again and so I am going to have to have some more chemo. I will be in the middle of treatment when I am climbing in Nepal which will be challenging but I’ll manage. I have got to die somewhere and it may as well be doing something I love.”
One of the ways Gareth copes with his prognosis is through humour and he immediately puts anyone who meets him at ease. He writes a blog, Chemotionally Unstable, poking fun at cancer and chemotherapy and ultimately death.
“People are scared of talking about cancer and death, but it is important to talk about it and I find that humour, for me, is one way of dealing with it. The blog is one way of telling people what I am doing and asking them to donate to Cancer Research UK. Also if someone in a similar situation is having a difficult time and they read it and it helps them then it is worth writing it,” says the former Leeds Grammar School pupil.
For all his joking Gareth admits that he does suffer a lot of pain, but he will push himself to the limit for as long as he is able.
“Acceptance is an ongoing process and I don’t think I have really grasped that I am going to die. But it is a motivator. I don’t want to waste a moment of the time I have left.”
Gareth wants his fund-raising legacy to live on and has left instructions to that fact in his will. “I would like there to be some sort of ongoing fund to continue what I’ve started, but I don’t want it to be in my name or anything like that. But I think it would be helpful to my family to have something to focus on after I’ve gone.”
To make a donation Visit the JustGiving page
For more information visit cruk.org
Gareth’s blog is at www.chemotionally-unstable.com