The following is an excerpt from speech given at Vodafone World of Difference Induction Day on 27 February 2012.
My biggest fear in life is leaving the world the same as when I entered. Not making any visible impact. I'm sure there are hours of psychoanalysis to be had based on that statement. But that's my fear. I think subconsciously it has been with me from a very young age.
Like any fear though, there comes a moment where you have to face it. Stare it straight in the face and confront it. And sometimes in life you just have to make up your own rules, and hope for the best.
In 2006, I had just moved to the UK after working to help set up grass-root breast cancer organisations in the Middle East and Africa. It had been three months since I moved to the UK when my life changed forever. I was diagnosed with Stage 2 testicular cancer. I knew there was a strong family history of cancer, but ironically, having spent the previous year working in the field of cancer awareness--telling people cancer does not discriminate--I thought I was immune. Faced with a new country, a new job, a new life, I had to make a lot of decisions--and quickly. Did I want children in the future? What treatment options did I want? What would I look like bald?
I was lucky. My cancer was diagnosed in a western and developed country, and I had great health care. I couldn't help but think of the women who I worked with just a few months previously, specifically 'Mary'. Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer a year before I met her. She went into surgery for a lumpectomy, and came out with a double mastectomy because that's what the doctor decided with her husband. I can only imagine what she felt when she woke up from the surgery. But Mary refused to be a victim, and changed her story. She started working to ensure that what had happened to her didn't happen to other people, and is now one of the leading breast cancer advocates in the Middle East.
After all my treatment had finished, and my hair started to grow back, I thought of Mary. And I thought of my own journey in life. Those who helped change my story. And for some reason, I felt guilty. Guilty that my concern was what hat to wear to cover my bald head, not where I could find treatment. But that guilt led me to see what was available for people like Mary. There was very little. In fact in some places, non-existent. This couldn't continue.
I'm often asked why I set up The Odysseus Foundation, a charity set up to screen women in developing countries and socially excluded communities for breast and cervical cancer, and empower them to know what options are available to them locally. Why not something related to my own cancer?
The answer is simple. Fear. Fear of women dying due to lack of awareness and detection. Fear of children growing up without mothers. Fear of families and communities being ripped apart. Fear that by seeing the need, and failing to react, would make any good deed I had done before expire. Breast and cervical cancer affects more than women. It has affected me, having lost two friends and several family members. I had to try to change this story.
This fear led me to set up The Odysseus Foundation, which in turn led to 8,000 women last year being screened for breast and cervical cancer, and a further 12,000 women being told about self-examinations and where to go for screening. That's 20,000 women whose lives have been affected because five years ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. And this year there will be another 25,000 women.
You don't know where life will lead you. But never forget the ability we have to create a new story for ourselves and others by choosing to make a difference. Changing your story is not rewriting the past. It is not forgetting who you are and where you come from. It's changing the future. The path you take.
So buckle up. Enjoy the ride. Be patient and remember, life is what you want it to be. Trust in the unseen because no matter how small you think you are, you are more powerful than you could ever realise.