A cancer survivor's dream of becoming a Paralympian

Surviving bone cancer and overcoming his drug addiction, Liam Twomey trains hard to become a Paralympian (picture courtesy of Liam Twomey)
Surviving bone cancer and overcoming his drug addiction, Liam Twomey trains hard to become a Paralympian (picture courtesy of Liam Twomey)

I Stopped Being A Victim And That Made All The Difference

My name is Liam Twomey. I am a 23 year old from Melbourne/Australia. I grew up in a great family with my Mum, Dad and older brother. It was all great until I was diagnosed with a Ewing sarcoma in my right tibia when I was age seven. My life was turned upside down, although at that age I was still quite unaware of what was happening. I wasn’t able to see the severity of my situation and what was to come.

 

Losing My Leg To Bone Cancer

I spent the following 12 months pretty much living at home bedridden, or at the Royal Children‘s Hospital where I would go through chemotherapy, blood transfusions, operations…essentially the ,horrors‘. However, this did not really break my spirit. Strong willed, naive, call it what you want but I still managed to make the most of a terrible situation. Memories of Char Siu buns and Chinese sausages being smuggled into hospital by my father when I was in a state where I could handle solid food. If there was anything worse than being confined to a hospital it had to be the hospital food!

 

I went in for an operation to have the tibia with the Ewing sarcoma removed and replaced by my other tibia. I was told that there was a 95% chance that was going to happen. Unfortunately in the end there was nothing the docs could do. So my right leg was amputated below the knee.

 

Whether due to my age, stress or trauma of the lengthy hospital stay I really don’t remember life before my amputation. My first memory that‘s clear is waking up to my Mum’s face after the operation; my Mum telling me that everything‘s going to be okay. Such a sad yet beautiful memory to have.

 

There I was. Five toes short! Well I didn’t expect that. But somehow I initially managed to take it in my stride (or hop!) and just get along with life the best way I could. I acted like I was okay. I look back now at those times and see I was so blissfully unaware or maybe unwilling to look at things to see that I was grieving the loss of my leg, and continued to for many years down the track.

 

I Found Comfort In Alcohol And Drugs

By the time I reached high school I felt very vulnerable. I was smaller, chubbier than everyone else, at least in my eyes. And I was missing a leg. I was the school joke just waiting to happen. I thought I was a freak, a cripple, the boy everyone was talking about and laughing at behind my back. I felt so scared and insecure that I did the only thing I knew: Putting on a brave face and acting opposite to how I felt. I acted tough. I caused trouble. I played up in school and started bullying people to try and keep myself from being hurt.  But all it did was cause me more pain. 

 

As a response to my behaviour most kids didn’t like me. So they called me a ,cripple‘. Something that would crush me each and every time as that was exactly how I saw myself. A cripple. And their name-calling reinforced the negative way I looked at myself. It reinforced the belief that I was the odd one in the crowd.

 

It was around that time that I was introduced to alcohol and drugs. „I found the answer!“ I thought. I had spent the past few years wanting to rip my skin off, so uncomfortable I was. And the alcohol and the drugs changed that. I was able to finally feel comfortable, was able not to care what anyone - or what I - thought of myself. I found peace.

 

Unfortunately though, add alcohol and drugs to someone with an addictive nature, little impulse control and an urge of wanting to do the wrong thing they soon became my one and only focus in life. The blinkers were on. Searching and finding ways and means to get more. At that time I just didn’t want to be me. The drugs made me feel alive, with both legs and able to take on the world.  

 

Unfortunately though my solution became my problem. Taking drugs had caused havoc in my life. Causing so much pain not only to myself but to the people who loved me the most, my friends and my family. At times, the things I did to my family still fill me with guilt for the amount of pain I caused the people I loved most. By the age of 21 I had burnt out. I had pretty much lost contact with most of my friends. They were simply fed up with my selfish behaviour. And I was unable to even be in the same room as any of my family. My body was falling apart. 

 

I was mentally not right and felt only weeks away from doing irreparable damage. I had been in and out of drug and alcohol rehabs a couple of times. But with no success. So I believed it wouldn’t work for me. But after another dumb decision I was forced into another detox by the police. I arrived so scared of the dark place I‘d just come from mentally and physically that I actually felt safe for those few weeks - finally.

 

Finding A Community That Enabled Me To Accept Myself For Who I Was

There I found people happy, clean, sane (to an extent) and doing their best to change their lives. Through those people I clung to the idea that if they could do it so could I. I decided there and then to finally let go off the old life and create a new road forward for me instead. I worked as hard as I could at that detox, before going to a long-term facility in Sydney for more extensive treatment.

 

Once I was clean my massive insecurities, my pains, my old beliefs about and perceptions of myself and of being an amputee came to the surface. Drugs couldn‘t hide them no more. Wow, was that painful. I was so sensitive about it, but yet unable to talk to others about anything else. It was in there however that the process of acceptance of myself and of being an amputee came to start. 

 

Once I arrived at that facility in Sydney I was embraced by the people around me for being who I was.  I was one of them, one of the gang, one limb less or not. I was continually reminded that my amputation wasn’t an issue to anyone but myself. And that was exactly what I needed. Those guys showed me enough love that I was finally able to love myself. I had many testing uncomfortable moments, identifying as an amputee for the first time in my whole life, not wearing my prosthetic limb around people that weren’t my family, swallowing my pride and asking for help, and just continually letting people in on how this had controlled my whole life.  

 

Dreaming To Become A Paralympian

While in Sydney I broke my prosthesis and was in chronic pain for about seven months, some weeks unable to walk, with little avenue to fix it as I wasn’t working. Then finally when the pain became too much I reached out to an old amputee contact who I thought could help. and I was pointed in the direction of a company called the START Foundation, whose goal is to “empower amputees in life through sport”. I applied to become a grant recipient for funding for a prosthetic that catered to my needs. As I put down the drugs I picked up an new obsession: Exercise and fitness. But I unfortunately I had a leg that couldn’t keep up with my pace. Not long went by before I was informed I had received the first ever grant from START. What a privilege and godsend they were.  

 

My new prosthetic has opened pathways I never expected possible. Through START’s belief in me and my new prosthetic my goal is now to compete in the Paralympics and represent my country. When I was young every kid I knew - amputee or not - seemed to want to be a sports star or represent their country. And I was one of them, but so crippled by fear of what others thought as I wasn’t the biggest, strongest, fittest or most talented kid. Unfortunately, I am still none of those things. But I do have a heart and a strong strongly belief that if I put in the work, day after day, month after month, and continually remind myself of the goal, I will achieve it. And even if I wasn’t to make the Paralympics, it will not be due to lack of effort. And thats a very comforting thought.  

 

I am yet to find the specific sport. I am still trying anything and everything that I think I could do. I began swimming in 2016 for the first time since I was a little boy. Always way too fearful of taking my leg off at a public pool I had just shut the door on the sport. But now I got a coach and began training, six days a week, pushing my body and mind further than I believed possible. And today almost one year later I am training to compete in the New South Wales Metropolitan Meet in the Multi-Class S10 classification in the 50m. It has been an amazing experience and it‘s only just the beginning. I‘ve met some amazing people. I have so many people in my corner with only my best interests at heart. People that will forever have a impact on me.

 

I don‘t write this story to gloat, not to pump up my own tires but to hopefully inspire others, anyone that‘s struggling either today, or just in general, with being an amputee. There is one small thing I put all this success down to: I changed my perspective! I stopped playing the victim to life’s circumstances and embraced them. Today I don’t walk around with shame of who I am. I walk around proud and very, very happy I am an amputee; happy I am the person I have become through my special situation. Not every day is smooth sailing, but if i continue on my path, day after day, I know it‘s only a matter of time until I achieve my goals!

 

Guest post by Liam Twomey. Liam lost his leg to bone cancer aged seven. Finding it difficult to accept being amputee, he struggled in his teenage years before fully embracing who he is. With the support of people who believe in him, Liam has now set his eyes on becoming part of the Australian Paralympic team. You find Liam on Instagram.