Two years ago, Sideburn contributor John Harrison announced he wouldn't be competing in the upcoming DTRA Sideburn Vintage class. He had been diagnosed with cancer. By the end of the year he was racing again. We asked him to talk about 'the journey'. Before we start, John wrote 'I would appreciate it if you could explain in your intro that you asked me to write it, as I'm not seeking attention, glory or sympathy.' OK. Done. Take it away, John. (Photo: Paul France)
I can’t say I was shocked or even surprised when I was told I had cancer. It was January 2022. I was 63. I’d been feeling progressively useless for months. The bad news was that it is incurable, the good news that it’s treatable. I hung on to “don’t change your 10 year plan” when the consultant was telling us loads of things about what was wrong with me. Myeloma I learnt, is a blood cancer which attacks bone marrow, typically in the spine, to the extent that, as in my case, several vertebrae were fractured and partially collapsed.
Within a week I was fast tracked through biopsies, CT and MRI scans, radiotherapy and started on four months of chemotherapy, which consisted of weekly visits to the clinic for infusions, pills and injections, as well as a whole raft of supporting meds to take daily at home. As someone who has got through life only taking the occasional headache pill, this took some organising and getting used to.
At the outset I was told I’d have a difficult year, but after that life would, hopefully, return to something approaching normality (for an unknown period, until I will inevitably relapse).
It was obvious that I would have to sit out racing for the season, but the thought of getting back on my Triumph and lining up with friends on the grid was the primary image in mind as I tried to concentrate on recovery.
To be honest, the hardest part of it is the exhaustion. One’s body is working so hard to mend itself, with the indispensable help of modern science and medicine, that those processes use every ounce of energy available. I got used to taking to my bed in the daytime.
As summer turned to autumn I was feeling better enough to enter the DTRA season finale at Greenfield at the tail end of September. As added incentive Jeffrey Carver Jnr and Scottie Deubler were going to be there. Having kept up all season with what was happening at the races I was itching to be part of it all again and crucially, to find out if I still had it in me to ride, let alone race, a motorcycle.
John and Jeffrey Carver at Greenfield 2022 (Photo: Paul France)
From the first lap of practise I felt comfortable and knew it was going to be alright. My heat races sapped all my energy, but I didn’t embarrass myself and even came second in one. Against all my hopes and expectations I even made the final, but that turned out to be a step too far. I was too weary to remember to change gear off the start and was running last by the end of the first lap.
Not wanting to get in the way of (in a different league altogether) Carver and Gilles I pulled off and spectated, supremely satisfied with my performance against the odds. Making the final had been a massive win for me.
A month later, as fit and energised as possible I went into hospital for the final stage of my treatment, a stem cell transplant. This involves having an infusion (via a Hickman Line – a tube into one’s jugular vein through which one is administered all manner of fluids over the course of a month or so, and through which blood samples are taken very regularly) of a drug which is sufficiently powerful to delete all the immunity/ antibodies that have taken a lifetime to assimilate. It is essentially a terrible, but necessary poison to cleanse one’s blood and marrow in preparation for fresh stem cells. Of course, as well as doing that it acts on the body as a whole, and leaves one extremely vulnerable to infection for a week or so before the new stem cells can do their work. I’m not sure what Cytotoxic means, buts it’s unnerving to see it written on a bag of fluid with your name on it being pumped direct to your heart.
Cytotoxic means toxic to cells, like some snake and spider venom (Photo: John Harrison)
My hospital stay only lasted a little over a fortnight, and although at the time I said that I would never go through it again, time helps one to forget how gruelling it was. The solitary confinement (infection risk precaution) was probably the most difficult aspect, although finding my tongue had turned black was unpleasantly memorable. As expected all my hair fell out, but it grew back after a few months. I was knackered for a few weeks, but recovered more quickly than I’d been led to believe.
John in his workshop not long after leaving hospital (Photo: Gary Inman)
There followed six months of shielding and social distancing, which folk understand in this post-Covid world, and, always, the constant meds.
As soon as I could I started attending practise nights at Smallbrook Stadium on the Isle of Wight. I bonded with the long track from my first lap and gradually gained riding fitness and strength through the year. We put on some exhibition races during Speedway meetings there which I really enjoyed, particularly the Vintage Invitational. Pure fun. Being back amongst my racing friends was the best medicine.
Comeback complete. John heading to the DTRA Sideburn Vintage Four-Stroke Final win at Amman Valley, 2023 (Photo: Braking Point Images)
The DTRA National series was as always, great to participate in, and as ever, I really enjoyed myself riding the half mile at Amman, where I felt really comfortable riding the outside of the track and managed to win my class (Vintage 4stroke) on both days of the double header meeting. I can’t express how much good it did my head to win those races. I had to work hard for them both and the knowledge that I’m still able to put in good rides, better than I was capable of pre-illness, has given me the proof that my recovery is real. Anthony Brown drove the message home at the podiums as he handed me my trophy and commented ”you wouldn’t have done that a year ago!”
Through the vagaries of computer scoring, it turns out that by the tiniest margin I came out as the National Class Champion for 2023. Again, it’s a tremendous boost for my mental state to know that living with (as opposed to suffering from) cancer doesn’t mean that I have to give anything up or that my approach to anything needs to change.
Things aren’t exactly as they used to be, of course. I still haven’t regained the level of fitness nor strength I enjoyed previously, and have had to ask others to start my bike for me if I don’t catch it with the first 2 or 3 kicks. I have to take maintenance drugs to keep the Myeloma at bay which make me feel under par, but hey, I’m still standing and evidently capable of winning. I tell myself that if I can win motorcycle races I can pretty much do anything.
The support given by family and friends in the form of phone calls, messages and photos has been immeasurably beneficial. The knowledge that people were thinking of me carried me through the worst. If you know someone who is suffering in any way, the kindest thing you can do is to get in touch. A massive THANK YOU to all in the racing community who checked up on me and sent me their love and support.
As you might expect I’ve reflected more on life in the past two years than ever before. I recognise that it has been harder for those around me than for myself. I actively try to not let myself get wound up by things, especially those I have no influence upon, and I count my many blessings every day.
As rewarding as winning the Championship in my ‘come-back’ year is the vindication of my stubborn choice of racing a stock framed and suspended bike wearing period correct tyres.