The last time I’d spoken to Chris Riley it was January 2020. We chatted about how his fitness had progressed since he took part in CW’s Training Makeover series the previous spring. The changes to the 28-year-old’s schedule were proving beneficial, he told me; he was feeling much fitter and even more motivated. It came as a sickening gutpunch, therefore, when just seven months later I received an email from Riley’s sister-in-law informing me that he had been diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer and given only months to live.
The fact I am video-chatting with him now, more than a year after that diagnosis, tells you that Riley has defied the prognosis – but it’s even better than that: he’s back on his bike and the cancer is in retreat. Struggling to comprehend his rollercoaster journey since we last spoke, I ask him to start at the beginning. “After the Training Makeover in May through to November  I felt fine and was enjoying my cycling,” he recalls, “but then I started feeling just not right, really anxious from out of nowhere.” Riley had no history of anxiety; even now, telling me about the darkest chapter of his life, the Yorkshireman exudes an easy, happygo-lucky manner befitting of his job as a barber. Yet the psychological symptoms grew so severe that he started having panic attacks and was signed off work. “The doctor gave me antidepressants, which levelled off my anxiety but still I didn’t feel right, like an alien in my own body.”
He describes several weeks of functioning on autopilot, continuing to ride his bike but without feeling any zest or enjoyment in life. At a loss to understand his malaise, Riley visited a Reiki healer for an alternative view. “Her words to me were life-changing,” he says. “She said I wasn’t giving off any of the usual signs of anxiety or depression but that she sensed problems around my stomach.” It is important to note here that there is no clinical evidence to support Reiki’s effiacy, but the healer’s words resounded in Riley’s mind. “I went back to my GP and said maybe we should look at my stomach, but she said not to worry and just did some blood tests which came back clear.”
As lockdown set in and summer arrived, Riley’s symptoms took on a worrying new feature: he started finding it hard to swallow food, often having to be sick immediately after a meal. Initially doctors suspected the antidepressants had given him a stomach ulcer and so altered his prescription. He did his best to cope with the eating discomfort – until coping was out of the question. “It was a hot July evening during lockdown and we were having a barbecue,” he remembers. “I took a bite from a burger and felt the worst pain I’ve ever felt and vomited up a load of blood. Luckily we live across the road from a hospital, so I went straight to A&E.”
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