Being a university student about to go into your final year of studies can be daunting enough on its own but imagine being diagnosed with the most aggressive form of cancer at the same time.
That is the story of James Wells, a Nottingham Trent University BA Broadcast Journalism graduate, who was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia in May 2010.
If left untreated, the illness can kill in six weeks from the point of manifestation, meaning that James was immediately admitted into hospital.
All of a sudden, the life of a hopeful student and karate representative for England turned into a train whose direction drastically veered off.
James, West Bridgford born and bred, recalls the moment he found out about his condition.
He said: “The world basically caves in and you feel isolated, vulnerable, afraid and everything seems insignificant apart from what you’ve been told in that moment.
“It’s a big shock, finding out you have cancer, but I just attacked it head on.
“It was a fight I couldn’t lose.”
James’ determination was, however, inspired by his coach, who was the first person to visit him in hospital, encouraging the then 21-year-old to attack his illness as he would an opponent.
“He said to me ‘there’s a seat for you on a plane to Las Vegas for the World Karate Championship in April next year’.
“It was a remarkable incentive that provided me with a focus which was crucial in overcoming that challenge,” said the 34-year-old.
Following the relapse of his Leukaemia in June 2011, a year after his first course of chemotherapy, James had to undergo Total Body Irradiation, a form of radiotherapy, as well as a stem cell transplant.
“I created an environment that was conducive for my survival, not just my performance” – James Wells, leukaemia survivor
The intensity of the irradiation is the same as the one found in atomic bomb sites and is followed by the transplant, which requires a ‘perfectly-matched donor’.
“My sister, Rebecca, was the person that matched which is a small miracle.
“There’s a one in four chance of siblings being a match, meaning there would have to be eight of you for you to expect two of you to be the same and I have one sister so I’m very lucky.
“Telling her that I’d have to have a stem cell transplant when we knew she was a match and that it would mean putting my life in her hands was the hardest thing I had to do in my life, the hardest conversation I’ve ever had to have.
“I was very aware of the pressure that she felt and carried at just 21 years old,” James told CBJ News.
After 286 days in hospital spread over 15 ‘short’ months and fuelled by a desire to be exceptional, the fighter regained his fitness a year and a half later and resumed full time competition and continued to represent England.
Exceeding all medical expectations, James went on to win two World bronze medals, a UK Open silver medal, and multiple national honours.
Although he retired from his karate career before the Covid-19 pandemic started in 2020, Mr Wells aims to inspire people through his journey and has been selected to give a TED Talk about his experiences.
The title of the TED Talk will be ‘The Courage to be Exceptional’ and will be part of a ‘Creativity through Adversity’ themed TEDx event.
It will take place at Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies on Thursday, January 19 at 10am.