A CrossFit-mad teenager living with an inoperable brain tumour says “blinding headaches” were the first sign of his illness.
Fitness fanatic, Rob Bichan, 19, a groundworker from Forres in Scotland, was shocked when doctors revealed he had only six to nine months to live after he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, DIPG – diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma – at just 17 years old in January 2020.
After a biopsy in February 2020 Rob’s prognosis greatly improved, but after six weeks of radiotherapy five times a day Rob’s once healthy outlook started to dip when he gained 25kg in six weeks alongside other side affects from steroids.
So alongside his girlfriend, Jodie, 20, Rob started doing CrossFit at home, relighting his passion for fitness and improving his mental health.
Taking part in Battle Cancer, an event that uses fitness challenges to raise money for cancer charities, Rob now wants to use their current ‘Are you one of us’ campaign to highlight the positive stories of people living with cancer.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Rob. “I had the worst year of my life and then the best two years of my life.
“Traditionally, we hear so much about how terrible cancer is, we’ve heard that so many times. We know that.
“What we want to see is how to have good lives. I’m always going to live with cancer and I don’t have a terrible life.”
A CrossFit fanatic from just 12 years old, Rob loved spending time working out, but when he started getting headaches during his workouts in November 2019 when he was 17 he knew something was not right.
“I started getting blinding headaches that would make my vision blurry,” explained Rob.
“I was very lucky. I went to the doctors, and they couldn’t find anything, so they said go to the opticians.
“But the optician said there’s nothing, so I went back to the doctor who referred me to the neurological department at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.”
Doctors quickly discovered a brain tumour during an MRI in January 2020, telling the teenager he had just six to nine months to live, initially diagnosing him with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma or DIPG.
“I honestly had no idea there was anything wrong,” he said. “I was in shock, unbelievable shock.
“They told me I had six to nine months to live.
Cancer doesn't always mean the end of your life, it just means the start of a new path
“They said if radiotherapy works well enough you’ll have a maximum of two years.”
In February 2020 Rob was admitted to surgery for a biopsy at Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in the hope of improving his grave prognosis.
“It was good news,” he explained.
“They expected the tumour to be high grade but the cells they got were low grade. It baffled my neurosurgeon, as DIPG, in all instances, is classified as high-grade.
“The exact nature of my tumour-type is still unknown.
“Due to the biopsy I lost all feeling in my left side, which was really scary. I had to learn to walk again as a result.
“I also suffered from double-vision, which was really weird but thankfully that has improved over time.”
However, when Rob started his course of steroids after radiotherapy his body felt out of control – plagued with side effects, he gained over 25kg in six weeks.
“When you first start steroids, they make you feel absolutely great,” explained Rob.
“You’re never tired or nothing is ever sore, your mood is amazing. But obviously after a few weeks, the side effects start kicking in.
“It was about two weeks after my radiotherapy. I gained 25kg in six weeks. I got terrible stretch marks, so my skin was tearing every day.
Fitness is something I've always loved. I think CrossFit has saved my life because I don't think I would be where I am or maybe even be here without it
“It wasn’t just weight gain; it was also water retention. My stomach was rock solid.
“It was so painful. I had terrible acne and that was painful as well.”
But Rob tried to workout as much as he was able to and started phasing CrossFit into his routine again in his garage in October 2020, with the training offering him much-needed focus.
“During lockdown I started getting back into my fitness,” said Rob.
“We have a home gym with CrossFit apparatus and I managed to get Jodie into it too.
“I was desperate to lose weight and regain my strength. I trained everyday for as long as possible.
“Fitness is something I’ve always loved. I think CrossFit has saved my life because I don’t think I would be where I am or maybe even be here without it.
“It gave me a focus and I think I recovered as quickly as I did because of my fitness level.”
In 2021 Rob joined a Battle Cancer event, a fitness fundraiser that celebrates and empowers those affected by cancer.
I try to find the positive in everything. Something terrible happened to me, but I’m still going to do the best I can and inspire as many people as possible
Organising events around the world, Battle Cancer raises funds for cancer charities by challenging teams of four to take on five intense 10 minute workouts.
“At the end of 2020 my brother nominated me for a Whatever It Takes (WIT), Mind Over Matter award,” said Rob.
“The person who presented it was Scott Britton, who owns Battle Cancer. He actually suggested I come to a fundraiser.
“It was absolutely incredible. I just loved it. It was the first time I ever met somebody else with a brain tumour. He was doing really well as well.
“The pain Jodie, me and my family suffered in those workouts was nothing compared to what we’d been through the year before.
“We were fighting something together. It was nice to sort of like celebrate the suffering we’ve been through.”
Now Rob is the face of Battle Cancer’s ‘Are you one of us?’ campaign, highlighting those who have experienced cancer as heroes, not victims.
“My tumour is now stable, I go for six monthly scans,” he said.
“I try to find the positive in everything. Something terrible happened to me, but I’m still going to do the best I can and inspire as many people as possible.
The pain Jodie, me and my family suffered in those workouts was nothing compared to what we’d been through the year before
“I want to show people that you can still do fitness. If I’m doing fitness then they can as well.
“Cancer doesn’t always mean the end of your life, it just means the start of a new path.”
Find out more at: www.battlecancer.com