Anne Hailes: Richie's pedal power energises positive 'mental medicine' in cancer fight
MY 10th birthday present changed my life. It involved fitting and testing and a lecture on safety.
My black Raleigh bicycle was the grandest thing I'd ever seen. I remember a big room with a raised platform at one end.
My bike was standing there waiting and there followed time spent on checking if the saddle was the right height so my feet could touch the ground, the handlebars were lifted up and down until I was comfortable with the position, a bell was screwed on and a light fitted on the front and I was ready to go - to the shops, to the allotment for lettuce and most of all to school. The freedom was intoxicating.
How could I ever have imagined cycling round the world whilst sitting in my bedroom - this was space age stuff yet today that's just what's happening - the virtual cycling experience is big news not only for the excitement of international computerised road racing but also for health, both physical and mental.
Basically, using special software such as Zwift, you connect your bike to a laptop, a phone, Instagram, even Twitter, and follow a programme on the screen.
As you cycle the route opens up before you, you know in advance the distance, the altitude, the rules and regulations and you might well find your competing against professionals like Lance Armstrong or Mark Cavendish.
You cycle through countryside, along lakes, into town, up mountain and down dale. The harder you cycle the faster you go and you follow your virtual self on the screen - no traffic to contend with, no fans walking out onto the track; never mind the new Highway Code, this is safe cycling.
It has become an obsession with thousands but it's also like becoming part of a family, there's rivalry as well as camaraderie, making new friends you'll rarely if ever meet in person as they are from all round the world.
Being part of this global organisation, Racing Without Borders (RWB) has helped men and women who are at a low ebb, especially over the last two lockdown years, having support like this has drawn people back from the edge of suicide, from alcohol addiction and despair and for one man it has given focus on something other than his terminal cancer.
Derry man Richie Sheerin is 39 and he's fighting myeloma. Last Thursday he received an infusion of white blood cells from his brother Damian. It followed four years of treatment, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, relapses, hospital stays lasting up to three months, years of medical appointments, a balancing act, working as IT Agile Project Manager for PA Consulting in Health and Life Sciences and his family, his wife Lisa and his son Aedan who is five years old and is getting a new bike for his sixth birthday.
Life was good coming into spring of 2018 - he was a fit man running marathons and 5K races. He was active in Sean Dolan's Gaelic Club playing and coaching less experienced senior players but problems surfaced the day he dislocated his hip and the pain began to build. A visit to the doctor and a blood test flagged up something serious.
"Tuesday March 28 was just a regular morning. Lisa took a call from the surgery, the doctor wanted to talk to me; he told me that the hospital had been in touch about my blood test and they wanted me over in the North West Cancer Centre first thing next morning. He said they suspected I had myeloma. I went straight to Google, it was a bolt from the blue to read it was incurable bone marrow cancer."
"Let's Bin 2018 and Go Again in 2019"
This positive attitude lead him back to his bike. "I was advised to stay off the bike in case I fell and got severe fractures but my consultant didn't say anything about cycling indoors where I could fall straight into the shower or the bed."
And so his Mental Medicine began.
"I talked to 'the gaffer' in RoI, Brian Donnelly founder of RWB, I renewed my Zwift membership (an app for cyclists, runners, and triathletes for indoor training) and started doing 20 minutes to see how I went, almost an hour later I stopped, I felt invigorated. It was my virtual road to recovery."
Despite this, treatment went on. In November 2019 stem cells were harvested and frozen, an almost lethal dose of chemotherapy called Melphalan that kills bone marrow, then the stem cells were Infused back into his body.
"I was in isolation for three weeks, I couldn't see my boy for the entire time I was there, I missed the day he started nursery - that was so tough mentally. However, we did do video calls, thank God for technology.
"The chemotherapy burnt my mouth and throat so bad that I couldn't even swallow or spit, never mind eat or drink, you get very sick before you get better. I came home for Christmas, back with my family.
"Aedan was the reminder I needed that life goes on and we have to deal with our inner demons and pain and keep it away from the innocence of our young."
Richie's Fight Goes on...
...And so does his world of virtual cycling. Everything is voluntary, just time and enthusiasm required. As chairman he has built Racing Without Borders with 19 extremely successful racing teams and 4,400 members on Facebook from all over the world but mostly based in Ireland, an administrative team with Michael Hailes as communications officer and Eleanor Gallagher looking after women members.
When it comes to mental medicine, it's something Richie Sheerin recommends and he is an example of positive mental medicine and the challenge life throws up but as he says, with his family and friends and RWB he is determined to keep pedalling.
Richie's motto: "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think."