22 Dec 2016

'Be gallant, be great, be gracious, and be grateful'

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 22 December 2016

A year ago, Christchurch Boys' High School head boy Jake Bailey had just been diagnosed with cancer when he gave an extraordinary valedictory speech.

Jake Bailey

Jake Bailey is now in remission. Photo: Supplied

A week before he had been told by doctors he had Burkitt's non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and that, without treatment, he'd have three weeks to live.

Bailey went straight into an isolation ward to receive massive doses of chemotherapy - and there he stayed for 50 days - except for one brief departure, in a wheelchair, to speak at the school prize giving - a speech which has now been viewed more than 1.7 million times on Youtube.

Now in remission, Bailey has signed a book deal and is the subject of a documentary.

He told Nine to Noon that like many 18 year olds, getting cancer seemed far-fetched.

“You’re not going to be that kid that gets cancer, Bailey says.

“You go to school on mufti day and you give your $2 coin to Canteen and it’s all fine. Cancer is something that you don’t have to worry about – maybe when you are old you may have to face it – but for now it’s about getting on and living your teenage years.

“I [did] have moments where I said to the person next to me … ‘I got cancer last year, are you kidding me, can you believe that’.”

He says he was diagnosed after feeling pain in his jaw which was initially thought to be impacted wisdom teeth. But he didn’t get better after the teeth were removed and he became very sick.

A series of test revealed the cancer, but he always knew he would beat it.

“I can honestly say there was never any doubt in my mind, neither at the start of the process or at any point throughout.

“I wasn’t going to leave myself any other option, dying was never an option for me.”

Bailey says on the day of the speech he was really unwell and questioned many times whether he would be able to do it.

He had had intrathecal chemotherapy – where drugs are injected into the spine – earlier that day that left him with a bad headache, and the effort of shaving, showering and getting dressed was making him vomit repeatedly.

But, he says, delivering the speech was incredibly important to him. As the senior monitor (head boy) he was honoured to lead the school and owed it to the students to finish the year as strongly as he had started it.  

“I was being quite violently ill up until the moment that I was wheeled onto the stage. And the joke within the family is that it’s very fortunate I didn’t throw up [on] myself during the speech … we say the speech still would have gone viral but just for a very different reason.”

The past 15 months have been a rollercoaster for him and his family and being involved in the documentary (The Common Touch, due out next year) was a good way of processing what had happened to him.

Bailey says getting through the business of cancer treatment is about “looking for the little bits of light in the darkness” – finding something to look forward to to get you through the day.

“I might have some really bad chemotherapy today but there’s something good on TV tonight to watch tonight.”               

But he says his overall memory of his time in treatment is overwhelmingly positive - he got to spend valuable time with family that he otherwise wouldn’t have, and have great laughs with his friends and the hospital staff.

“I mean it’s going to sound like a bunch of clichés really but it’s about the people in your life and about appreciating each day that you have.

“I truly live each day in the knowledge that my cancer could come back and that’s not a bad thing for me. For me that’s something which drives me on to every single thing that I want to do in a day, and to achieve as much as I possibly can just in case something does happen in the future.”

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