As I enter the XCHC Cafe I am met by a smile and a wave from someone beside the adjacent entry. Even before my vision gains focus, I know it is Jake. I close the door behind me and make my way past the kitchen towards him. He’s dressed on the smarter side of casual which suggests to me the informal tone I can conduct today’s conversation in. Our introduction is friendly. Then, as if punctuality is ever a nuisance, he apologises for being 20 minutes early. He’s instantly likeable. We take a seat at the most nearby table; well-lit by natural sunlight, private from the main room yet still in close proximity to the clinking cups and aroma of coffee beans.
After getting to know each other, I reveal my personal connection to Jake’s story. I admit to having read his book and apologising for the parts of his story I have forgotten that he can only remember. I explain the commotion I found myself in during and after I read his book, believing it could have been me. I go on to suggest what commotion he must have encountered having actually lived the experience. He laughs in approval of my curiosity. And in the moment before he begins to respond, it becomes clear to me the good fortune in my particular naivety.
As an 18 year old, and as the Senior Monitor of Christchurch Boys’ High School (CBHS), Jake was enjoying his space in the world. Like anyone of this iconic age he had access to the fun of adulthood without too much of the responsibility. He was making plans to go to Auckland University to study Law and Commerce. Then, just a week before he was to deliver the end of year speech at the CBHS final assembly, “like a sledge hammer through the door at three in the morning” he was diagnosed with the fastest growing form of cancer, Burkitt’s Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Jake would deliver his end of year speech from a wheelchair. He was clearly very ill yet managed to push through almost 20 minutes under the spotlight. He admits that due to being so exhausted and unwell he does not actually remember giving the speech, although he does remember snippets from the moments that surrounded it. He jokes that it’s like someone else had given the speech he has subsequently has gone on to live the life that has resulted from it.
On the same day he gave his speech, CBHS was receiving unwelcome media attention for a game of bullrush that had injured some students. When a reporter arrived at the school to conduct interviews, their attention was instead brought to the incredible speech Jake had given. This gave the speech an initial traction that rapidly grew, and soon it made headlines on 7NEWS in Australia and other media outlets across the globe. The original video posted on the CBHS YouTube page now has 1.8 million views.
Whilst the media interest was growing, Jake was physically isolated in the hospital. He was in a positive pressure room with twin air locks and a filtered air system, amongst the underground floors of the hospital. This ward was a corridor down from the morgue, which led to jokes that they were situated nearby for the logistical convenience if they were to die. Despite what a possible reality this may have been, Jake never doubted that he would live even as he began the stages of chemotherapy and treatment. “Being an 18 year old guy...you’re just ten foot tall and bulletproof” he reflects, “I was utterly naive and completely oblivious to the risk that was posed to my life and my mortality.” Such naivety aided his ability to be optimistic. He
looked at the treatment pathway ahead of him and figured that if he went into remission by February he could start University in March and life would “continue on as usual.” He claims that with no childcare responsibilities, no business to run or even a job, it made the transition from his prior existence to one where he was now a patient much simpler than what it would be like for someone older who had bigger roles to fulfil.
Jake went into remission on January 29th 2016 and received offers to speak at events the following day. A week later he began engaging with the media. One of these engagements was a radio interview with Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB. The head of publishing for Penguin Random House NZ was driving her daughter to school when the interview aired, and it was her daughter who first suggested the idea of getting Jake to write a book. That idea became a reality when “What Cancer Taught Me” was published the following year on May 12th.
He began accepting public speaking offers as soon as he could and this has since made up the majority of his work for the past five years. He says that he did not accept the offers on the basis of fulfilling a passion for public speaking but rather to fulfil the opportunity to share lessons he’s learned that he genuinely believes can help other people the way they have helped him. “To not take that opportunity would be unconscionable,” he says. He believed by now the interest in what he shares would have died down, but there remains an audience for what is today nothing less of a powerful message. Whether it be by speaking to high school students, educating medical professionals on patients’ perspectives, or sharing
messages with corporates about helping their staff become more resilient; he will continue to fulfil the “incredible honour”.
Jake has been involved with various health organisations and foundations such as Maia Health and Tour de Cure Australia. Having had his own health become so compromised and life threatening, it is now something he values with the utmost importance. He competes in and trains for endurance events such as the Coast 2 Coast, which he has completed twice.
Next on his event calendar is a 50km Ultra Marathon and in 2022 he hopes to compete in an 85km Ultra Marathon on the West Coast. The athlete he is today contrasts substantially a former self who had just finished year 10 - the last year at CBHS where Physical Education is compulsory - and who liked knowing he would never be made to run again. Other than the obvious health benefits, his interest in exercise came from the parallels he found between endurance sports and cancer: having to sit with an uncomfortable sensation for a prolonged period of time and having to be okay with it, the power of the mind over the body, and having our limits tested. In addition to exercise, he maintains a healthy diet and drinks lots of water.
Beyond physical health, he emphasises the need to find a moment of joy or something to be grateful for everyday, no matter how bad some days can be. When Jake speaks he effortlessly exudes this gratitude for his life. He is well aware that he has walked a similar path to people who, unlike him, are not alive today. What is also apparent is his gratitude for the lives around him, such as his family and friends. Whether consciously and unconsciously he even installed in me a belief that he was genuinely grateful for our interaction. I would struggle to believe that he now ever makes anyone feel much different.
On the 29th of January this year, Jake reached the five years in remission marker and was announced cured. Whilst this is a massive milestone in his journey with cancer, it does not mean the journey is over. What is interesting is that he had expected the milestone to be to be a call for celebration, and prior to reaching the day he and his family had imagined a party and joked the guest list would include the likes of Barack Obama and Kanye West. However, when the day arrived the expected emotions were absent. He instead recalls feeling “not quite sombre but reserved”. He accounts this to the knowledge of the only alternative to reaching the five year mark, a reality that so many he’d known and supported had unfortunately realised. He explained it would’ve felt like “dancing on the graves'' of those people who didn’t get the same opportunity and that everything he’d needed, in terms of a celebration from the milestone, had come from going through the experience and not from surviving it; from the journey and not the destination.
I rounded out our conversation with two questions I knew would produce answers that communicated Jake’s wise perspective. Unsurprisingly...he delivered.
M: What is something you would like to see change the culture young New Zealanders grow up in?
J: The drinking culture is one thing that truely comes to mind. Prior to my diagnoses I was pretty rough and ready when it came to the weekend so I feel like I have been through that, and having experienced it, I understand it and what it is about for young people. It is pretty hard to deny that it stems from our mental health crisis. The impact of glamorizing drinking amongst young people is a really negative thing. I’m not opposed to drinking but I think the way that it is so widely practiced and accepted by young people is something that ought to be altered. I’m not saying ban the drink or raise the drinking age but maybe we need to actually grow up with an awareness of what we’re really doing to ourselves when we get stuck in as hard as I used to when I was 18.
M: If you could impress a belief upon people, what would it be?
J: Get out there and do stuff because there are so many people who are dead by our age, and we are not. It sounds like a really morbid thing but it’s actually not; it’s the complete opposite. It should be an inspiration to people to go out and live each day with passion and with pride to their very fullest simply because they’re able to do so. Jake, thank you so much for your time last Thursday. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and am grateful for your words and your character. Thank you also for the positive influence you’ve had in my life and so many others.
Max Anderson for Christchurch Youth Council.
Check out more from Jake, buy his book or contact him via his website