How triathlon helped me through a terminal cancer diagnosis

Nigel Shaddick opens up on his battle with cancer and the role triathlon played before, during and after

Nigel Shaddick competing in the Starman Triathlon

In 2016, triathlete Nigel Shaddick was diagnosed with cancer and given just 12 months to live. Five years on he’s in remission and has just completed the gruelling Starman Night Triathlon. This is his story…

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When I was 40 I gave up smoking and adopted a healthier lifestyle. I joined Triathlon Inverness in 2012. By 2014 I was racing Ironman-distance including Outlaw and the Celtman. I do it for the social side and to keep fit.

Just keep on cycling…

I was diagnosed with mesothelioma [a rare form of cancer that’s usually linked to exposure to asbestos] in 2016 and my health deteriorated. I had stage-three lung cancer but was still able to cycle 100 miles.

Before diagnosis, I knew something wasn’t right. I did Ironman Wales and then a swimrun event, which didn’t go that well at all. I had to retire and it was my first-ever DNF. I just wasn’t breathing well, was knackered and couldn’t keep up. I went to my doctor, who was a local athlete, and he sent me for an X-ray.

The radiographer spotted something and sent me for a CT scan. Then they did a biopsy, which took three weeks to analyse. I just carried on cycling every day for three weeks and then I got the diagnosis – I probably had a year. It was devastating. They decided we’d just watch, wait and see what happens. They didn’t want to put me on chemo because it’s horrible, so I just carried on cycling, going to Majorca to do the big rides and took time off work.

After about three months I managed to find a clinical trial for an immunotherapy drug. That was in August 2017. The infusions were once every two weeks. It was no bother; it wasn’t like chemo at all and you hardly get any side-effects. Mine was in Edinburgh, so it meant I could go for my infusions and then get on a plane and go to Lanzarote with my bike.

Welcome news

Triathletes line up at the start of the Starman Triathlon
Triathletes line up at the start of the Starman Triathlon (Credit: Ed Smith Photography)

I had scans every six weeks and by the time November came around the tumour had reduced massively. Gradually it just chipped away at it until December 2020 when I was in full remission.

I’m back to full-time work and I’m back at the triathlon club now. The Starman Triathlon was my first race back. It’s sort of like a half Celtman, but it’s at night – it was brilliant. The organisers were great. Their ethos is they want everyone to be safe, everyone to have a good time and if you get over the finish line you get a medal. They weren’t too bothered if you only did one mountain, two mountains or half the swim, as long as you let them know. It was great, really good fun.

I’m learning how to run again. I’m so unfit compared to how I was. I was diagnosed at 50 and now I’m nearly 55. All of a sudden I’m having to fight against my age as well as my lung fitness. But I’m going to do the Starman again next year. I just want to experience everything. It’s a bit much sometimes and I go to bed absolutely exhausted. I think back to when I couldn’t run, so I’m out running and swimming loads now.

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Top image credit: Ed Smith Photography