By Andy Dennis, former Royal Marines Commando
How do I feel? It’s a strange question. I have pancreatic cancer, and doctors have told me that the rest of my life is likely to be counted in weeks, rather than months. To call this a blow doesn’t really do it justice. I choose not to dwell on it, but you can’t avoid thinking about it completely.
Physically I feel weak. I have lost so much weight that it is difficult to do little everyday things around the house, let alone any proper exercise. That is tough, particularly seeing how physical activity has been such an important part of my life.
I joined the Royal Marines when I was 18 and served for four years. While I cherished the brotherhood, I was protective of my decision to leave as a youngish guy and sort of closed the book on that chapter of my life. In my thirties and forties I lived a great, fast life.
Then in my 50s I discovered Brazilian jiu-jitsu. To some degree, I didn’t realise how much I missed the Corps till I found BJJ – the Brotherhood I didn’t know I missed, the Corps away from the Corps.
I wasn’t in bad shape for a man my age, but I had virtually no martial arts experience and I was a long way from being battle ready. But the instructors were brilliant, with a particular shout-out to Tom Showler, the amazing black belt at Sweatbox Bristol.
The great thing about jiu-jitsu is that it can be adapted to suit you. Whether you are a bit older, or have some kind of physical limitation, you can just choose the techniques that work for you and stick to them – you can leave all that fancy stuff to the kids.
Finding a new sport in my 50s changed my life. Being able to train hard gave me a buzz that made me feel like a teenager again. But the physical side is only part of it. I have been part of two great teams in my life. First I was in the Royal Marines, and then later in life I found jiu-jitsu. I was welcomed in like family, and it meant the world to me.
After the initial shock of being told that I had cancer, jiu-jitsu was a great help to me in many ways. From my first diagnosis, through to surgery and chemotherapy and right up to today, the support I get from the jiu-jitsu community is amazing. At tough times you really appreciate that close-knit family around you who will go to great lengths to help you.
As well as getting emotional support, jiu-jitsu was a driver for me to recover and a key influence on my medical treatment. Doctors could see how important it was for me to be physically active and as far as possible they gave me treatment options that would allow me to keep training. They even fitted a subdermal port for administering my chemo drugs so I could keep rolling, which I did for four of my six rounds of chemo. Even if I can’t train any more, I am so glad for every moment I spent on the mats.
Do I have any regrets? Some little things. I wish I hadn’t left so much practical stuff to sort out. So a boring piece of advice to anyone would be get all your paperwork in order when you are young, because it’s no fun doing it when you’re ill and just want to be enjoying the time you have left. But no real regrets. I’ve been surrounded by great people. So I suppose a more important piece of advice would be to make sure you’re around people that care about you and want the same things out of life.
I am still learning inspiring things and meeting interesting people. It was a great privilege to meet Sam Sheriff, who came up a couple of weeks ago and talked to me about all the work that Reorg is doing. Having seen the transformation in my own life, it is so comforting to know that more people are being helped in the way that I was, by getting them into a healthy activity that connects them properly to their fellow human beings.
There is a Royal Marines reunion in June and I’d love to be there. Maybe I will. But as it is, I’m enjoying my life.
How do I feel? The simple answer is I feel lucky. I have incredible friends. I’ve had 60 very good years and my wonderful daughter Sophia and her partner Ben have come to stay with me while I’m ill. So whatever happens, I’m happy to be here and I’m going to hang on as long as I can and enjoy every precious day with them.
Andy at Sweatbox Bristol. He was talking to Richard Holt.