A few days ago, Scott Riddle sat down at his computer and began to write.
Just three weeks before, the 35-year-old Google employee had received life-changing news. He had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, and was coming to terms with the fact that he may well never see his three children, aged five, three, and a few months old, grow up.
As he grappled with the news, he wrote a 1,200-word piece on blogging platform Medium, titled: “I’m 35 and I may suddenly have lost the rest of my life. I’m panicking, just a bit.”
“I don’t even know why I did that Medium post, I had that urge to just sit down and just write about it,” Riddle told Business Insider in an interview over Skype from his family’s home in Australia.
The hastily written post detailed the discovery of his disease, his cloudy prognosis, and life lessons it had brought sharply into focus. He expected just a few people to see it — but more than 70,000 people have already read the post, and he has been shocked by an outpouring of support from strangers around the world.
At the heart of the post sits a very simple message: “Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime to do whatever it is you dream of doing.”
“Just three weeks ago,” Riddle wrote, “life was good. The newest edition to our family had arrived on Christmas Eve, joining his two sisters aged 5 and 3. A month later we were on a plane home to Sydney, having spent four great years working for Google in California.”
He had a new job lined up with Google, after working in strategy and operations for six and a half years in the US, while his wife had found a job with a logistics startup.
Then on July 19 he went for a visit to the doctor’s. Riddle had “noticed a bit of unusual bleeding … and very recently a change in bowel habit.”
The GP “didn’t even say he thought it could be cancer,” he told me, just that “you need to go for a colonoscopy.” But Riddle had been doing some research about the symptoms and possible causes beforehand — among them, cancer. “Suddenly all these images passed through my head.”
And then he fainted.
The following Monday, he went for the colonoscopy, where a doctor identified what appeared to be a cancerous lesion. It was subsequently confirmed as Stage 4 metastatic colon cancer — indicating it had spread to elsewhere in his body.
“It kind of feels like this wave coming up,” he said of receiving the news. “At first you take it in a very matter-of-fact way and you’re just digesting the information like another piece of data. Like ‘okay, I get that, I see what you’re saying.’
“And then you kinda find yourself tuning out as [the doctor] keeps talking, because suddenly the other part of your mind is racing to think of the implications. The risks. What it means for your family, what it means for your job, and what it means for your life.”
And just like that, his life changed forever.
Riddle is currently on a treatment of chemotherapy and radiation, with plans for surgery, and currently doesn’t even feel ill — just a little tired, he said. But his condition in the months ahead may change.
“Stage 4 however is not too good at all. Doctors use ‘survival curves’ — survival statistics for people with your cancer and your stage of progression — to provide some kind of prognosis. In my case, most published survival curves suggest that only 10% of people are still alive 5 years post diagnosis,” he wrote in his blog post.
“Now, I’ve since learned that there are many reasons not to focus too much on these statistics. My prognosis is likely better (none of my doctors will venture a guess) but it is no better than 50/50. And even if I live beyond 5 years, my life expectancy as a survivor of metastatic cancer will almost certainly be much curtailed.”
“I’ve noticed so many times in the last few weeks, I’m sitting on a train going back to the hospital and I overhear the kind of commuter conversations that you always overhear on a train,” Riddle told Business Insider. “You know, people getting ready for a meeting or someone’s dialed into a teleconference early from the train or something and I just think, ‘my gosh’ …”
He trailed off, temporarily lost for words.
“Some of the conversations I’m hearing seem so insignificant. Are you going to live, are you not, are you gonna be able to spend another year with your kids, are you going to see your wife, are you going to be able to help your parents as they get older? All of these really, really deep things that you don’t think about day-to-day, and suddenly when they’re threatened they’re the things you’re most scared of losing.”
It’s this message that Riddle felt compelled to share, and sits at the heart of his blog post: You can’t take for granted that you’ve got your full life ahead of you.
And there’s a more down-to-earth side of it too: Get tested. “On the very pragmatic level … take this stuff seriously, no matter what age you are whether it’s a lump on your balls, or something in your boobs, or whatever, not necessarily colon cancer, but just take that stuff seriously.”
Here’s an excerpt from what he wrote (emphasis ours):
“One of the things I’m struggling most with is this concept of legacy. I’m a planner. Before this diagnosis I’d been thinking of my 1st 35 years — aside from being a ton of fun and travel — as preparation. I felt like I was building a platform (savings, networks, skills, experience) that I could then use in my second act to make a real contribution, to ‘make my mark’, to build a real legacy for my kids. Perhaps that was a mistake on my part, because I may have no time to do that now. I guess I’m panicking a little.
“I feel like I have so many messages to deliver to the blissful masses from my now precarious vantage point, from the importance of early precautionary doctor visits to the merits of life insurance. But putting pragmatism aside, there is one thing I’d urge everyone to do. Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime to do whatever it is you dream of doing. I know it sounds ridiculously cliched, and of course you never think it will happen to you, but let me assure you that life really can be taken from you at any time, so live it with that reality in mind.”
Sydney, Australia. Corey Leopold/Flickr (CC)
One of the main reasons the Riddle family moved back to Australia was that they planned to buy land and set up their own farm. A question mark now sits over that plan, as Scott Riddle wrestles with the best cause of action. Should he create the farm, so it can act as a legacy for his family if he doesn’t make it — or would it risk unnecessarily burdening them?
The father-of-three also hoped to start his own business one day, but now has no idea if he’ll be able to.
He described a strange duality to his life: Carrying on, expecting to live — while also preparing for if the worst should happen. He has taken time off work (“Google’s been awesome,” he said, praising the company’s benefits package) as he sorts out his priorities and works out next steps.
“As I understand it, when you have metastatic cancer, even if I get to the end and they say ‘okay you’re all clear,’ you’re kind of never really clear if you’ve had metastatic cancer … lets say I get to the other end in January, I pop out the other side of two surgeries and chemo and radiation and they say all clear,” then he still needs to come back for frequent check-ups for the rest of his life.
“It’s going to be really interesting: How do you manage time and priorities in a situation where you can never really plan beyond 6 months or beyond a year? … I’m totally going to have to change my way of thinking, because I’ve always been a 30-year kind of guy. I was always like, ‘by the time I get here I’m going to have done x, y, and z, whereas now it’s going to be like: ‘Okay I should be good for another year, or good for another two years.”
The 35-year-old said he wrote the blog post in about 15 minutes, barely even proof-reading it before he posted it online — only going back to edit it later. But it clearly resonated, with tens of thousands of people reading it and commenting on Medium, Facebook, LinkedIn, and across the web.
“Scott, I’m not connected to you nor have we met but this story has moved me completely. I am literally sitting here in tears,” one message Riddle received said. “Your words have had a profound impact and from this day forward I’ll be getting regular health checks, abusing my body less (shitty foods and booze), getting fitter and seizing the day with a pep in my step from dawn to dusk. I’ll cuddle my kids just that little bit longer and tighter, I’ll whine less and I’ll love that little bit more. Thank you for wearing your heart on your sleeve and sharing the story with the world.”
The Australian never expected this outpouring of support, but hopes people will take it as a lesson.
“In your day-to-day [life] it’s a fact that you end up not focusing on the things that are most important, and every now and then a little reminder that things can turn out in very unexpected ways, it’s good. Most of the people who saw that Medium post and added a comment and were affected by it on that day … they’ve probably forgotten about it by the end of the week,” he said.
“But it’s sitting somewhere in their minds, yeah. If I can help people with that, even momentarily, or if it plants a seed in their mind to make a different decision or something, then at least some good comes of it.”
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Originally published at www.businessinsider.com