Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Jake Bailey on his cancer fight: 'I try to not look too far into the future now'

As Jake Bailey spent long listless summer afternoons lying in his hospital bed, he wondered why so many people knew his name.

The teenager wondered exactly why his senior prize-giving speech went global, translated into dozens of languages.

He was puzzled why the New Zealand media had immediately picked up on it, zeroing in on one particular group of words where he urged his peers about to lurch into an adult world to, "be gallant, be great, be gracious and be grateful for the opportunities that you have".

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The intensely private 18-year-old, who doesn't even boast a Facebook profile, was astounded when hundreds, and then thousands, of letters and emails flooded into his Christchurch Hospital ward supporting his fight against the aggressive, rare cancer, and thanking him for inspiring them in their own daily battles.

But the one thing he never wondered; one which some cancer sufferers can become fixated upon was: Why me?

"I wasn't particularly emotional about finding out about it."

"While I was surprised by the [diagnosis], I wasn't afraid of the future at all," said Mr Bailey yesterday

"I wasn't particularly emotional about finding out about it. It was more difficult for my family than it was for me. For me, it was something I just had to get through ... a challenge lying ahead of me."

After months of intensive chemotherapy, Mr Bailey has been told by doctors that he is in remission from Burkitt's non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

He is on the slow road to recovery. Side effects include tiredness and nerve damage which makes walking "a little bit more difficult than usual".

Like he said in his inspirational, heart-wrenching speech -- which sparked an impromptu, rousing haka by his peers -- he is making short-term goals and being "micro-ambitious".

"I try to not look too far into the future now," he said.

"My experiences over the last few months have shown me that you can't really do that."

Mr Bailey had planned to study law and commerce at university this year.

Now, he's taking a year off and hopes to spend some time recovering on the Gold Coast.

But he hopes that his cancer fight, and the incredible response he had to his speech, will inspire other youngsters.

"I'm looking to definitely share my message."

"I'm looking to definitely share my message with other young people who are going through difficult times, in the hope that it can help someone else," Mr Bailey said.

Born in Christchurch in August 1997, Mr Bailey attended Cathedral Grammar before Christchurch Boys' High School.

Growing up, he enjoyed playing football, skiing, and water sports.

However, he admits that, "as boring as it sounds", schoolwork and study has also been his priority.

Elected senior monitor, or head boy, for his final year in 2015, Mr Bailey took his duties seriously.

"It was a huge honour to have bestowed upon me," he said.

"I was always really grateful to have that opportunity to lead the boys. It was a big part of who I am and will continue to be a big part of who I am."

The first signs of ill health came in the form of a sore jaw.

At first, it was thought to be impacted wisdom teeth.

But once they had been removed and his health hadn't improved, fears heightened.

"I was just generally unwell at the time. I was in bed, couldn't really get up. I was admitted to hospital and over a process of about a week, with various tests and scans and biopsies, it was discovered I had stage four Burkitt's lymphoma," Mr Bailey said.

Jake Bailey says he tries not to look too far into the future now. Photo / Supplied
Jake Bailey says he tries not to look too far into the future now. Photo / Supplied

"It's pretty incredibly rare. From what I know, the ward hadn't seen a case in nearly 18 months when I came through. So, it's pretty uncommon, but I wasn't really expecting to get cancer in the first place. It was all a bit of a shock."

Burkitt's lymphoma is a particularly fast-growing and aggressive form of cancer. Time is of the essence, and an equally aggressive treatment programme began immediately -- six days before Mr Bailey's senior prize giving on November 4 last year.

His health had deteriorated badly. On the day of prize giving, he couldn't decide whether or not he should make the arduous journey to attend, even with the aid of a wheelchair.

A nurse in the haemotology unit helped convince him to give it a go.

"Without her, it wouldn't have happened at all. Her words were, 'I don't want you to regret not doing it'," he said.

"The one thing that really drove me to do it was needing to finish the year as strong as I had started it. I felt I had an obligation to myself, as well as to the school to be able to deliver that speech."

The now famous speech had already been written before his diagnosis.

He drew inspiration from people he quoted, and from "other people's philosophies and things heard throughout my life I felt I could take something from".

While he was happy with his speech, and felt it reflected the message he wanted to pass on to his peers, he was surprised by the passage that the media fixated on, and would later win him Massey University's Quote of the Year 2015.

"It was not necessarily the quote I would have picked out of the speech ... I thought it had a few too many G's in it ... but other people seemed to like it."

While he accepts that his speech became more relevant, and poignant, after his diagnosis, he said the key messages had remained the same: short term goals, being grateful for the opportunities you've been given.

"I think that's a really important message to get to people," he said.

The response on the night was something he could never have imagined.

He received a standing ovation and schoolmates performed a haka, which Mr Bailey said was "probably the most powerful thing I have ever experienced".

While he was stunned by the response he had that night, nothing could ever have prepared him for his speech then going global.

A recording of the speech has now been viewed on YouTube more than 1.6 million times.

Prime Minister John Key was inspired to wear a wristband quoting, "Be gallant, be great, be gracious, be grateful".

The international response was "pretty odd for me", he said.

"I'm an incredibly private person. Just the process of each new day bringing new articles, or new agencies picking it up in new countries, translated in different languages ... it was a pretty surreal time."

People from across New Zealand and around the world felt compelled to write to him -- thanking him for his inspirational message, and wishing him a successful fight against cancer.

During his time in hospital, he wondered to himself why his words had sparked such attention.

"What might have been part of it is that everyone is going through a struggle. In my case, it was cancer but everyone is fighting their own demons," he said.

"I think when people see someone who's going through something tough, trying to draw inspiration, they are attracted to that."

Dr Ruth Spearing, a Canterbury District Health Board haematologist who helped treat Jake and who is also clinical lead for the Adolescent and Young Adult Services in Christchurch, said his positive attitude, strong family network, and ability to not look too far ahead certainly helped him beat cancer.

"Getting through each stage, each week, certainly helps a lot. If you've already got that as a life skill, that certainly helps a great deal," said Dr Spearing who worked alongside Mr Bailey's late great-uncle Ross Bailey, a revered Christchurch physician who he paid tribute to in his speech.

"It'll be a while before he's back on his feet but he is a very determined young man with great insight into how to look on the positive side of things."

Christchurch Boys' High School headmaster Nic Hill believes Mr Bailey should never have been at the school prize giving, given his extreme ill-health.

"Even when he was at his weakest, when he should be have been looking after himself, he was inspiring others," he said.

"He will be more than just the boy who had cancer. School days should not be the best days of your life.

"Christchurch has lost some wonderful children to cancer recently. I did notice with Jake that when he was in hospital and getting all of the world attention, he was aware that he was not the only one fighting cancer."

While preferring to stay out of the spotlight and the media's gaze, Mr Bailey has wanted to speak out in order to thank those people who supported him -- especially his parents, family, friends, schoolmates, the medical team at Christchurch Hospital, and the general public.

Their support, he says, were a "huge part" of his recovery.

And he is acutely aware that there are countless other individuals and families currently going through cancer battles who have not received the same level of attention and support he has.

"It is sort of embarrassing in a way, to be singled out of a crowd of really incredibly people who are going and doing incredible things," he said.

"I feel I owe it to them to let them be recognised as well, because I'm just one of many people, and my family is just one of many families who are going through this.

"There are so many cliches that people always say about cancer. People use words like 'journey' and 'battle', and even I've said them in the interview, but it's something which the people who have gone through it and been close to it find pretty tiresome towards the end.

"What I would say to the families is that going through something like this, it gives you opportunities, in a weird way. Opportunities to build close connections with people around you, and I think that's something you've really got to embrace. It's not only a silver lining, in a crude kind of way, but it's something which will really help you through the process."

While he wants to use his experiences to help others, Mr Bailey also doesn't want to let what he's been through define him.

"I never expected to be the person who got cancer. And I'm not going to be the person who had cancer for the rest of my life. For me, this is just an opportunity. It's a stepping stone to move on to the future."

- NZ Herald

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