‘After such a crushing diagnosis and an even more heart-wrenching loss of his only brother, Luke had every excuse not to pursue his degree at Oxford’

Oxford University
Dec 18, 2019 · 17 min read

Dying to live: a year in the life of an Oxford student with cancer and what he’s doing next.

Written by Jeremy Sigmon

In 2018 Luke Grenfell-Shaw was diagnosed with rare and aggressive Stage IV cancer, aged 24. 18 months later, he’s tandem cycling 23,000+, through 20+ countries, from #Bristol2Beijing

‘I’m guessing you might have noticed I’m not looking entirely normal. I’ve got cancer and I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy.’

In any other October of Luke Grenfell-Shaw’s previous 24 years, an unsuspecting classroom full of students and lecturers would have first noticed his determined stride, his sharp nose and cheek bones, his playfully spiky dirty-blond hair, or his aggressively floral shirts. This October, however, was different. It was Noughth Week of Michaelmas term 2018. Upon entering the room, it was clear that Luke’s remarkable features and even his outrageous shirt were muted by even starker characteristics — a pale bald head, a slightly swollen, eyebrow-less face, and a palpable sense of unease in his own athletic body.

I was among the group of new postgraduate students who noticed Luke walking in. Although we didn’t know it yet, this would be the only moment of the year when all the students and teachers would be in the same room. A fast-paced year running this way and that was about to begin. In the blink of an eye it would be over, and those of us pursuing a one-year Master’s of Science (MSc) degree would have graduated. And so, it went. At the close of the 90-minute induction meeting the group rose to mingle and connect. Luke did not linger for long and slipped out ahead of most of the group.

It was one week later, during the first official meeting of the Water Science, Policy, and Management cohort, based at the University of Oxford’s prestigious School of Geography and the Environment, that Luke first addressed the class: ‘Just to clear the air and to address it up front, I’m sorry I was unable to attend the induction field trip to Dorset. I’m guessing you might have noticed I’m not looking entirely normal. I’ve got cancer and I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy.’ His tone was frank and full of uncertainty. Luke continued, ‘I’ll be missing lectures and some other things this year. I just wanted you to know why I’ll be absent from time to time.’

The class responded with a mix of silence and supportive comments. It was uncomfortable to move on from the seriousness of Luke’s announcement to the next task — a seemingly inconsequential selection of two representatives from the class to liaise with the teaching staff. Stammering forward, we carried on. Again, Luke did not linger at the end of class. In this moment, he quite understandably had other priorities.

Indeed, Luke had missed the three-day induction field trip some ten days earlier because he had been scheduled for his fifth of six chemotherapy sessions at the Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre (BHOC). He had learned just four months earlier that a nagging ache in his back was actually an aubergine-sized tumour that had already found its way into his lungs. Luke abruptly left the teaching-abroad post he was enjoying in Siberia and quickly found himself back home in Bristol with chemicals in his veins to halt the cancerous growths. At the age of 24, some thirteen years earlier, I had just concluded a year of teaching abroad and was settling into a new city at the start of an exciting career. Luke, however, was at BHOC for chemotherapy treatment sessions. ‘I was attached to a drip for 20 hours a day, not all of it was chemo but I felt pretty terrible 24 hours a day.’ Luke, his family and friends, and now his new Oxford classmates and I learned just how quickly life can be turned upside down.

Luke was present for most classes and field trips during Michaelmas term. He appeared to regain his confidence with himself and with the group as the term progressed. His vitality seemed to grow when he was fresh off a long run. The result of these 5–25k runs before or after class often meant that he occupied his front-row seat in class in sporting attire. In the damp and frosty November air, Luke may have found surprising comfort in the fact that he was not the only student wearing shorts to class. Both Andrew, an American, and Rob, an Australian, shrugged off England’s autumn chills and wore shorts well into the winter.

Prior to his time at Oxford, Luke had been a national level triathlete and competitive runner and had also rowed for Durham University. He had become quite the cyclist as well. ‘My love of cycling started when I got my first (and current) road bike at 17. The bike just wanted to go fast,’ Luke told me one afternoon, ‘and that made all the difference!’ Prior to his diagnosis, he had also run several half marathons and two marathons. Many of these long-distance runs were unofficial, however, running just for the love of being outdoors and active. Luke’s parents, Jenny and Mark, were a big influence on Luke and his brother John’s love of sport, cycling away from their own wedding in 1990 on a tandem, a bicycle built for two.

Worcester College took excellent care of Luke during his transition into Oxford postgraduate life. They offered him a room on the college’s signature front quad lined with columns, wisteria, and rosemary. He was assigned a room near the Porters’ Lodge in Staircase 4 with a larger-than-average apartment that allowed for overnight visitors and, most importantly, his stationary bicycle. Luke made a point of taking himself to each of his treatments — whether cycling there and back from his home in Bristol to BHOC for chemotherapy or running from Worcester College to the Churchill Hospital in Oxford for radiotherapy and back again afterwards. His doctors remarked that he was the only patient they’d ever known to do so, something Luke has told me he wants to change. Reflecting on this decision, Luke said, ‘It was such a positive way to adapt and take control of a situation that can end up defining people’s lives.’ He even brought a stand for his bicycle to treatment with him to convert it into a stationary bicycle because, he says, ‘I wasn’t going to lie down all day if I could help it. Using my stationary bicycle would be slow and brief but much better than nothing.’

Throughout Michaelmas term, his classmates grew accustomed to Luke’s distinctive look — including floral shirts, technicolor socks, pink and blue ink-stained fingers from his dedication to fountain pens, and bald head — and his provocative questions. No lecture was complete without a question near the end of class from the front row, where he would ask some variant of, ‘But isn’t the opposite also true?’ Rarely caught flat-footed, the lecturers usually answered with some variant of, ‘Yes, sometimes, which underscores why context matters.’ Luke further applied his critical thinking skills by leading a team with Oxford Development Consultancy, helping a Chilean start-up harness Blockchain to promote volunteering and so-called ‘virtuous triangles’ between volunteers, NGOs and private companies.

Luke’s love of language and presentation first became clear to his classmates at the end of Michaelmas Term during a debate about policies to limit the encroachment of invasive species in ships’ ballast water. Luke argued colourfully for tighter regulations to protect British waters from invasive shrimp while lighting up the room with his characteristic sharp hand gestures and humour. In Hilary Term these skills were again on display during Luke’s masterful renditions of rap ballads from Hamilton, the musical.

Luke, in a trademark bright shirt, presents his argument during a debate with his Water Science, Policy, and Management classmates.

‘My back was pretty infected and covered in pustules, but I got such a kick out of racing and pushing my body.’

These creative outlets provided some relief from Luke’s daily battle with cancer. After stalling the cancer’s growth with six sessions of chemotherapy, he went under the knife in late November. The aim was to remove the primary tumoir beneath his left shoulder blade. The surgery required the removal of a shoulder muscle, limiting strength and mobility. As a sendoff for this shoulder muscle, Luke competed in a half ironman triathlon in Egypt on 24 November to enjoy the thrill of using his whole body in an intense swim, cycle, and run. Somewhat surprisingly to him, he finished in second place.

In December and January, Luke also conducted research to produce an essay on the potential benefits of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam to Sudan as a conclusion to his class on Water and Society in the Middle East. It was while studying Natural Sciences, Biology, Arabic and Russian at Durham that he had developed his interest in this complex geographic region, which he had explored a few years previously by bike, cycling the Egyptian Nile River Valley with his friend Zak. This trip, and its many adventures, sparked his love of cycle touring. Since then his interests have moved further east, to Central Asia, another region which faces complex water challenges.

While others spent their winter holidays resting and working on their research papers, Luke kept pushing himself to be better, to work harder, and to live more fully. Pleased with his progress, Luke’s doctors began attacking the place where the tumour had been with concentrated blasts of radiotherapy in January and February 2019. His skin still raw after treatment, Luke entered the Oxford-Cambridge duathlon (run-bike-run) in February and won. ‘My back was pretty infected and covered in pustules, but I got such a kick out of racing and pushing my body,’ he said.

In the middle of his tumultuous school year, Luke competed in the Oxford-Cambridge duathlon and won the race. (Credit: That Camera Man)

For his water science classmates, Hilary Term revealed a new Luke. Radiotherapy’s concentrated attack on his back and shoulder meant that the general assault of chemotherapy was behind him, or at least for now. His hair began growing back, his face regained its more chiseled look, and he no longer sported a bandage on his upper arm where chemicals had dripped into his veins during his six rounds of chemo treatments. In early 2019, Luke looked and appeared to feel more alive. ‘In hospital during my chemotherapy treatments I felt quite rotten much of the time,’ Luke recalled. ‘I had little energy but I tried so hard to make sure I was active — sometimes on my stationary bike, even with the pedals moving slowly, though I tried to make sure I did an hour’s gentle walking each day.’

Every few weeks Luke invited his classmates over to Worcester College for a meal. He once collaborated with fellow classmate members of Worcester College, Michelle and Tianyao, to bring more than half the class to a formal dinner in Worcester’s majestic dining hall, its walls painted in a surprising palette reminiscent of spring flowers. Most times, though, the meal was in his apartment overlooking the front quad. This was where and when we gained a deeper glimpse into Luke’s daily routines. He wakes with a burning desire for coffee and a mammoth-sized bowl of porridge topped with nature’s bounty of berries, nuts, and seeds. He runs far, often, and sometimes twice a day. He reads his textbooks while atop his stationary bicycle. He keeps up his music skills by practicing, when inspired, on his bagpipes and bassoon. His dinners generally consist of beans and vegetables in a stew with some kind of wholegrain starch. He has mostly cut out alcohol. He eats oat cakes with reckless abandon.

‘When I learned I had cancer, I did a lot of reading and tried to make choices that might improve my chances of being on the good side of the figures,’ Luke said. ‘I can’t control the fact that I got cancer, but I can control how I live with it and I can do everything possible to reduce the chances of it continuing to grow.’ His research and this outlook on his cancer have led Luke to a series of dietary choices that are not usually popular with athletes who burn in excess of 3,000 calories per day. He became a vegetarian shortly after learning of his diagnosis and his modified diet seems not to hold him back in the slightest.

With five weeks of radiotherapy behind him by the end of Hilary term, his classmates found Luke welcoming us even more into his life — this time through sport. He joined a group of three other classmates on a team for the Teddy Hall Relays and ran four consecutive five-minute miles. During the class field trip down Spain’s largest river, Luke invited classmates to join his runs each day — often twice in one day. We shared a room during the field trip and I quickly became Luke’s willing running partner for the week. I have never run more in my life!

On 10 March 2019, Luke was winding down for the night with a heavy heart. The class was on its field trip, which began in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. It was the eve of his 25th birthday, a day that just 9 months earlier he didn’t expect to see. Having not chosen to talk much about his cancer during the school year, most of us knew only that things seemed to be getting better and that he seemed to be more and more alive. ‘You’ve had one hell of a year, Luke,’ I said. ‘It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and feeding off your amazing resilience and drive.’

‘You don’t know the half of it,’ he replied, his eyes locked on the floor. ‘Did you know about my brother, John?’ I shook my head. Luke’s voice cracked. ‘He had an accident in the Lake District last summer. He slipped and fell to his death. I received the call while I was at the hospital for my first chemo treatment. He was only 25.’

Luke and his older brother John at the 3,088m summit of Qurnat as Sawda in Lebanon in 2015.

I listened, thought, and listened some more. Away from home, his brother now gone, and his cancer still looming, Luke was facing a 25th birthday unlike any other I have ever helped to celebrate. But celebrate we did, and onward he went. When back from Spain, Luke celebrated his birthday with friends and family in full bagpipe fanfare by hosting a ceilidh, a Scottish-themed folk dancing party.

During the class field-trip, I found a restaurant in Zaragoza Spain that perfectly matched Luke’s favourite shirt.

‘Luke joined his classmates at the Sheldonian Theatre for his graduation to be awarded — against the odds — a distinction.’

Before Trinity term Luke had written another paper, this time on the emerging potential of a bond-like financial instrument called ‘green sukuk’, for his elective course on Finance and Sustainability. Luke ran another 10K and, again, left most of the competition in the dust. After weeks of exam preparations on our own, Rob (the Australian) and I joined Luke for daily study sessions for more than a week where we practiced, critiqued, discussed, and repeated. In May, Luke, his coursemates, and I sat for exams in water science, water and society, and water management during an intense week of sub fusc at the Examination Schools.

The invigilators opened the windows to help cool down the body heat, but the warm early summer air provided little comfort. We worried that Luke’s flowery handwriting — arguably as flowery as his shirts and socks — might not be legible to the examiners, especially when written under pressure. Luke brought rosemary clippings from Worcester College gardens for the class to wear in our lapels because they are said to enhance memory. Afraid that this may be against the rules, most of us gave it a few sniffs and left the clippings outside or tucked them under our gowns. Rosemary or not and fountain pens flowing, Luke performed well on his exams. After a year of being tested in every kind of way, Luke had learned the hard way how to stay calm and perform.

Summertime in Oxford is a beautiful thing. Swimming in the Thames, lounging in University Parks, punting on the Cherwell, having a pint at The Bear in the glow of sunset after 9pm. Many MSc students don’t see very much of summer, however, since field work and solitary confinement for dissertation drafting tend to keep us away from enjoying too much of the summer fun in the City of Spires. Such was the case for Luke. His research project, which he had been designing since December, investigated the potential for Saudi Arabia to save precious freshwater resources by cooling their many greenhouses with saltwater. His research included a trip to Saudi Arabia to conduct in-person interviews, close-up visits to see the applied technologies, and market research.

Back from Saudi Arabia, Luke invited his classmates to Port Meadow for a moment of summer bliss at the end of July. Just a few days later, he packed his bags and moved to Central Asia on 4 August. With some research and a lot of writing still ahead of him for the final month before the deadline, he did his best to avoid the pain of writing up a dissertation by jumping into a new project. The trip to Central Asia was a renewed attempt at teaching abroad, determined not to be interrupted by cancer this time around. Just before departing for Kyrgyzstan he wrapped up his entrepreneurship project with a solid report of recommendations for the Chilean social enterprise. While getting settled at the University of Central Asia in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan where he would spend the next five months teaching human geography, he found time to write and refine a distinction-earning dissertation of 79 pages, often from the patios of his favourite coffee shops in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. On 9November 2019, Luke joined fellow Oxford Geography and Worcester College classmates at the Sheldonian Theatre in light blue and grey regalia for his graduation to be awarded — against the odds — a distinction.

Luke and classmates gather on the banks of the Thames in Port Meadow to celebrate summer in Oxford and wish Luke well for his five-month teaching post in Central Asia.

‘Luke gained a rare insight that only people with a brush with death at a young age may be able to see: that our days are indeed numbered and that we mustn’t wait to start working towards our dreams.’

After such a crushing diagnosis and the even more heart-wrenching loss of his only brother, Luke had every excuse not to pursue his MSc degree at Oxford this past year. Indeed, he told me that, at times, he questioned whether he had made the right choice to spend his time preparing for a career and life that he may not be fortunate enough to live. With all his determination, confidence, and success, even Luke had doubts. However, he told me, ‘I decided that a year at university was the perfect thing for me. It would give me something to focus on beyond my diagnosis and some concrete goals I could achieve, which was very motivating. And, importantly,’ he added, ‘it meant that I wasn’t defined simply as a cancer patient. Although it was tough at first, it would also introduce me to new people that I could bond with and learn from during the next several months of uncertainty.’

From the depths of confusion and despair, Luke found strength in wisdom shared by his family and his friends. He recognised that neither he nor anyone else had much control over when or how they would leave this world, and that most people generally think they’ll live a long life. In short, most of us imagine we’ve got time. With the news he received in Bristol in June of 2018, Luke gained a rare insight that only people with a brush with death at a young age may be able to see: that our days are indeed numbered and that we mustn’t wait to start working towards our dreams. So, with some changes to his diet and a doubled-down commitment to an active lifestyle, Luke also spent much of his Oxford school year thinking about how he could truly put this mantra for living into action.

On 1 January 2020, Luke will begin a 23,000+ kilometre cycling trek across the world. He will begin his journey at BHOC where he received so much of his treatment. He’s headed to Beijing, though his chosen route is far from the most direct path. Part of his adventure includes exploring the old and new Silk Roads, which will take him back through Central Asia where he has spent the last few months. During an interview with Luke on the Oxford radio show I co-host, I asked him what he hopes to do after he crosses through the 20+ countries and arrives in Beijing. He told me with a smile, ‘I’d like to cycle back, via a different route… possibly a longer one.’

Luke’s Bristol2Beijing expedition is centred around his passionate message for young people living with cancer, and for everyone else, about living fully and richly. For Luke, a full and rich life centres around fulfilling experiences with friends and family and the full-body thrill of sport. I’ve heard him say that he may really be hooked on the endorphins that come from sport and exercise. His research into cancer and diet has also compelled him to initiate and consistently maintain an almost entirely meat-free diet with virtually no processed foods or grains, he says, ‘just to make sure not to give my cancer anything it likes!’

Most important for him, though, is sharing this constructive outlook on tackling life and dreams urgently, to the best of one’s ability, with other young people living with cancer. He calls himself a CanLiver, a term he has coined because he says we can live with cancer, even if time may be short. That’s why his bicycle, like that of his parents on their wedding day, is built for two. He is inviting CanLivers, especially young people, to join him for segments of his journey around Britain, through Europe, across Turkey, through Central Asia, through the valleys of the Himalayas, and across the Chinese plains to Beijing. Luke will pedal through diverse landscapes and cultures of more than twenty countries and will look good doing it. Like his ink-stained fingers, Luke’s tandem and jerseys sport his favourite, lively colours: pink and electric blue. It’s an adventure he’s been dreaming about for several years now, and he’s excited to share it.

‘I’m setting out for the adventure of my lifetime,’ he tells his audiences. ‘What are you doing today to help you move towards the adventure of your lifetime?’ Most importantly, Luke says with enthusiasm and a full-body gesture to anyone who will listen, ‘Just get up, be active and live fully! Make the most of your life!’ He enthuses, ‘Living like this makes me happier on a daily basis, and healthier, too. It’s worked really well for me. In truth, we only die once but each day we have the opportunity to live. I invite you to join me in making the most of today because we just don’t know how many tomorrows we have left.’

Me and Luke in snowy Naryn, Kyrgyzstan at the University of Central Asia in November, 2019.

You can learn more about Luke, his CanLive cause, and his expedition at his website: www.bristol2beijing.org. He and his team of supporters hope this inspires you to think differently about how you choose to live today, this week, this month, or this year. Follow Luke’s inspiring story and message on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Weibo. If you are inspired, feel free to donate money or in-kind support.

Written by Jeremy Sigmon

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