Survivor Wishes for Strength

Survivor Wishes for Strength

Leukemia survivor Brian Lau is working out at North Vancouver's Level 10 Fitness with SportMedBC Board Member Anthony Findlay. Lau was granted a wish by the Children's Wish Foundation and chose to take on a personal trainer to improve his health.

Andy Prest / North Shore News

October 6th, 2013

Disney World. Disney World. Meet WWE wrestler John Cena. Trip to Hawaii. Disney World. Mexico. Blue Jays tickets. Disney World. Disney World. Disneyland.

Browse through the list of recent wishes on the Children's Wish Foundation's website and a pattern starts to emerge.

"It's hard to go wrong with Disney, it's pretty darn magical," says Katie Spencer-Lim, the wish co-ordinator for the foundation's B.C. chapter. "We have those three categories - travel, item and celebrity. Disney is probably our biggest wish. Electronic wishes are really popular as well, all the technology that the kids like these days."

Lau & FindlayOn a recent Tuesday afternoon 18-year-old leukemia survivor Brian Lau is living out his wish on a cool concrete floor inside a nondescript light-industrial building in North Vancouver. There are no mice or princesses in sight, just a man standing a few feet away yelling at him.

"Big pull, let's go," says Anthony Findlay, owner of Level 10 Fitness, as Lau strains to get his face level with a chin-up bar. There's a 15-pound weight strapped to his waist by a thick metal chain. "Up, up, up, up, up!" It's no Disneyland but there's something magical happening here, too. It's helping Brian Lau stay alive, thrive even, after doctors told him at age 14 that there was a 50-50 chance that he'd soon be dead. It just might be the smartest wish anyone has ever made.

The story begins in a far off land with a shock to the system: a cold shower. Following his Grade 9 year at Vancouver's Gladstone secondary, Lau went on a summer trip to China to visit his extended family. His parents, who moved to Canada some 20 years earlier, did not accompany their Vancouver-born son on this trip to their homeland, instead leaving him in the care of relatives. A cold shower turned into a scorching fever and Lau found himself in a Chinese hospital.

"All my relatives said that I looked pale and that my lips were white," remembers Lau. "Looking back at the photos, it was pretty scary." He thought there was something wrong, but no one knew, or no one would tell him, exactly what it was.

"It was scary. I didn't know what was happening. I got blood work, I knew something was wrong at that time."

The teenager recovered enough to make it back home and attend the first two days of Grade 10 classes, but the problems persisted and he soon found himself back in hospital, this time at B.C. Children's. This time there was no ambiguity. It was cancer.

"Shocked, scared," recalls Lau. "I didn't know what was going to happen."

The diagnosis was acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a rapidly progressing cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Most common in children, there's a high rate of survival for kids who get ALL, but for adults the cure rate drops to around 30 or 40 per cent. Brian says his doctors pegged his survival chances as a teenager at around 50 per cent.

Immediately admitted to hospital, Lau first had a small port inserted just beneath his skin in his chest that would act as an insertion point for chemotherapy drugs for the next three and a half years. Chemo treatments followed along with heavy doses of medication.

Two months later he was still alive and allowed to leave the hospital, but there was still a long way to go.

Lau says the side effects of the chemo weren't devastating for him - his hair became soft and brittle but didn't fall out completely - but there were complications along the way.

"There was this phase of time where I couldn't eat, I had no appetite," he says. "I would puke a lot." There were also the lumbar punctures every month, a procedure used to draw out cerebral spinal fluid for testing. Lau was knocked out for each of those procedures and needed a week of recovery after each one before he felt energetic again.

It wasn't fun, but it was working.

Weekly chemo turned biweekly, then monthly, then every three months. Lau went back to school and resumed somewhat of a normal life, although the previously sports-mad kid couldn't play the games he loved - basketball, hockey, tennis, baseball, badminton, volleyball - at any kind of intensity because of his fatigue as well as the port stuck in his chest.

"It sucked," he says. "I wanted to join teams once I got back to school in Grade 11, but my mom would tell me not to in case anything happened."

He graduated high school on time though, and enrolled at Simon Fraser University in the fall. In the meantime he was put in contact with the Canadian-based Children's Wish Foundation and told he met their criteria for wish granting. He could have the experience of a lifetime, completely paid for by generous donors. That news coincided with another piece of news that was even better - he was cancer free.

On Dec. 31, 2012, Lau sat down for a chemotherapy session for the last time. Doctors now say he is basically cured, but Lau has learned that you can never turn your back on cancer.

"Every cancer there's still a chance it could come back; you can't say for sure it's gone," he says.

It's time to make a wish.

The folks at the Children's Wish Foundation say they never heard of such a thing.

"Before (cancer) I was pretty active," says Lau. "Once I got diagnosed all of that died off. I want to slowly pick it back up and get stronger, get healthier."

So, given the ability to choose whatever his heart desired, Lau asked for the services of a personal trainer. The foundation did its research, OK'd the plan and picked one man for the job.

Anthony Findlay grew up in West Vancouver, captaining West Van secondary in football, rugby and basketball before focusing on football at UBC and later in the CFL with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He started Level 10 Fitness in 1997 and since then his athletes have done everything from winning Olympic gold to playing in the Super Bowl. The call from the Children's Wish Foundation came out of the blue.

"My answer was, of course, I'd love to," says Findlay. "I'd be grateful and honoured to do it."

But there were concerns. "Lots of concerns," he says. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Lau's health wasn't the major concern for Findlay. Drawing on years of experience that included working with other cancer patients and survivors - though none with leukemia - and working with Lau's doctors, Findlay was confident in his ability to create and tweak a fitness program to fit his client's unique needs.

The pressure Findlay felt the most was to make the experience a worthwhile one, to live up to the word "wish."

"This is his wish - you want him to look forward to it, you want it to be excellent and rewarding and, basically, awesome," says Findlay. "I don't want it to be average, I don't want it to be like you could pick up some muscle (magazine) and see some exercises."

The first meeting in early May of this year involved the quiet teenager doing most of the listening while the friendly trainer did most of the talking. But Findlay got what he was looking for.

"I had him laughing in the first five minutes," he says. From there it was time to get to work. Calling Lau's fitness level "kind of average or below average," Findlay got him working on a full-body program. "Put it this way: he needed work on his core, he needed work on his upper and lower body strength, he needed work on his flexibility and mobility."

There were a lot of curious onlookers as well. Longtime Level 10 client Jason Garrison of the Vancouver Canucks stopped by to meet the young man, as did Chris Spencer of the Tennessee Titans. All three of the famous young hockeyplaying Reinhart brothers, Max, Griffin and Sam, hung out with Lau. The national snowboard cross team was there for a team workout one day and they invited Lau to join in.

Four months after that first session the changes are evident as Findlay and Lau go through one of their twice-a-week workouts. Findlay keeps up the chatter as Lau silently - "he's a real Chatty Cathy" the trainer jokes - works through a routine of squats, stationary bike, bicep curls and a curious-looking machine that astronauts use to stay in shape in space. Lau has added four and a half inches to his vertical leap and packed on 10 pounds of muscle.

"I'm glad to say that everything has improved dramatically, if not doubled and sometimes tripled in certain areas," says Findlay. "It's been surprising. He's had a very linear path of improvements - we're talking weekly. It builds, builds, builds.. .. He was just learning how to do a squat and now he's squatting 250 pounds!" Findlay seems a little staggered by what he's seen the past four months.

"He was just trying to stay alive," he says, "and now he's actually excelling and getting more flexible and improving his endurance and his aerobic capacity and strength and power. How exciting is that for me to be there watching him do it and helping him do it? There's something about when you've gone through a physical trauma where you're absolutely vulnerable and there's nothing you can do about it, to having the position he's in where you can feel like you're in control - that's something unique."

Let's make one thing clear - the Children's Wish Foundation and Level 10 Fitness did not save Brian Lau's life. That honour goes to the doctors who worked for years executing a plan to eradicate the cancer.

But Lau's wish? Skipping Hawaii, saying "no thank you" to the Canucks and dropping the free Xbox so that he could drive through heavy bridge traffic twice a week and rip through an exhausting, hour-long workout? That's some kind of wish.

"Could you think of a better one?" Findlay asks. "I know it's an experience when you go to, say, Machu Picchu - that's awesome and that can be inspiring as well - but this, what we're doing, I know is life changing. It's not 'can be,' it is. It's doing nothing but making him better and healthier and increasing his energy levels and increasing pride and self respect.. .. Not only has he already overcome the battle that he had with leukemia and going through the treatments, but this is just reinforcing that he is stronger than a lot of people who haven't gone through any of that stuff. I would think that this is probably the most wonderful choice that he could have made for himself. I think the benefits will keep coming up in the years to come for him versus riding on the Scream Machine or whatever they have at Disneyland or Magic Mountain or whatever. " Even the folks at the Children's Wish Foundation who work to make magic happen every day are taking notice of what's going on here.

"Personally I find it quite inspiring," says Spencer-Lim. "Day-to-day, so many of us in our regular lives find a lot of excuses to put our health second, so to look at a teenaged boy who's had health struggles that nobody his age should ever have, who's had this chance to do anything and chosen something so positive for his health was really great to see. I think it's amazing. He's obviously very driven, which is really cool. It's a lot of hard work. A lot of the wishes that we grant, they're fun and easy but he chose one that certainly involved a lot of work on his part."

Sometimes life doesn't give you a choice. Sometimes the cancer can't be stopped, the treatments don't work out. Brian Lau may not have been the one to ultimately decide whether he was going to die, but he certainly is now deciding how he's going to live. That's something that has touched those around him who have helped him on his way.

"I would hope that this would inspire people to make that move or do what they need to do in order to be more fulfilled in life," says Findlay. "People don't have to be weightlifters, they don't have to be runners, they don't have to do any of that stuff. But you have to do things that are going to help your basic quality of life.. .. Grab (life) by the horns now and then and see where it can take you, or see where you can take it, instead of being a bystander. I think that's what Brian has done. Stuff happened, tragedy - he's turned it around to being an advantage. And not only that, he's turned around his wish to something that can propel him. That's neat stuff."

It's more than most could ever wish for.

This article has been posted on SportMedBC.com with permission from Andy Prest and the North Shore News. It appeared in the North Shore News on October 6th, 2013.