In October 2021 Luke Grenfell-Shaw won the Eden Marathon, a race around Cornwall’s Eden Project. The 27-year-old from Bristol’s time of 2:45:27 on the hilly, mostly offroad course was impressive, but not normally an achievement this magazine would report given that the event was a small one with just over 200 participants. However, combined with his other recent achievements, this one really does look remarkable.
Grenfell-Shaw is a ‘CanLiver’ – a word he coined because he hates the term ‘cancer survivor’. It means he’s living with cancer, a stage four, metastatic variety that he says was ‘as bad as it gets’ when he received the diagnosis in June 2018. Then, a month later, as he began chemotherapy, his older brother John fell to his death in an accident on the hills in the Lake District. ‘I was essentially fighting for my life at that time, just focusing on getting through each day,’ he says. ‘My parents had it worst in many ways.’
Yet rather than crushing him, if anything these trials have driven him on to a series of extraordinary feats. Two months after starting chemotherapy he ran the Bristol Half Marathon in 1:20:08. Straight after that he began a Master’s Degree in Water Science at Oxford University and graduated with a distinction. In November 2018, to bid farewell to the shoulder muscle he would lose during an imminent operation to remove his main tumour, hampering his swimming ability, he entered a half-Ironman triathlon in Egypt and came second.
At the time of writing, he’s sitting on the front seat of a tandem near the northern border of Pakistan, midway through a mammoth cycle from Bristol to Beijing that has so far raised over £100,000 to be shared between five different charities, including Teenage Cancer Trust and Young Lives vs Cancer. He’s been encouraging other CanLivers to come and join him on that second seat, recording a podcast about his journey so far and spreading a powerful message about grabbing every day with both hands.
When we speak he’s back in Bristol, waiting to pick up the bike after a few repairs and getting ready to restart his journey, which began on New Year’s Day 2020 but has happened in multiple legs mainly thanks to Covid. He’s keen to stress that he’s no superman. He took the news of his diagnosis as badly as anyone.
‘That day, I was crying into the sofa. It’s very difficult to communicate what it felt like,’ he says. ‘My dad said: ‘Let’s go for a run. You’ll feel better if you do.’ We went out over the downs in Bristol and ended up looking out at the suspension bridge, and he said: “If you’re only going to live for three more months,” – which seemed pretty plausible at that point – “that’s absolutely awful, but there’s very little you can do about it. What you can do is make a choice about how you spend that time.” Of course I didn’t just jump up and say, “You’re right, dad, I won’t be unhappy any more!” It isn’t like that. But we all have that choice about how we use our time, and it becomes very stark in that kind of situation.’
He wants to share with others with cancer how much exercise helped him, both physically and mentally, during the toughest times of his illness. ‘Running is my first passion, more than cycling. It’s my meditation, and it’s helped me enormously over the past three years,’ he says. ‘But if you’re stuck in a hospital bed, walking down the corridor a few times a day is just as valid as me going for a run. It’s about being more active than you would otherwise be, and the positive feelings that come from helping yourself when you’re in a difficult situation. Exercise is also a way of reasserting your identity as a human being, rather than a patient.’
He also became a vegetarian after his diagnosis. ‘That, and continuing to run, was all about doing whatever was in my power to try to give myself the best possible chance of being one of those bloody lucky people who lives a little bit longer. Ultimately there’s a huge amount of luck involved, but I do think my attitude has helped.’
As for the big bike ride, it’s something he’d been dreaming of for years, faintly pencilled in for an unspecified time when he was in a good position in a career, owned a house and so on. ‘It was the day I was diagnosed that I realised I had to get on with it. Now the original idea has grown and grown into something that stands for a lot more. That’s really exciting.’
When we say goodbye, I ask the traditional interviewer’s wrapping-up question, and realise how stupid it sounds as soon as it comes out of my mouth: what’s next? ‘A lot of people kind of live in the future. I used to. We tell ourselves things like: “This job will be great once I get promoted.” Something I’ve learned the hard way is just to enjoy today,’ he says. ‘Let the future take care of itself.’