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Andrews finds inspiration through adversity

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After having difficulty swallowing for three months and suffering with earache and trouble speaking, Richard Andrews was diagnosed with stage 2 laryngeal cancer and began six weeks of radiotherapy in October 2018.

“I went from 110kg to 90kg and due to not being able to swallow I had a feeding tube inserted into my stomach, through which I had specialist shakes,” said Andrews.

Following radiotherapy, Andrews began swimming, running and cycling at a local health club before joining Hereford Triathlon Club, saying: “As a goal to aim for, I entered the Hereford Duathlon in the April, the Hereford 10km in the May and RunFestRun in the June and I would use these events to reenergise following the six weeks of treatment.”

Andrews completed the Hereford Duathlon, but during the 10km, he began to feel a return of his symptoms, saying: “I started to struggle with my breathing and having terrible trouble with earache, my wife Ann, who’s a nurse, directed me back to the hospital where, following further biopsies, I was diagnosed with cancer again.”

Unfortunately, this time the only option was a total laryngectomy and removal of Andrews’ voice box and lymph nodes. This means that his nose and mouth is now disconnected, and he has a stoma in his neck for breathing.

After a successful operation, Andrews then suffered complications which caused swelling in his face and neck and resulted in a speaking valve being fitted.

“The hardest part of recovery is both learning how to talk and how to swallow again. I don’t have sphincter at the top of my food pipe to add pressure to help me swallow so I have to rely on gravity,” said Andrews.

The cancers reoccurrence after the Hereford 10km disrupted Andrews’ training plans and, against doctor’s orders, he decided to compete at RunFestRun, collapsing over the finish line and needing oxygen.

“This led to me sitting in on a talk by Rory Coleman who had run numerous marathons and ultras but had been diagnosed with a serious illness which he fought to overcome and started running again. After the talk, I made a point of introducing myself and explaining my situation and to my amazement Rory offered to provide some training plans if I was interested after my laryngectomy.”

Andrews’ began following Rory’s training plan in September 2019 and entered the Cardiff half marathon and Pilgims Challenge Ultra Marathon.

“The plans developed my running but unfortunately my core strength was negligible so an old friend Ady Watts who runs a fitness centre agreed to help regain my strength in my core and neck regions,” said Andrews.

“The other area which needed work was my breathing, I breathe through one hole in my neck which creates a problem when exercising because, as the exertion increases, it becomes more difficult to get the air into and out of my lungs.

Andrews slowly built up his cycling fitness through social cycles with old friend and cycle coach, Jonty Williams, riding for 20-40 miles at a time, saying: “Following the cycle training over the last six months I have developed my technique and now have a Functional Threshold Power of just under 200, and cope with most of the major hills in Hereford.”

He now trains six days a week, running four times for a total of around 20 miles. He’ll cycle twice, for around 50 miles and take part in a strength a conditioning session. Andrews also joins Hereford Triathlon Club for a training session each week.

“Training with the triathlon club has developed my running over the last six months and the support and camaraderie has been a blessing. The biggest issue I have found with being a laryngectomee is the loss of confidence in social situations. The guys and gals on a Thursday evening run session have helped more than they know, I now feel comfortable and not as self-conscious.

“Having suffered from severe depression over the last ten years, I have found the exercise to be a wonderful comfort and has provided the structure I have needed since being diagnosed.”

Andrews joined a socially distanced 5km event during the first lockdown and despite never typically running to chase a time, would have been happy to improve upon his previous personal best of 28.15 across the distance.

“Despite wet and windy conditions, I crossed the line feeling particularly well. When I looked at my watch, I had run a 25.53. The smile was with me for the next couple of days. A big thanks to my tri club friends who as ever made me laugh, feel relaxed and helped me cross the line,” said Andrews.

Like many others across the world, the current pandemic has had a severe impact on the lives of Andrews and his family, saying: “My wife is an intensive care nurse so has been at the sharp end, we lost my father to Covid-19 in June and then to cap off the year, on the anniversary of my operation I was made redundant.

“The thing I have learnt over the last two years is be thankful for what you have and just get on with living. It would be all too easy to feel sorry for yourself but that doesn’t help. Covid-19 has allowed me to structure my training whilst spending more time with my family and I have recently started part time at Sainsbury’s packing shelves which has given me back a sense of pride and self-confidence.”

Andrews had a number of events planned for this year that were cancelled due to the suspension of activity and many of them have now been transferred to 2021. He also has plans to complete a pool-based triathlon, an open water triathlon and an IRONMAN.

The water-based goals are the highest on Andrews’ list as he explains: “Due to having a laryngectomy, I cannot swim until I have a special snorkel device fitted. This was due to happen this autumn but due to Covid-19, the only place in the UK to fit the device and teach me how to use it is currently shut.”

Through strong will, along with the support of his family and friends, Richard Andrews has already achieved so much, both in and out of the sport and he credits the people around him for helping him show that anything is possible.

“The last two years has been an interesting time, and everyone says how inspirational it is, however the only reason I am here and can do what I do is thanks to a lot of people. My family, Ann my wife and Josh, Gabby and Tom my kids,” said Andrews.

“When you have a laryngectomy, it is a nightmare to start with. My friends Fel and Jon, as well as so many others have been so supportive. And to the triathlon club, Spot on Coaching, Ady Watts, Holmer Park and the lovely people at Fatboys, thank you for treating me normally and giving me back my self-confidence.”

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