For close to three decades Ian Botham has strained every sinew to raise funds to battle leukaemia. But sometimes one can only go so far
I remember vividly the time, the place, and even the gradient of the road on which I first spoke to Ian Botham about his crusade against leukaemia. It was shortly past midday on October 17, 2006. We were steaming down the hill from Holborn Circus towards New Fetter Lane on the fringes of London's Square Mile, on the final leg of his 11th charity walk, a nine-day rampage through 17 English cities.
"Ian won't be doing one-on-one interviews today," I'd been told by his PR team before the start. "But you're welcome to chat to him on the road... if you can catch him!"
Some "if" indeed. Botham walks like a force of nature, and who has ever tried to make small talk with a hurricane? Eventually, in the interests of good journalism, I willed myself at least to try, and ignoring my pace-stressed shins, pulled away from my fellow stragglers - DJ Spoony and Piers Morgan among them - to join him at the front of the pack. My opening gambit still makes me wince. "So Beefy," I joshed. "Have you ever considered slowing down?" He shot me a look of withering condescension before ratcheting up the tempo another notch. "No," he scoffed. "Why?"
That was me told. But of course, I'd known the answer already. Nothing and no one slows Botham down, not since a much-storied encounter at Taunton's Musgrove Park Hospital in 1977. Back then he was 21, a newly capped Test cricketer in the prime of his life, but grumpily inconvenienced by a broken foot. With typical restlessness he wandered into the children's ward and happened to get chatting to four young boys playing board games, seemingly without a care in the world. He promised to pop in for further visits when he returned for his fortnightly check-ups, but by the time his foot was healed, all four had passed away.
That encounter jolted the self-pity out of Botham. At the same time the injustice of their deaths stoked his competitive spirit. Back then, the survival rate for leukaemia was a paltry 20%. Now, thanks in no small part to the soles of Botham's own feet, that rate is up to 92% and climbing. Since his legendary first yomp from John O'Groats to Land's End in 1985, he has personally raised more than £15m over the course of 16 treks and, in the spirit of Sir Lancelot, earned himself a richly deserved knighthood along the way. Nope, he won't be slowing down until the disease is crushed, and why would he?
Botham with Frank Keating of the Guardian on a walk in 1988
© Getty Images
Botham with Frank Keating of the Guardian on a walk in 1988 © Getty Images
In September 2012, my nine-year-old niece Issy was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, a particularly aggressive strain of the disease. A week before her diagnosis, she had been doing cartwheels on the concourse of the Olympic Park during a trip to the Paralympics; three months later she was in an isolation ward in Bristol, undergoing a life-saving bone marrow transplant.
My fleeting involvement with Botham's walk played on my mind in the weeks and months that followed. The very fact that Issy had the opportunity for such radical treatment was thanks to the huge progress made by Leukaemia Research and I was proud, if a touch self-conscious, to be able to send a link of my article from 2006 to my brother and sister-in-law as an act of solidarity. Look, I was trying to say, there are good people on the case who have transformed the prognosis for this disease. You're not alone in this fight. It was a gesture but nothing more: on Christmas Day in 2012, my brother and nephew had to wave at Issy and her mother through a porthole as she opened her presents away from the perils of human contact. Her plight could scarcely have seemed more lonely.
Yet against all odds Issy's progress was startling. Anthony Nolan, the UK's bone marrow register, found her a matching donor within a month, which was incredible - her parents had been warned that the wait could be indefinite; even more incredibly, the match was perfect and the transplant went without a hitch. In record time she was back in her village school where she belonged. Two months later she was back on her beloved bike, riding a ten-mile route with her best friend Lotte to raise money for the Cancer Research charity.
Issy faced the loss of her long blonde hair with dignity, and on her blog she declared herself a "tuffy" when it came to bouncing back from each dose of chemotherapy
Botham would doubtless have approved of that venture. In deeds and in words, he has always demonstrated the value of living one's life while you have it - and in June this year I finally got that elusive one-on-one, a half-hour slot to discuss his life and times.
It was a pleasingly rambunctious discussion, entirely befitting one of the most gargantuan characters in British sport. "Pressure… everyone talks about pressure, it's bollocks," he snorted. "If you want to be the best, and play with the best, you want to be in the hottest kitchen possible. Cricket gives you an opportunity to travel the world and compete against the best. Just get on with it and play. Just think how lucky you are, and the lifestyle it gives you. You could be working down a mine, you could be driving a bus round London..."
You could be climbing walls with fear and boredom as a nine-year-old girl with cancer. And yet Issy, I am proud to say, did neither. She faced the loss of her long blonde hair with dignity, and on her blog she declared herself a "tuffy" when it came to bouncing back from each dose of chemotherapy. Whenever she felt "icky" she just slept. Between treatments she became a budding seamstress, sewing a range of so-called "wiggly" bags for "the really sick children" to house their Hickman Lines, the catheters through which leukaemia patients receive their doses of chemotherapy and other medications.
For all this, and more - including inspiring her local community to found a fundraising group, the South Dorset Friends of Anthony Nolan - Issy was named as the charity's Little Hero of the Year at their inaugural awards ceremony at the House of Lords in 2013. Though still very much in recovery, and never a great fan of having to dress up at the best of times, she bore all the attention with her customary phlegm, before retreating under a table to do some colouring when she got tired.
Issy: ever the trouper
© Andrew Miller/Laura Miller
Issy: ever the trouper © Andrew Miller/Laura Miller
Botham knew nothing of this as we began talking. However, the conversation soon moved naturally into the realm of his charity operation, which has evolved beyond recognition from the chaos of that inaugural walk in 1985. "People do television appeals to raise money, and yeah, it's great, I hope it works," he says. "But to get out there and put yourself through the hardship of an event, and give up your time, to let people see you are not just putting your name to it, it gives you a lot of satisfaction."
For the 1985 walk, Botham got his inspiration from a story in a Sunday newspaper supplement and made up the rest on the hoof. "We had no idea what we were doing," he says. "We didn't know the mileage, we barely knew the route. We didn't know all the little things that could have saved us a lot of pain, like sleeping with your feet raised on wooden blocks so that all the acids run back into your system. There were people falling over after two hours because they simply weren't drinking enough water. We didn't even know where to put the Vaseline at the end of the day."
The original aim had been to raise £100,000 in the whole length of the British Isles. Instead they made that much from donation buckets in Scotland alone, and after covering the equivalent of a marathon every day for five weeks, the walkers reached Land's End with more than £1 million in the bank. Quite apart from the staggering hike in awareness, the proceeds were the first step along the way towards the founding of a Leukaemia Research Centre in Glasgow, which opened its doors in 2008.
"I get infuriated when people say we don't support anything that needs research," says Botham. "How the hell do you find a cure without research? It won't just fall off the Christmas tree. If we lived our lives without research we'd all still be in caves with animal skins on and a life expectancy of 25."
Nothing and no one slows Botham down, and the success of his leukaemia battle is such that he is beginning to widen the scope of his operations. Beefy's Foundation now raises funds for Battens Disease, Cardiac Risk in the Young, and a Yorkshire Brain Tumour trust, among others, while his most recent walk, a 160-mile hike in the tropical heat of Sri Lanka in November last year, was to aid the lives of children still affected by the devastating tsunami of 2004.
But alas, the battle is not over yet.
"How the hell do you find a cure without research? It won't just fall off the Christmas tree. If we lived our lives without research we'd all still be in caves with animal skins on"
In part I had been wilfully blind to the clues - the talk of entire medical papers being devoted to Issy's case, the generous attentions of such charities as the Make a Wish Foundation - but, in truth, Issy's parents had taken the selfless decision to shield the wider family from the full facts, which in turn protected Issy from the sort of well-meaning mollycoddling she would have loathed.
In November 2012, even before the miracle of the perfect donor had landed in their laps, the facts had been stark. Not only was there a 60% chance that Issy would relapse on the receipt of her transplant, her chances of living for more than five years with no subsequent complications, such as heart disease or secondary tumours, were a grim 11%.
Still, there was hope, and for many friends and family, maybe even expectation. On Christmas Eve 2013, a year and 11 days after receiving her transplant, traces of leukaemia were found once again in Issy's bloodstream. The hospital discharged her immediately - a second consecutive ruined Christmas would have been a cruelty beyond compare - but on the morning of New Year's Eve a cluster bomb exploded beneath the whole family when doctors confirmed she had barely a month left to live.
Grandma's kitchen became a field hospital as the remainder of the Christmas holiday passed in a blur of false jollity and claustrophobic sadness. Everyone was forced to confront new realities, and my own priority became the well-being of my five-year-old daughter, who worshipped her big cousin but now needed to be prepared for the finality of her death. There was one final duty to perform as a complete family - a New Year's Eve pyjama party at my brother's house, the most awful celebration that any of us will ever have to endure. Issy, in her monkey onesie, spent most of the evening rollerblading down the hall, as impossibly perky as Botham's boys all those years ago, but she was tired and visibly pensive by the time her bonus year had faded with Big Ben's final chime.
I don't believe she ever knew exactly what fate had in store. But she was too bright, and there were too many people around her being too weird too suddenly for her suspicions not to have been aroused. After fading from view for the final fortnight of her life, she died in her own bed, shortly after midnight on January 29. Her mystery bone-marrow donor had gifted her an extra year of life, and she hadn't wasted a day of it.
With two leukaemia survivors at the launch of Beefy's Great Forget Me Not Walk in London, 2009
© Getty Images
With two leukaemia survivors at the launch of Beefy's Great Forget Me Not Walk in London, 2009 © Getty Images
Nothing and no one slows Botham down, but this comes as close as anything. "How old was she?" he asks.
"Ten," I respond, and instantly I can feel the dam cracking. For Christ's sake, I am about to break down while speaking to Ian Botham of all the bloody people. Or, perish the thought, he's going to try to console me. Thankfully, he finds another, more magnificent response.
"Girls… that's unusual," he says. "Boys, from around puberty to their mid-20s, that's a real problem area for us, but girls generally…" His voice tails off for a beat. "That must have been seriously rare."
He walks the walk, we've all known that for nigh on 30 years, but Ian Botham also talks the talk. And the Royal we is not an affectation.
"You see, Andrew, we always encounter cases like this. You get different strains, some people's resistance is greater. It's why I will never stop."
And just like that, we're back where it all began. With an ever-greater resolve to keep pounding on down that road.
Andrew Miller is a former editor of the Cricketer. @miller_cricket
Members of Issy's family will be running the 2015 London Marathon to raise funds for Anthony Nolan. To make a donation visit this page
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