When cancer, a hole in your stomach, no food and 37 operations are not enough to stop you from surfing.
Despite the pleasure associated with the act of riding waves, surfers are still prone to the odd bout of whinging. Sometimes even pulling on a wet wetsuit can be enough to make us sound like we have been asked to roll around in broken glass. Adam White's story will make you think twice before you ever complain again.
Three and a half years ago Adam, a keen surfer and father of two, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Since then he’s endured 37 excruciating operations, fought soul-destroying battles with withdrawal symptoms from pain-killers, and spent far too many days where the only backside attack he could work on involved being welded to the toilet seat. Amidst all this prodding and chopping away at his nether regions, Adam has managed to preserve his love for riding waves.
In fact, surfing and a sense of humour have been essential elements of the recovery process for the 40-year-old software designer. “I like to tell people that I’m half the asshole I use to be,” he quips over the phone.
After the first round of operations, it was too difficult for Adam to lie on a board, so his only alternative was to ride a SUP. The major challenge was determining what to do with the ileostomy bag, which was connected to his lower intestine via a hole in his lower abdomen. The bag essentially functioned as Adam’s bowel and had to be emptied three times a day. He eventually worked out he could ride a regular board if he wrapped himself in a stoma guard, a back brace, and a wetsuit. Once he was comfortable with that configuration Adam became the keenest surfer on the Sunshine Coast.
Occasionally Adam’s Ileostomy bag would come unfastened in the water, which meant his mates would have to help him in from the surf. Undeterred, Adam would quickly switch over the bag in the car park and get back out there.
Adam found that surfing was the ultimate antidote for the physical and psychological suffering associated with so many operations. “I could feel bad and go for a surf and for some reason whatever it does to the chemicals in your brain, I’d feel better for that little bit.”
According to his good friend, Peter Yates, it was soon Adam who was leading the charge on the Whats App group they were a part of with a group of friends. “We typically rely on him with the swell forecasts because he’s always across it,” indicates Peter. “He’s usually the first one in the water pre-dawn, and always vocal and excited in a “teenage” way out there catching waves or calling his mates on… Never a wave hog, but a bit of a larrikin, trying to tempt you to take the shutdown.”
On the days where he is too weak, or in too much pain to surf Adam posts up on the beach and takes photos of his friends, determined to be a part of the fun, and contribute even if he can’t get out there.
When some of his friends indicated they were heading to Similue for a surf trip last October, Adam insisted he wanted to be part of the trip. Enduring the long flight and managing his illness meant making some sacrifices. Before leaving for the trip, the Stoma (hole in his stomach connecting to the lower intestine) had just closed up. This meant he couldn’t rely on his ileostomy bag to act as a substitute for his bowel, which he hadn’t used independently for the 18 months prior.
On his worst days, Adam can find himself making 30-40 bowel movements in a 24hr period. One of the only ways to reduce the frequency of his trips to the dunny is to fast. Before leaving for Simiulue he fasted for a full day and then ate nothing on the flight over. During the trip his friends tucked into the generous helpings of food served at the land camp. Meanwhile, Adam subsisted on a diet of protein balls, hydralytes and a bit of white rice. “The worst thing about that trip was just looking at all the food that everyone was eating,” chuckles Adam.
The abstemious approach paid off though. There were only a couple of long nights on the loo the whole trip and he scored great waves at a range of different breaks. “The last two days at Dylans were the perfect size and clean,” he reflects with all the yearning of a surfer reaching for their best surfing memories.
Despite doing his best to maintain an optimistic disposition, there has been one side effect to the surgery that Adam has really struggled with. When he first went under the knife the doctors hooked him up to a fentanyl drip to deal with the pain and then dosed him up on Oxycontin and Oxycodone when he left hospital. All three drugs are from the opioid family and are highly addictive.
“The first time I went cold turkey the withdrawals were really bad, explains Adam. “Then they put me on sleeping tablets and I got addicted to those.” Determined to avoid the come-down associated with getting off the pain-killers Adam now refuses to take them after an operation. Instead, he has another device for dealing with the pain – surfing. The doctors typically advise that he stays out of the water for a few days after an operation, but after his most recent surgery a few weeks ago he went directly to the beach after morning surgery. “I just went straight on three waves, but I usually find that the quicker I get out in the water, the better I start to feel,” he insists.
For now, Adam’s biggest challenge is his daily date with an instrument known as a Hegar dilator. Picture a long, metal rod that’s 11mm thick with an ominous kink at the end. The operations have created a clump of scar tissue in some highly uncomfortable places, so Adam has to personally insert the dilator to help repair the damaged areas. “I usually lay out some candles, put on some Barry White, shut the door, and try and enjoy myself,” he says, making light of a painful and confronting ritual. “You know how they say the male G-spot is in the anus well I think mine's been ripped out. There’s no pleasure at all involved with doing it,” chuckles Adam. “There’s a lot of breathing and relaxation that goes on before it and about half a tub of KY.”
Despite the pain and disruption associated with his ordeal, Adam feels he is actually much healthier now than he was before he was diagnosed with cancer. As a result of all the fasting and improved diet, he’s gone from around 90kg to 66 kg. “I reckon I’ll live longer than I would have if I kept going the ways I was,” he concedes. “Because I’ve dropped the weight I feel like I’m surfing a lot better too. Just able to get into it a lot earlier and feeling lighter and to get on a shorter board it just feels so much better.”
Asked about his goals in surfing he wastes little time declaring his hollow intentions. “My surfing goal at the minute is getting better at backhand barrel riding. When I had the bag I couldn’t really do it because the guard would dig into my leg. I’m 40, getting older. I just want to get better and better at getting barrelled.”
When it comes to more day-to-day life objectives, Adam pins his hopes on the sort of things that most of us take for granted. “The general goal is to stop going back to the hospital. To get back to a normal life. Just being able to go out and have breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a day if I want to without having to spend all the next day on the toilet.”
As Adam’s friend Pete Yates astutely points out, while Adam may not be a pro surfer who captivates you with their uncanny ability to ride waves, the courage, determination, and positive attitude he displays are every bit as inspiring. “He makes you want to do life better,” insists Pete.
If nothing else, Adam’s story should make us all feel grateful for the waves we too often take for granted and help us to overcome whatever hurdles life throws in our path.