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Survivor star Josh Hickford's gruelling cancer battle

Before the jungle, Josh was fighting for his life.

By Cloe Willetts

After another gruelling round of radiotherapy, Josh Hickford curled up on a couch in front of the TV, an episode of Survivor New Zealand stealing his attention as his family and girlfriend Alex Hill chatted around him.

Despite being midway through a battle with cancer, the chartered accountant said, "I'm going on season two."

Alex, who met her beau less than a year prior, smiled and nodded at him knowingly.

One year later, 28-year-old Josh is back from Thailand at his New Plymouth home after competing in TVNZ 2's latest series of Survivor. He speaks to Woman's Day with his biggest supporter Alex, 29, by his side.

Together, the loved up couple talk about bumping into each other at an op shop before sharing a first date at a restaurant, then bonding over a bold third date hiking Mt Taranaki.

Josh, who describes his teacher girlfriend as adventurous and like-minded, recalls, "I asked Alex if she wanted to climb a mountain with me. In hindsight, that's probably a pretty weird thing to do for a third date, but she wanted to!"

He also introduced Alex to his impressive man cave. "Most people from Taranaki have heard of my man cave or frequented it," tells the sports lover, whose hang-out spot has appeared on The Crowd Goes Wild and All Blacks TV. Decked out with old-school décor, and a pool table, darts and table tennis, the space is also decorated with remnants of Josh's childhood.

Josh Hickford in his "man cave" with his dog, Cedric.
Josh Hickford in his "man cave" with his dog, Cedric.

He explains, "Every man cave is unique to the person and what they collect. Mine has a retro-type style with a bar and fridge. There's Sky TV, a workshop and all sorts of stuff I've collected since I was five.

"But I'm not a hoarder!" he quickly adds, drawing laughter from Alex. Josh's home became Alex's in October 2016, when after eight months of dating, she moved in. However, a few weeks later, following a game of cricket, Josh noticed a bump on his neck.

He recalls, "I had a hard lump that didn't feel like anything – I knew it was out of place. It didn't feel like glands – it felt foreign."

Josh, who has a twin sister called Sophie, continues, "I'm quite vigilant with my body, so I went straight to the doctor. He said it was strange, so I had lots of blood tests."

They showed inflammation in his blood, which could have been caused by a range of things, and a biopsy came back inconclusive. "I'd kind of been given the green light in terms of it not being cancer and thought 'Great!'"

Within three months, Josh had eight lumps on his neck and while he continued to live life hard, including riding Taranaki's Around the Mountain Cycle Challenge, doctors searched for an answer.

Josh and his girlfriend, Alex Hill.
Josh and his girlfriend, Alex Hill.

"In the end, my oncologist re-examined the original biopsy and found cancer cells. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system."

Alex tells, "For us, there was no other outcome than a positive one. We used the expression that he was going to knock the bastard off."

"I'm quite competitive and I don't like losing," Josh adds. "And if it's my life involved, well, I'm definitely not going to lose that!"

Thanks to his fast diagnosis, the cancer hadn't spread to his other lymph nodes or organs. "Now I tell my mates if they notice anything out of the ordinary, go to the doctor and get it checked out!"

After months of undergoing chemotherapy – described by Josh as feeling like a really strong hangover – and radiation treatment, he was finally given the all-clear last August.

"When you get told you have cancer, a big, black cloud comes over you and it's a massive punch in the face," he says. "But when you get told you're in remission, it's like a weight just lifts."

A month into his remission, Josh applied for the reality show and, two months later, he got the news he was in.

"It's strange because I just always knew I was going to be on Survivor."

Alex adds, "Even before he was accepted, I said things like, 'You should wear this top on Survivor!' I wasn't surprised when he was accepted."

With his latest goal of chasing tornadoes lined up, Josh will head to the US for 12 days while Alex stays at home with the couple's six-month-old Irish terrier pup Cedric.

"I'm so proud of Josh and seeing him complete these massive goals," Alex shares. "He's outstanding and always has a great positive attitude that bounces off on everyone around him."

In true Survivor style, Josh concludes, "With my experiences, I can ride anything out."

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