It's no exaggeration to say Ryan Buchanan's journey to the Invictus Games is buying him extra time as he fights the battle of his life against terminal cancer.
Diagnosed in mid-2018 with soft tissue sarcoma cancer, the New Zealand Army bombardier was given 12 months to live after countless inoperable tumours were discovered in his lungs.
Yet the relentlessly positive 25-year-old refuses to be dragged down by his diagnosis. And after successfully applying to compete for New Zealand at the 2020 Invictus Games – under the encouragement of big sister and Air Force sergeant Tomina Bentley – the move has played a huge part in improving both his physical and mental wellbeing.
So much so that his latest oncology appointment revealed the tumours are shrinking and his life expectancy has increased an additional five more years.
"After I was diagnosed, I lost all motivation to keep fit or do anything," explains Palmerston North-based Ryan. "Yet once I was selected for the team, I gained my motivation back. I had some goals to work towards and I started to keep fit and active.
"The oncologist said that leading an active lifestyle, being a non-smoker and minimising alcohol definitely helps control the cancer."
Born into a military family – Ryan and Tomina's mum Tracey has served in the Air Force for more than 30 years and Tomina's husband Shea is in the army – the siblings both joined the New Zealand Defence Force at the age of 18.
The pair fully embraced life in the military and also the sporting opportunities it presented, with Ryan playing basketball and Tomina softball.
However, Ryan's world turned upside down following the terminal diagnosis. Prior to this, the 1.91m-tall soldier had noticed a knot had formed in his calf. He dismissed the issue as a minor problem, but then following a 15km pack march two years ago, the pain in his calf became so acute, he sought medical advice.
An ultrasound and later an MRI scan hinted at the possibility of a tumour. A biopsy later confirmed he had soft tissue sarcoma cancer – a form of the disease more common in younger adults.
Within a week, a CT scan discovered the cancer cells had spread to his lungs and that it was terminal.
"I took it on the chin at first," he recalls. "It was only a little later when I cracked. I was having a few drinks with the boys when I broke down and told them the news."
Tomina was flown home from deployment in the Middle East and describes being delivered the news of Ryan's diagnosis as "the most heartbreakingly devastating news of my life".
Yet she knew her brother needed a positive distraction and suggested they both apply to compete at the 2020 Invictus Games in The Hague in the Netherlands – the multi-sport competition founded by Prince Harry for wounded, injured or sick services personnel.
Tomina, who herself suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was also eligible to compete and as Ryan says, "She did all the admin work for me and pushed me to apply."
Last July, both were accepted on the New Zealand team, yet just two weeks later Tomina, 32, discovered she was pregnant, so was forced to withdraw.
"It came as a massive surprise," admits Tomina.
"I was really nervous telling the rest of the team I had to withdraw, but all I got from them was joy, love and excitement when I told them I was having a baby."
In a further lift for Ryan, Tomina intends to fly to Holland for May's Invictus Games with her by then two-month-old baby, husband Shea, mum Tracey and stepdad Craig Procter to give their support.
"It is pretty special to be able to take time to watch him compete," she enthuses. "I'll feel an overwhelming joy and pride watching Ryan."
Taking daily pills to stop the cancer from growing or spreading, Ryan has trained daily to compete in indoor rowing, powerlifting, wheel-chair basketball and archery.
During the competition, Ryan hopes to revel in the unique atmosphere of the event, do his best and climb the medal podium – but above all, he hopes to make his family proud.
"I will appreciate every moment and I am looking forward to spending time with the new baby," says Ryan, who is single.
"Taking the pills is basically a lifestyle for me to stop the tumours growing. What I need to do is continue to stay as healthy as possible."
For Wellington-based Tomina, being able to watch Ryan compete on the world stage is a massive privilege.
"It is a real honour to walk alongside him," she says. "The way he has chosen to handle this situation by being positive is very motivating.
"We are much closer from the experience. Every day I spend with Ryan is a joy and a privilege."
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