Stephen Cowan had five tumours in his brain, a tumour in his abdomen and numerous tumours in his lungs...
... his cancer was Stage 4. And aggressive. Three years later he is fit and well. Meet the miracle man The biomedical engineer, from Carrick, tells Stephanie Bell how a new drug saved his life
Life couldn't have been sweeter for Stephen Cowan. He had just got married to the woman he loved and together, they were starting a new life in Australia. Both in their mid-20s, Stephen and his wife Kirstie, from Carrickfergus, were looking forward to what the future held.
Tragedy struck like a bolt out of the blue when Stephen – a fit, healthy, non-smoker who enjoys only an occasional drink – attended the doctor with sore and swollen nipples.
What followed was a diagnosis so grim that overnight, the young couple's world was turned upside down as they feared Stephen was staring death in the face.
Stephen (27), a biomedical engineer, was told he had an advanced and aggressive Stage 4 form of testicular cancer, which had spread to his abdomen, both lungs and his brain.
A scan revealed five tumours in his brain, each of his lungs were completely white with tumours – one was so big it was blocking a main airway – and he had a 7.6cm tumour in his abdomen. Incredibly, that was just three years ago and today, back home in Northern Ireland recovering from treatment and surgery, Stephen is now almost two years clear of the disease.
He sees himself as a walking miracle and believes that prayers and his faith helped pull him through.
He also gives credit for his remarkable recovery to advances in treatment by scientists funded by Cancer Research UK – plus advice from the world-famous consultant who treated champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, who battled the same cancer.
"Quite simply, without their work, I would not be here today to tell my story," he says.
Stephen was treated with Cisplatin, a new drug which was developed with the help of Cancer Research UK scientists and which has increased survival rates of testicular cancer from 5% to an incredible 97%.
It's why he has lent his support to the latest phase of Cancer Research UK's Help Beat Cancer Sooner campaign, which aims to raise money to accelerate more groundbreaking research.
Fittingly, he chose Ulster Rugby to illustrate his message and show that research saves enough lives every year to fill the Belfast sports venue more than seven times over.
Now fighting fit once again, Stephen posed for photographs inside Ulster Rugby Stadium with a piece of paper with the number 150,000 emblazoned on it – the amount of people who, like him, will survive cancer every year in the UK thanks to vital research.
Around 8,700 people in Northern Ireland are diagnosed annually with cancer. Thanks to research, survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years. This means that 45% of those people will survive the disease for more than 10 years.
Stephen says: "Anyone who has been to Ulster Rugby Stadium knows how large it is – 18,000 people can fit in here on match days.
"It's a real eye-opener to realise that over seven times as many people – almost 150,000 – will survive cancer in the UK every year because of research, around 4,000 of these in Northern Ireland."
Stephen's own terrifying brush with cancer has brought home to him just how crucial new discoveries and breakthroughs are.
He married in 2009 and in 2010 he and Kirstie flew to Perth in Australia to make a new life for themselves.
Stephen got a job as a biomedical engineer and Kirstie worked in medical sales.
They enjoyed a healthy lifestyle and had been jogging together just three days before Stephen was given the shock news that his body was riddled with cancer.
"I have always been very health-conscious," says Stephen. "I ate healthily, did not smoke and drank only in moderation.
"When they told me my lungs were full of tumours and one was so big it was almost blocking my main airway I couldn't believe it, because just three days earlier I had been jogging with my wife and I wasn't even breathless."
He recalls the shock and fear of how one day he was cruising along enjoying life with not a care in the world, to staring death in the face virtually overnight.
"I had been to the GP with painful swollen nipples in December 2011 and he told me it was a hormonal thing and advised me to take painkillers and I would be okay," he explains.
"It didn't get any better and I went back to a different doctor around March time for a second opinion. He did blood tests which showed my blood was elevated and he ordered scans.
"That night after the scans I took a seizure and my wife had to ring an ambulance. When I got to hospital I was put into an induced coma and woke up the next day in intensive care.
"The medical staff wasn't sure what was happening and thought maybe I had epilepsy.
"I was told I had bleeding on the brain and I didn't know what was happening or if I was even going to survive it. My mum, dad and brother decided to fly out."
Kirstie (27) was able to tell the hospital staff about the scans Stephen had been given just the day before. And it was those scans which showed the many tumours which had spread throughout Stephen's body.
Stephen will never forget the horror of hearing the news that he had cancer.
He says: "My hormone levels were over 200,000 and they should be less than one.
"A neurologist came into the ward and told me my blood markers were the same as a woman who is pregnant and he laughed and we laughed with him and made a joke of it.
"Then he told me he was 98% sure I had cancer and that the prognosis wasn't good.
"I was just overwhelmed with shock. I didn't think it was possible to feel emotions to that extent.
"He said I had a very advanced form of testicular cancer which had spread to my lungs and that I had five tumours in my brain and a tumour in abdomen.
"I just thought 'There is no way I'm going to come through this, not a chance'.
"We were both in complete shock. We were devastated."
Later that day a despairing Stephen was given new hope when a lung specialist came to the ward and told him his cancer – despite being aggressive and at such an advanced stage – was curable.
Stephen recalls: "He was very positive and that gave me hope and I thought 'Maybe I do have a chance here'. One minute I thought I was dying and the next I had hope again – it was quite surreal."
Stephen had the same type of cancer which now-disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong famously battled in 1990s.
And the parallels between the two don't end there.
Armstrong was diagnosed when he was 25 and Steven was just a year younger, at 24. Armstrong too was at a stage in his life when things couldn't have been better. He had just moved into a $1m (£600,000), 5,000 sq ft Mediterranean-style palazzo on the shores of Lake Austin. He was a champion, with a multi-million dollar contract with the French cycling team Cofidis and a half-million or so more in endorsement deals.
He, too, thought he was not going to get better and his ensuing battle with the disease captivated the world and inspired millions of cancer patients.
During his battle, Stephen and Kirstie decided to contact the world-renowned consultant who treated Armstrong (left), for advice which they now believe helped save Stephen's life.
Stephen had undergone five cycles of chemotherapy over 15 weeks, followed by 19 high doses of full brain radiation. His parents stayed in Australia for seven months as Stephen battled the disease, giving up their lives at home to support the young couple.
Everyone was thrilled when in August 2011 Stephen was given the all-clear but tragically just five months later, he relapsed.
It was at this stage that he and Kirstie contacted Lance Armstrong's consultant for advice.
His oncologist did not believe he needed more chemo and in February 2012, Stephen went through the trauma of surgery to have one of his testicles removed.
In the meantime, Stephen and Kirstie sent an email to Dr Lawrence Einhorn, a distinguished professor of medicine and oncologist and a pioneer in the treatment of testicular cancer who treated Lance Armstrong.
Stephen says: "He is the guru of testicular cancer and he emailed back and confirmed what we thought – that if my markers were up, I needed chemo, even though in Australia I was being told I didn't.
"We decided to come back to Northern Ireland and I was treated at the City Hospital and had four cycles of salvage chemo.
"After the first cycle in April 2012, tests revealed the blood marker was back to normal, indicating the cancer had gone.
"I felt as if someone had hit the emergency stop button and I was no longer going to die. It was overwhelming."
But Stephen's battle was not over yet and in October 2012 he again faced major surgery, this time to have lymph nodes removed. He lost his hair during treatment and doesn't know if it will grow back but with his body clear of the disease, he is now once again looking to the future.
He says: "I'm in a good place and even though I had to go through such a big operation, it's just a relief to know there is no cancer in me.
"I'm building up my muscle tissue again and getting back to full strength. I consider myself cured.
"We are still in Northern Ireland but we are hoping to go back to Australia sometime in the future.
"It is something you will never forget and I still am shocked at the strength of emotions I felt and I will take that to the grave with me.
"It's not what you go through but how you come through it that matters.
"I couldn't have got through it without Kirstie or my family and I hope now that I can give hope to other people with cancer.
"My parents are Christians and I was brought up to go to church, but had broken away from it for many years.
"When I got ill and thought I was going to die, I turned to God and became a Christian.
"I found strength in prayer and found it very humbling that so many people all over the world were praying for me.
"My parents go to Ballycarry Presbyterian Church and it wasn't just the congregation there praying, but people in other churches they knew and the fact that so many people who I didn't know and have never met, were praying really helped.
It's thanks to research and treatment that I'm still here today. That's why I'm backing Cancer Research UK's 'Beat Cancer Sooner' campaign and asking local people to get involved."
And Stephen adds: "I am so grateful for the treatment that saved my life. Now, I want to do everything I can to urge people to fight back against this devastating disease."