He’s a shy man.
That’s clear simply in the way he holds himself. Tentative. His movements are quiet, matching his voice, a voice you need to lean into if you have any hope of catching what comes forth.
And yet, in the grandest tradition of narcissism, Brad Thiessen has commissioned a documentary about himself.
Thiessen admits this is not something he normally would want, much less do.
But he’s had more than a few unpleasant experiences in his life.
Thiessen has been diagnosed with brain cancer twice, most recently in 2015. The diagnosis is terminal, with doctors telling him the cancer could return at any time. Or as Thiessen said, “It’s pretty much for sure coming back.”
In between the brain cancer, he’s fought testicular cancer once. His memory has suffered. Rounds of chemo left his body a wasteland of modern medicine.
“It just sort of strips away some of your reservations and your social anxiety or whatever,” he said.
The terrible cycle – heading into and out of treatment, the uncertainty, the fear – all revealed something to Thiessen.
He wants to tell his story, and not the standard cancer story. Not the story about how positivity and good living carried the day.
No, instead Thiessen wants to talk about what happens after cancer. What happens when you beat the odds, defy the experts and get a lease on life.
It’s not necessarily a joyous affair.
In his case, after his first brain tumor treatment finished in 2001, he fell into depression.
“It was really, really rough,” he said. “And I wasn’t prepared for that. Because when you’re in treatment, you have a goal and you’re active and you’re doing something.”
Thiessen went to a counselor and slowly rediscovered a sense of purpose and joy. He immersed himself in physical activity, especially trail running.
Although his testicular cancer diagnosis in 2005 was scary, he said the treatment and recovery was much simpler and easier than the brain tumor treatment.
By 2015, things were looking up. He continued to beat the odds. He signed up for his first long run, a 50-kilometer trail run. It was scheduled for June 20.
On June 16, his doctor discovered that his brain cancer had returned. One day after the diagnosis, he was back in the hospital. His 50-kilometer running dreams dashed on the operating table.
“I was pretty broken up,” he said. “It was pretty rough.”
He recovered again, but he was “fairly bitter.”
He felt himself falling back into the same old cycle, the one he’d been sucked into after his first treatment.
He decided to do something about it. He’d run the 50-kilometer race, cancer or not.
At the same time, he felt an internal push to tell his story to a wider audience and help others recovering from cancer.
That’s when he reached out to Spokane filmmaker Adam Harum.
Harum, whose mother was diagnosed with cancer about 10 years ago, said he was immediately intrigued by the project.
Thiessen’s attitude was different than other cancer survivors. As Harum said, Thiessen didn’t just assume you’d become a better person by going “through hard times.”
Harum started filming Thiessen in late December, 10 days after Thiessen finished his last round of chemotherapy. Harum remembers those early filming sessions at the Dishman Hills area. Thiessen would run by the camera for a shot and then he’d have to “stop and take a big old breath.”
Harum continued to film him for months. The two became close. Thiessen signed up for a 50-kilometer run in September 2017.
But then it was canceled because of wildfire smoke. Thiessen wouldn’t be deterred. In October, he ran 50 kilometers on his own in the Dishman Hills area. Friends and family cheered him on.
Watching Thiessen run through the hills was “emotional,” Harum said.
“I mean, obviously, he’s become a good friend of mine and seeing him go up and down through his struggles, I’ve become much more personally attached to this documentary than in other projects,” Harum said. “There is definitely a sense of responsibility on my end.”
The film will be about 20 minutes long. For now, it’s half funded with Thiessen and Harum actively looking for more money. The film is titled “Proof of Life.”
Although the run is done, Thiessen is hoping to leverage the film and subsequent exposure into creating a larger project, one aimed specifically at helping connect cancer patients with outdoor recreation opportunities.
“Running seems to make my brain feel really good physically,” he said.
The hope, he said, is to create an organization that can partner with doctors, mental health professionals and outdoor recreation professionals and enthusiasts.
Thiessen imagines a system in which a patient would be referred by a doctor to his organization. There a mental health professional would determine the patient’s needs. Then the patient would be connected with some sort of outdoor activity, whether that was trail running, skiing or climbing.
Although the project is in its infancy, Thiessen has landed on a name: OutLive!
He hopes the film, which isn’t finished, can help raise money. Additionally, he’s planned a trail run (see sidebar).
While Thiessen hopes the project helps others, to some extent it’s something he needs. Although his cancer is gone for now, it will be back.
“On one level, I’m OK with dying now,” he said. “I totally understand mortality. I get it.”
But the uncertainty of it, not knowing when the cancer will return, that’s the hardest part.
“It’s too much to understand,” he said. “(Too much) to wrap my mind around.”
That unimaginable reality has slowly made a self-described cynic turn toward a simple, nearly cliched, truth.
“Being outdoors and running kind of just makes me one with nature,” he said.
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