'Miracle Man' fulfils life goal 10k run in aid of cancer charity
Published on 11 August 2023 6 minutes read
A church elder nicknamed "the walking miracle" who survived a rare cancer has fulfilled a life goal by completing a 10K run in less than an hour.
Stephen Brennan was only 33 when he was diagnosed with a form of oesophageal cancer in 2010.
A large tumour was found in his oesophagus and after a round of chemotherapy to shrink it, he had an invasive operation called an esophagectomy with a stomach pull-up to remove it.
Mr Brennan's stomach now sits much higher in his chest cavity.
An elder at Dundonald Parish Church in Dundonald, South Ayrshire, he was a keen hillwalker and singer before his diagnosis and was determined to regain his full fitness.
It took Mr Brennan the best part of 13 years to build up the stamina necessary to take part in the Dundonald Highland Games 10k run on the 2nd of August and he was delighted to complete it in 56 mins.
The part-time IT specialist, who had a form of a cancer called Adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus, ran in aid of Ayrshire Cancer Support and has raised more than £1,300 for the charity so far.
Strong Christian faith
Speaking on behalf of her husband, Rev Lynsey Brennan said: "We are all very proud of Stephen and completing a 10K run has been one of his life goals.
"He trained really hard after being inspired by a group of people in the church who did the Couch to 5K challenge during lockdown.
"Stephen caught the running bug and it was very important to him that he ran in support of a local cancer charity which helps people affected by cancer in a wide variety of ways.
"The route of the 10K started in Dundonald and went round a nearby village called Symington and back, over hilly terrain.
"It was quite a difficult course but when he finished it he looked like he hadn't even broken a sweat and is now planning his next run.
"I call Stephen my ‘walking miracle' because he has overcome such a challenging cancer diagnosis when the odds were stacked against him – a miracle by the grace of God"
Mrs Brennan, who has been the minister of Dundonald Parish Church since 2019, said most people are unaware of the extent of her husband's cancer ordeal and the impact it had on him physically.
The type of cancer he had has a very poor survival rate as people often don't notice any symptoms until it has been growing for quite some time and had a chance to spread.
Mrs Brennan revealed that she was around eight months pregnant with their son, Ciaran, and had a toddler called Samuel when her husband was diagnosed.
She said: "Stephen is a quiet, calm and modest man and does not tell people much about what he's been through.
"It was a very traumatic period in our lives but he has a strong Christian faith and he never felt sorry for himself and managed instead to radiate peace despite his circumstances.
"After his diagnosis, he said to me, ‘I've had a wonderful upbringing, have fabulous parents and I never thought I was going to get married and I met you.
"I never thought I was going to have children and I've got Samuel and we've got another baby on the way.
"If God is calling me back home now and I have to leave you and the children, who am I to argue?
"Who knows what he's got in store for me."
Mrs Brennan said that despite her husband's diagnosis he never lost sight of the simple pleasures in life and in hospital his only question for the surgeon was "will I still be able to sing post-op?"
Standing 5ft 11 inches tall, his weight plummeted to around eight-and-a-half-stone during this period.
Mr Brennan, who is now a part-time house husband to support his wife's calling as a parish minister, complained of feeling unwell during a Mother's Day dinner in March 2010.
"He started to clutch his sternum and was in a lot of pain and discomfort," the minister recalled.
"At the time I was working as a Speech and Language Therapist at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Hospital in Glasgow and I was very concerned so I told him to go and see his GP who then organised for him to have an endoscopy.
"For some reason the results of the scan did not register with Stephen who seemed to think there was nothing to worry about but I read the letter for his GP and had to tell him that they had found a big tumour at the bottom of his oesophagus going into his stomach and it was cancer.
"I was heavily pregnant at the time and mum to a toddler and I just remember my world going into a sort of spiral because I knew what the general prognosis was in terms of the amount of time people have left after being diagnosed."
Mrs Brennan said the tumour was too big to remove so her husband underwent three months of chemotherapy to shrink it before he had an operation, three months after their second son was born.
Mr Brennan, who has never smoked, only had one symptom – problems swallowing and had not experienced weight loss, fatigue or heartburn, which are other recognised symptoms of this cancer.
"The surgeon said that if he waited a week or two before going to the doctors/GP, it would have been too late and he would have likely died," recalled his wife.
Mr Brennan, who is now 46, underwent a second round of chemotherapy after his operation.
The minister said she believed that the family experienced three miracles.
"The first one was that Stephen lived with someone who recognised the symptoms of oesophageal cancer and he got to the hospital in time for treatment," she added.
"The second was that the medics found no other positive lymph nodes in his body after the tumour was removed and the third was the birth of our third son, Malachi, seven years later because we were told the chemotherapy treatment could cause infertility.
Mrs Brennan said the family were living in Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire at the time of her husband's ordeal and attended Killermont Parish Church.
She said the love and support – prayerful and practical - shown by church members and that of people who attended St Silas Church in Glasgow, where the couple met and married, was outstanding.
Mrs Brennan recalled: "A memorable moment for me was when we were waiting in the oncology department for the extent of the diagnosis.
"I was heavily pregnant, it was a really hot day and the baby was squirming in my stomach.
"I was so anxious, my palms were sweaty, my heart was racing and then all of a sudden a wave of peace washed over me, the kind referred to in the Bible, and I thought to myself ‘no matter what happens, everything will be okay as God was walking with us'.
"When we picked Samuel from Stephen's mum's house, she said that she also experienced the same feeling at the same time when she was doing the ironing."
Mrs Brennan said her husband remained positive and calm throughout his ordeal and the thought of being around to see his sons start primary school kept him going.
"That really mattered to Stephen and it was the thing that hurt me the most," she added.
"Knowing the prognosis for people diagnosed with advanced oesophageal cancer and thinking ‘why would God give me such a caring, kind man to be the father of my children and there is a chance they might never know him? was very difficult.
"But Stephen never felt pity for himself and his faith got me through.
"By the grace of God, not only did he see his two oldest sons go to school, he also saw Malachi do the same and the boys are now aged 15, 13 and six respectively."
Happily, Mr Brennan never lost his singing voice and remained a member of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) in Glasgow before leaving to go to Dundonald where he now sings with Dundonald Parish Church choir.
He is cancer free but is regularly monitored by doctors.
Mrs Brennan is encouraging people not to ignore any symptoms that they might have and seek medical advice immediately because it could save their life.