Episode 63: A conversation with Olly Stephenson

We may think we're in control of our health. We can keep our bodies aerobically fit, eat a rainbow of nutrition every day, stay connected socially, meditate. But perhaps being in total control of our health is an illusion. I’m not suggesting we should live in a constant state of health anxiety, but maybe we should also think about the illusion of control in our lives, maybe this will help us live more in the present moment. These thoughts – that I first wrote in January – now seem especially poignant in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.

For the final episode in the series, we meet Olly Stephenson; a runner, adventure-seeker, climber, Dad and husband. Olly has endured an extreme adventure or three; climbing El Capitan (yes, the one Alex Honnold free solo’d), cycling across the US on a tandem and finishing the PTL twice amongst a long list of other achievements outdoors. Over the past few years, he’s been through a challenge more extreme, painful and traumatic than anything he’s chosen to take on outdoors; a cancer called follicular Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Olly was told it was treatable, not curable. He learned he had a 16cm tumour stretching across his abdomen, which was encroaching on his kidneys and close to causing irreparable damage.

“When he said cancer, my mind just fused. I didn’t hear anything else he said.”

Olly’s also one of the healthiest guys I’ve met. Low heart rate, vegetarian, supremely fit, well-connected socially and with a strong family support network behind him. His journey over the next year through chemo and several near-death experiences tested him in every way. Through dark days, weeks and months he rarely had the chance to consciously choose to leverage skills from his life on the trails and rock walls; most of the time it was all he could do to survive. The chemo drugs were nuclear grade, the side effects nightmarish, the needle phobia ever present.

This may sound like a story full of trauma and struggle, and it partly is, but it’s also an uplifting tribute to the power of being mindful and grateful every day, a lesson on letting go of some control and seizing what is most important to us.

In our conversation, Olly and I explore:

  • The endurance adventures that took most inner strength to complete

  • An insight into the symptoms that led up to his diagnosis

  • Perspectives on denial and acceptance

  • Adapting emotionally to living with a disease

  • Surviving ‘nuclear’ grade chemotherapy and near-death experiences

  • The terror of healthy breathing being taken away

  • The process of decompressing after chemotherapy and facing the trauma that resulted

  • What to say to people with cancer; what felt helpful to Olly and what didn’t

  • The gifts that can grow out of trauma, such as everyday gratitude and mindfulness

And let’s end with an update. Happily, Olly reports that life is back to being pretty amazing these days, since he finished treatment in 2019. He’s back to fitness and enjoying all of the life things he did before his diagnosis, from running in the hills to quality time with friends and family.

Show Olly some love on social if you enjoy this episode and why not share it in a tweet or story with the folks in your own community. Also check out his FAQ on cancer below in the show notes; an articulate summing up of what he went through and what to say to people with cancer.

Hope to be back with series seven in a few months' time. If you can support this, check Patreon out today!

Check out the episode from Friday at 8am UK in the usual places:


Apple Podcasts



Show notes

Olly’s FAQ on cancer

Anticancer book

Carnethy 5

My Way Digital Health

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Olly on Facebook

Olly on Twitter

Olly on Instagram

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