Chris Graham was diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s at only 34. Six years later, he continues living life to the full, even cycling 16,000 miles around America and Canada to raise money – and awareness – of dementia. Here, Chris shares his remarkable story with Unforgettable
I’ve always been forgetful, even as a child I found learning difficult because I couldn’t seem to remember stuff at school. Looking back, I do wonder if this might have been a sign of the trouble ahead…
Of course I hadn’t heard of Alzheimer’s, let alone the familial form or the dreaded PSEN1 gene I’ve inherited, but it was already affecting my family in a big way. My dad died from Alzheimer’s at 42, when I was six. The only clear memory I have of him was watching him trying to drink washing up liquid from the bottle. Shortly after that, he was taken into hospital, which was actually a mental institution. Thankfully, we’ve come on leaps and bounds since then. I remember being taken to visit him once, but he never came home.
Other members of the family have carried the faulty gene, too, and developed Alzheimer’s really young. My aunt, a cousin and my Grandad all died from Alzheimer’s in their forties. But it was only when my older brother Tony was diagnosed in 2006 that alarm bells began to ring. If I also had this faulty gene (there was a 50/50 chance) I decided fairly quickly that I wanted to know. All it took was a simple blood test…
I was sad, of course, when the test revealed I did have the PSEN1 gene. I had a few tears in my eyes when the doctor told me. But I’ve never felt angry, not at all. It wasn’t my dad’s fault that I got this, it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Shit happens.
A lot more has happened since then. I was medically discharged from the army which was devastating – I’d been a soldier all my life, joining up at 16. Adjusting to civilian life wasn’t easy but I knew I had to stay as fit and healthy as possible for as long as possible. I’ve always been known as a pretty fit lad, I learnt a lot about my body in the army; and I know you can push yourself further than you might think. So being the adventurous type, I decided to set myself the challenge of a lifetime; a 16,000-mile cycle ride around America and Canada to raise money for Alzheimer’s Research UK.
It meant saying goodbye to my amazing wife Vicky and our newborn son Dexter but Vicky was insistent I did it. She even took charge of my navigation and tracked my progress online.
Fortunately, my memory problems are still quite mild and I’m physically robust so although I knew it would be tricky, I also knew I could cope with whatever happened, mentally and physically, and that I wouldn’t give up unless something catastrophic happened. There were difficult days of course, dodging rattlesnakes, fleeing bears, coping with temperatures ranging from sub-zero to 125°F and once even cycling on a motorway by mistake when I really did think the game was up… But thankfully Vicky’s brain and calm directions instructions got me out of it in one piece.
I finished the ride in eight months (not the anticipated 12) raised more than £50,000 for dementia research, and became a bit of a celebrity in the process!
Back at home, I’m still determined to remain physically fit and healthy. And despite everything that’s happened I don’t think Alzheimer’s has changed me. I’m still the bloke I always was, just a bit more forgetful. I don’t get depressed really, but I do often feel the need to get rid of excess energy. I run at least five times a week, eat healthily and spend a lot of time chasing around after Dexter, who’s now two. I still manage most things day-to-day, with a bit of help from Vicky (her lists are brilliant).
My brother Tony is very poorly, living in a care home. The thought of one day ending up bedridden and tube-fed, like Tony, does not sit well with me. I try not to dwell too much on what might happen though – there’s no point. Instead, I focus on each day, and hope that by looking after myself I’ll be able to stay healthy for as long as possible. I also hope for a cure. Hope is a very good thing.
Five Minutes of Amazing by Chris and Vicky Graham, published by Sphere, is on sale now priced £18.99. You can also buy it on Amazon.co.uk