A man standing on the towpath next to the canal Gary

Since 2004, Gary has overcome two major brain tumour surgeries, before being diagnosed with a Chronic Headache condition in 2018. Following his final surgery, and after experiencing years of severe headaches, Gary felt anxious and depressed. Gary found himself drawn to walk his local canal in Wigan, which he believes gave him the lifeline he needed to soothe his state of mind.

Gary told us: “I had an accident whilst lifting weights at the gym and sustained an injury which resulted in head & other widespread referred pain. After being prescribed various medications for the pain and without any relief, I was eventually sent for a scan. That's when they found the brain tumour.

A rare tumour

“It was a rare tumour, and if not treated properly, eventually over time you start to become more ill, and can potentially be life threatening. So the accident at the gym really was a blessing in disguise, which resulted in the accidental finding. I've got to thank my lucky stars that I like to exercise.”

Nonetheless the surgery was still a high-risk procedure, and as Gary explains, he had to face his own mortality head-on. “I was really upset; nobody wants to have brain surgery. I knew the consequences and I signed the consent form. But thankfully, the operation went well.”

Never give up

Unfortunately the tumour did return back in 2015, and Gary had to take on a second surgery. He said: “This one was more serious; they were literally taking the top part of my head off. Before the surgery I just kept saying to myself, ‘I'll be okay. I'll be okay’. There was just no way that I wasn't going to be. I had my daughters & wife at home, I just couldn’t accept any other outcome. My attitude has always been to never give up, no matter what I'm doing. Whether it’s a relationship, exam or DIY project, I always try my best.”

 

Without the canal, I would have just spiralled downwards

Gary

After the surgery Gary was advised to rest up: “I would watch TV in the morning, and then fall asleep until dinnertime. When I woke up, I felt terrible, really low and just terrible! So I decided I just had to get out. The canal is only a short walk away, so my new plan was to walk every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It was at a time where I didn’t own proper trainers or a coat, and I would come home drenched, and my feet would hurt, but I wasn’t going to stop. The canal was releasing some of the pressure in my head. Without the canal, I would have just spiralled downwards.”

Thankfully the long-term headaches caused by the original accident were eventually diagnosed. Gary says: “Because of my health issues and the pain I was in, my mental health has suffered. I did go and see a counsellor, but it didn’t help.

Getting familiar with people on the canal

So I just did the walks. And some days it was brilliant. I could hear the birds, see the wildlife in the canal, as well as people fishing, cycling or walking. And getting familiar with people on the canal, or new people I didn't know, that really helped me.

When I finally received a diagnosis of Hemicrania Continua (a chronic daily headache affecting a particular side of the head)it was a monumental relief.”

Although medication has reduced the pain, Gary still gets the headaches: “When I experience stress, which can come from normal problems of daily life, like money, work or family, the headaches are worse because tension is a trigger.

Walking and taking deep breaths on the canal has just really helped me to escape.

Gary

The water is my therapy now. It's a great place where I just go to switch off and take in the surroundings. I go to the canal and put my headphones on, listen to some tunes or mindfulness meditation, and I switch off, relax and unwind the stress. Walking and taking deep breaths on the canal has just really helped me to escape.

When I’m stressed my muscles get tense too, but when I visit these fabulous canal places near me, afterwards I feel like I’ve had a massage,” says Gary jokingly. “I could get a massage for £30 or go down to the canal for free!”

A man walking next to a big group of geese by the canal Gary

Passionate about the heritage of our canals, Gary explains: “The canals hold so much history and wisdom too. We don’t want to lose that. If people can contribute to the Canal & River Trust then that’s really good, because we do need places like these to continue. As well as being a lovely place to visit, the wellbeing aspect of it really is helpful. It has helped me massively, it definitely helps others, and it can help people in the future as well.”