Karate, Cancer & Comedy

  • Meet Austin
  • The Comedy Surprise
  • Austin’s Performance
  • Learning from Karate
  • Keep Going

Meet Austin Birk

Austin Birks grins widely as he recalls the conversation that marked the beginning of his journey with Ultra. Much like any other Saturday, he had returned home from the gym but this time he was in for a surprise; his partner had registered him for an Ultra Comedy event!

The Comedy Surprise

“She said to me, ‘you know you always think you’re quite funny? Well, we’re going to find out because I’ve just signed you up for the comedy club. You’ll be raising money for Cancer Research UK.”

It hadn’t been long since Austin had finished receiving chemotherapy himself, after being diagnosed with bowel cancer for the second time.

Though initially shocked by his partner’s decision, he quickly embraced the challenge. He was excited to give something back to the staff involved in taking care of him, particularly as he knew first-hand how hard they worked to make sure patients were cared for.

Before long, he was off to join another 29 novice comedians at Birmingham Glee Club where they were trained to perform five minutes of live stand-up, courtesy of comedian James Cook.

“It was just brilliant – a true test of your resolve to walk on that stage and overcome your fears and anxieties.”

Austin’s Performance

Reflecting on his experience, Austin reminisces about how he would spend hours marching up and down with a pretend microphone, trying to perfect and hone his performance.

“It’s your material so you have to craft it, you have to practice it, you have to rehearse it, and you have to make it work.”

Fortunately, his performance was a success and he enjoyed it so much, he is doing it again this year.

“It was exhilarating. By the time I came off there, I was buzzing. I really, really enjoyed the experience”

Talking to Austin, you would find it hard to believe that over the past three years he has been battling against the disease. His upbeat approach to life’s challenges, and his can-do attitude are inspiring. Having been initially concerned about a change in bowel habits, his first diagnosis came after a GP dismissed these worries back in January 2018. Over a six-week period, Austin’s health had declined rapidly and after a private consultation, he was hit with the news: he had a large tumour in his stomach that needed to be operated on straight away.

“Looking back, I should have been far more persistent and assertive. But being the English bloke I am, I just accepted it because of course, he’s a doctor and knows far better about it.”

Despite the news, Austin chose to face the disease with courage and positivity.

“We all face challenges at different stages of our lives – professional, personal, financial, domestic, health. But it’s how we choose to react to those challenges that matter.”

Learning from Karate

Austin strongly believes that his 47 years studying the art of Shotokan karate is what has given him the mental strength to take him through chemotherapy.

“I was very fortunate, in that I had some fantastic mentors around me on my journey who provided me with the required skill sets to tackle life’s challenges,” he says.

“Within the context of martial arts, there is the ethos of the Buda spirit that says, ‘you never give up, you never give in’ and that has been my core inspiration both in tackling cancer and tackling life in general.”

He is also a passionate believer that setting challenges and goals will help deal with the day-to-day obstacles that come with a diagnosis of cancer. Whilst receiving chemotherapy, Austin cycled 300 miles to raise money for charity and he was even graded for his 6th dan black belt in karate (after politely declining the offer of an honorary grading).

“It wasn’t about passing the exam. It was about me saying to myself – cancer, chemotherapy, and covid – three reasons why you probably shouldn’t do something. Well, to hell with that!”

Keep Going

Unfortunately, Austin’s bowel cancer has returned for a third time and though he describes his chemotherapy as being the most gruelling to date, he remains extraordinarily optimistic. He believes it is all the more reason to dig deep and ‘never give up and never give in’.

“You can go down the path of thinking that it’s not fair, but it isn’t a competition. It’s your body and your journey. It’s all about giving yourself targets, those experiences, those things to do. I think the worst thing you can ever do with an illness like this – or any illness – is to sit there on your own, feeling sorry for yourself.”

Asked about what he would say to anyone who may be considering signing up to an Ultra Event, Austin says:

“I would absolutely recommend getting involved. There are a multitude of very different and challenging but fun events to choose from. And most importantly, the cause is both noble and worthy. It will raise funds for the holy grail itself – a cure for cancer.”

If you are inspired by Austin’s story, you can visit his blog The Bag for Life where he discusses his experiences living with bowel cancer.

For more information on taking part in an Ultra Event, you can visit the Ultra Events website here.

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Article author

It was great getting to know Austin – there’s so much we can all learn from his approach to the challenges and experiences of life. A truly inspirational guy!