24 kids died, I was the only one who survived
I WAS just 11 months old when I was diagnosed with stage four Neuroblastoma - a devastating form of childhood cancer.
On that day, just prior to my first birthday, doctors told my mother there was no chance of survival and to take me home to be with my family one last time.
Battling this devastating news, my brave mum decided to ask the doctor, straight up, exactly what my chances of survival were.
"He has a 96 per cent death rate," he replied.
I can only try to imagine how mum must have felt in that moment, but despite the overwhelming odds stacked against me, she chose to look at my life as being four per cent full as opposed to 96 per cent empty - a decision I'll forever be grateful for.
Despite mum's optimism, my real challenges were just about to begin - starting with chemo, which I began on my first birthday and continued for nearly four years. As if not challenging enough, I had to also deal with being away from my dad and three older sisters for long periods of time. We were all hoping that it would be worth it in the long term, but as the months progressed my health only continued to deteriorate, and in 1987, doctors told my mum that the treatment was no longer working; the tumour had built up resistance and taken over half of my body.
After six hours of surgery the doctors came out and delivered the news my mum was dreading - they hadn't been able to get it all and there was nothing more that could be done. Immediately my dad and three sisters flew from Coffs Harbour to Sydney to say goodbye.
However, life has a funny way of presenting hope in the darkest of times, because the very next day, in that very hospital, we discovered a miracle: a highly skilled American doctor who just happened to be trialling a cancer-fighting drug called DTIC.
Twenty-five kids were to be permitted into the experimental program to undergo testing - and you guessed it, I was picked as number 25. As I would soon discover, the side effects were truly horrific.
I remember that day so clearly. It was 9am on a Tuesday, and within 24 hours of starting the trial all 25 of us had been transferred from the oncology ward to the burns unit.
The after-effects of the drug were so severe that we were literally covered in blisters and burning from the inside out. To try and relieve our pain and the physical damage, the staff would wrap us in bandages, laying us down in baths full of ice to prevent our brains from frying.
Within 30 days, 20 out of 25 kids had died from the drug. Within 90 days, 24 out of 25 had died.
My mum had to make a heartbreaking choice - was it worth keeping me on the drug and continuing to see me burned every day? Or was it time to give up?
She chose to believe in me, and so for another year I underwent this agonising, experimental treatment, praying for a miracle.
During all of this, it was my mum's hope and dream that I could one day go home, to run and play like every other kid. It seemed so far off, but eventually that long-awaited dream came. At the age of six, I finally went home to our beautiful little property in Crossmaglen Valley, NSW.
Even though I was lucky enough to be home with my family, medical staff didn't have much hope for my future. Doctors told me I'd never go to school, I'd never play sport, and that I'd be a housebound baby.
"If he does reach his teenage years," one said, "it will truly be a miracle."
Despite being so sick for my whole life, in so many ways I was just like any other kid. I had dreams and hopes, and my mum made sure I achieved them. I had two main goals for my life, one of which was to be normal like everyone else. The second was somewhat loftier - I wanted to one-day play baseball in America, and despite everything the doctors had spoken over me, I went on to achieve this by the time I was 15. While my continuing health issues may have prevented me from carving out the illustrious career I had hoped (I suffered a heart attack at the age of 12 and another while in America), I chose to hold my head high. I'd achieved my dream of getting to America, and that was more than many had ever thought possible.
After coming back to Australia, I got a job in the corporate space, and by the age of 23 was the youngest national sales development manager for one of the largest companies in the world. I had 600 staff, 120 banks, and reported directly to the chief executive.
I was living a life I'd never thought possible, but at the same time I found that something strange was happening to me, that I was becoming driven by things that had never previously interested me. Suddenly, all I cared about was how I looked, how I was perceived, and what material possessions I owned.
During this time I was already struggling emotionally, but my mental state was made all the worse by the news that my parents were separating. Listening to mum's voice on the phone as she broke the news absolutely crushed my heart, and shortly afterwards, I suffered a complete breakdown. With my immune system completely shattered, I became sicker and sicker, and for the first time in my life I decided that I just didn't want to fight anymore. I was done. Every night I prayed to God that I wouldn't wake up.
When I think back, I truly believe that it was my faith in God that got me through. For the longest time, I had believed I was walking alone, and then I realised that the whole time someone had been there to help me. That was the moment I decided to replace my fear of dying with my faith in something greater, and it helped me more than I can ever truly explain.
I also realised that in order to change my life, all I needed to do was master two things: the gift of giving, and the discovery of what success truly meant.
Shortly afterwards, I made the choice to walk away from the corporate world and begin my journey into the realm of public speaking.
Since then, I've built an orphanage and school in Haiti, have featured on Australian Story and MTV's Ridiculousness, and have come on board as a national ambassador for five different charities. I've even released an autobiography! It's a privilege to be able to give back to the world, and I never take a moment for granted.
One quote that I always take note of is the saying, "everybody dies but not everybody lives". I feel like I'm really living, and that's so much more than what I know of so many people. I think when you're faced with serious life and death, every day is a real bonus. People have a choice to wrap themselves in cotton wool and think that their life isn't fair, or they can choose to embrace life and seek every opportunity. That's the mindset that my mum instilled in me, and I think it's what has been critical to my success. It isn't the number of days we live on this earth that determines the quality of our lives; it's about what we fit into those days. I choose to pack as much as I possibly can into each moment I have left.
In early 2016 doctors found more tumours in my throat and I was told I wasn't going to make it; that I needed to slow down and basically wrap myself up in cotton wool. People have asked how I dealt with that news, and the truth is, I deal with it like I have everything else in my life. At the end of the day, I believe no one in this world is powerful enough to tell you when your time is up.
Many people in this world use their adversity as an excuse as to why they've failed, but very few use it as the motivation needed to succeed. I'm glad I didn't give up on life, because I never would have been able to truly begin to live - to be able to make a difference in other people's lives. To be able to go to my grave and know that I've left my world in a better place than what I found it, and to lie in bed at night and know that I'm a good human being, gives me the greatest sense of pride. I think it's important when you look in the mirror, to be able to be proud of the person looking back. I'm proud of what I've been able to achieve and what I've been able to give to the world, and when faced with life or death challenges, that's a really comforting feeling.
Michael Crossland is an inspirational speaker and best-selling author.
Michael's story is one of 10 memoirs featured in the new suicide prevention book, 'Reasons To Live One More Day, Every Day,' by Brisbane author Jas Rawlinson. With resources from Lifeline and real-life stories from those who have battled, and triumphed over, mental illness, the book aims to help inspire hope in the lives of those who need it most. Copies can be pre-ordered via Thoughts From Jas.