The Big C: it happens to the best of us


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Kayak designer Steve Muir, of Grafton, undergoes radiation treatment.

Steve Muir lies on a hospital bed as he listens to the cold sterile beeps that pip and echo around his body. Tubes snake their way from his stomach to nearby feeding cylinders.

A rigid net of green plastic covers him from the chest up, strapping him tightly to the bed as pinpoints of radiation target his throat and lungs. The radiation burns his throat from inside out; he begins to drown in his own spit.

Steve can only cope with the invasive treatment by reminiscing about “the good old days”, remembering the times he was smashing white water records at championships in his kayak and plunging into his active and loving lifestyle with his wife, Leila Muir.

Born and bred in Grafton, Steve is well-known around the northern NSW town for his deep involvement with the Clarence Valley Community Church and his successful kayak manufacturing business Grafton Paddle Sports.

The 57-year-old’s week consists of shaping and creating kayaks in his backyard business but he spends his weekends helping others, in church or on the water.

Both Steve and his wife Leila are Australian kayaking champions. Steve holds four championships, while Leila holds three.

“We’ve lived very blessed lives,” Leila says. “So, we try and spread life’s joys to others who aren’t as fortunate in the town.”

Steve and Leila spend two afternoons a week cooking up free sausage sizzles for the less fortunate kids getting home from school.

“Most of them haven’t even eaten breakfast yet and it’s 4pm,” Leila explains.

By 2014, it was coming up to the Muirs’ tenth year making afternoon tea for local children, and 20 years attending the Clarence Valley Community Church.

In that time, Steve had helped create and fund Grafton’s local Christian radio station Loving Life FM and had been president of the committee since it was created in 2007.

The station’s technical director Paul Ordish says Steve was integral to the station’s success.

“He was perfect for the job – he would never shut up,” Paul laughs. “He always wanted to make sure everything broadcasted was encouraging and supportive to listeners.”

But Steve’s push to make Grafton a better town would have to take a backseat.

On 24 August 2014, Steve discovered he had another battle to fight: one to save his life.

The year before, Steve had fallen ill and his doctor ordered investigative procedures at the Grafton Base Hospital.

The diagnosis was not good.

Steve had Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma (p16 cancer) in his throat and lungs. He was told he had a 10 percent chance of survival.

“We were so shocked because Steve had never been a smoker or even a drinker, he’s always been very healthy,” Leila says.

The cancer would consume Steve for the next five months, nearly killing him twice, and forcing him to feed himself through tubes inserted in his stomach.

“It was like swallowing crushed glass for five months while drowning in foaming spit for the first three,” Steve says. However, like the kayaking championships he conquered, he would conquer his cancer too.

“My chances of survival were low, so I looked at it like a task or a job that had to be done, I just had to get through it.”

While undergoing treatment, Steve joined a Facebook group for others with p16 carcinoma. There were 300 members. During his chemotherapy, 297 of those passed away.

“I couldn’t believe how lucky I truly was, what a blessing to be alive,” Steve says.

Today, Steve is no longer president of Love life FM, and he has been left with demolished saliva glands and permanent tinnitus from his treatment. However, he and Leila still cook sausage sizzles, attend church and look forward to continuing to help others around town.

“Our hunger to help the community is higher than ever,” Steve says, laughing.