Up until August 22 2015, 28-year-old Dutchman Ruben Lenten was leading the kind of life most of us can only dream of. He was a world-class, professional kite-surfer, the winner of Red Bull King of the Air, a DJ, a party animal, a heartthrob. But then doctors at the St. Louise Hospital in Gilroy, California discovered a 9cm by 9cm tumour pressing on his heart.
Now, after a seven month battle of life and death, he has beaten his cancer. The medication he took to get better? It’s called “positive thinking”. And he’s still taking it in huge doses. He just has one word to say when asked how he is doing for this interview on the beach in Cape Town. “Excellent.”
THE RED BULLETIN: There are glass-half-full and glass-half-empty types. But you’re more of a “my-glass-is-just-right-and-if-not-I’ll-just-fill-it-back-up-again” guy, right?
RUBEN LENTEN: Yes, that description fits. I have a great life. If ever I cry, it’s usually tears of joy.
If I may, you have just had half a year of fighting for your life.
I have. With the emphasis on “have had”. Six rounds of chemo, nausea, my hair falling out, fear of dying. It’s all in the past.
What memories do you have of the day your cancer was diagnosed?
It was a shock. It was totally unexpected. I’d actually only gone to hospital because I was having these weird pains in my chest. When they gave me the diagnosis, I broke down. I was sobbing and screaming. I thought my life was over. That lasted ten minutes.
And after those ten minutes?
I started thinking positively again.
“Positive thinking!” That’s just the sort of trite old nonsense you’d read on a calendar, isn’t it?
No, it’s the attitude to life that I owe all my successes to. Let’s just take one trick, the megaloop…
…your signature move, where the kite is steered round quickly at a great height…
…it’ll only work if I banish any self-doubt that it might not work. If I’m trying a new move, I have to be completely convinced inside that I’ll pull it off. And then perform it step by step in a way that feels right and natural. So I started my battle with cancer in the same way I go about learning a new trick.
No, it’s more than that. It’s more this deep, inner certainty that I’ll make it. There’s also the systematic way of doing things that you learn when you’re a top-level sportsperson. You do research into every detail of the illness, you determine a precise treatment plan with the doctors, you stoically do what you have to do. and that also means to not embrace the cancer, it’s not a part of you.
Your fiancée Nikki van Asten says you defiantly refused to modify your normal life, even on days when you felt really awful.
That’s true. I went out on my mountain bike even when I was so weak that I could barely hold on to the handlebars. And I went to visit friends, had meetings and even went to birthday parties with Nikki that I had to leave again after an hour because I felt so sick.
So a positive attitude is also a matter of self-discipline…
No. To me it all felt completely natural. But I do believe that you can train yourself to become better at it for sure.
Okay, not always. Some days I did have to force myself not to stare into the abyss. Sometimes even I had doubts and didn’t know how things would proceed.
What helps at times like those?
Sometimes it’s the support of others. You mustn’t be too proud to ask for help. When I felt bed, it was usually Nikki that got me back on my feet. But my friends also really supported me. They were always coming up with some stupid idea to get me to laugh. One time, for example, one time my best friend Job came to see me dressed as a nurse and when I was halfway through my treatments they organised a big party for me which gave me a lot of positive energy.
And apart from that?
Apart from that, you determine your life yourself at moments like those by deciding whether you’re going to focus your attention on positive or negative things. Even on the shittiest days, there are so many wonderful things happening around you. The sun rises, a tree bursts into bloom, a blood test shows an upswing. That kind of thing.
But sometimes nothing does happen. When you were lying on the ward with the shutters down, did you have a mental technique at the ready to get you thinking positive thoughts? A mantra, maybe?
No, I didn’t have a mantra. But I do have my happy places, of course. Focussing on my breathing also helps to keep me calm and relaxed.
Yes, times when I was happy that I could think about. Memories with Nikki, say. Idyllic places I’d been kiting. Or parties I’d deejayed at where I’d played certain tracks that I listened to again. Thoughts like that would flick a switch inside me. And all of a sudden my energy and inner drive was back and I could carry on fighting.
The nightmare is over. The last check-up showed that the tumour had been totally destroyed. I’m healthy again.
What are you doing with your new life?
I’m taking the name of my company - Twice as High – literally. I want to live my life with even greater intensity and work on new, even more extreme moves. My next kite project, for example, is going to feature a helicopter. That will help push our sport to a new level.