Man and ball: Fighting back
11:12, 03 May 2012
Wicklow footballer John McGrath talks to John Kelly about his battle with cancer and his road back to competitive football.....
Just over a year ago, John McGrath was alone in his hospital room listening to the radio when he heard a woman talking about the son she had lost to Burkitt’s lymphoma.
“I had the Ray D’Arcy show on and this woman’s son died from exactly what I had. I was on my own in the room when I heard it. I was in the middle of my third cycle (of treatment) and I just broke down. That was the first time I thought it wasn’t going to be plain sailing -- that it might be more difficult to get to what I was aiming for.”
It was on 20 February 2011 during a league game that the Wicklow and DIT footballer knew something was wrong. He had felt abnormally tired following games against Carlow and Leitrim in the two weeks leading up to it and went to the doctor the Thursday before Wicklow played London.
“I had a toothache at the time and I was taking tablets for that so I thought that might have been it. I went to the dentist during the week and he gave me antibiotics. Because I was feeling tired I didn’t play for DIT in the Sigerson Cup game.
“I went from the dentist to the doctor on the Thursday before we played London just to get a check-up and he told me to rest for the weekend. He arranged for me to come back in the following Tuesday for blood tests. I decided to play against London but I only lasted about 15 minutes. I couldn’t run at all. I couldn’t move so I put my hand up to go off.”
Two days later the blood tests were carried out and he was told it would be a week before the results came back. Later on that day, however, a phone call came.
“I went down to the surgery on my own. The doctor brought me in and sat me down and told me there were symptoms of leukaemia. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant but I knew it was bad. He wrote a few things down on a piece of paper and he said when I leave the office I probably won’t remember much of what was said because of the shock. He told me to go to St James’s Hospital.
“The minute I left the office I called my girlfriend Carol and asked her to come home. She didn’t even ask. She knew there was something wrong and she was home from work within 10 minutes.
“Once I got there I rang my parents (Rosaleen and Paddy). That was tough but thankfully they’re pretty strong. They told me to relax, that they would be up soon. I went to James’s at about 5pm and the family were up at 5.30pm from Wicklow. The doctors and nurses were very good. We were in a room in the Burkitt’s ward by 7pm.”
Tests the next day confirmed that the 25-year-old had leukaemia. At James’s they told him the treatment would take four months involving four cycles of chemotherapy.
“My first cycle lasted 16 days. I went in on a Tuesday and on Wednesday they inserted a three-pronged tube that pumped the medicine into my heart. For the first two or three days I was just vomiting afterwards. It was hard to take.”
From the start, though, his recovery was quicker than expected. Told that he would be allowed to go home for five days once the first cycle had finished, he was contacted by the hospital after just two. He says that although it was a relief to be at home and out of the room where he was kept in isolation and visitor numbers were restricted, he was determined to resume his treatment.
“I was delighted to go back in. I was happy to go home but my whole thing was: ‘Do what you can to fix it’. I never looked up anything about it on the internet, what the percentages were or anything like that. I just got on with it.”
The second cycle lasted eight days but McGrath says it was the first and third 16-day sessions that were the worst. One of the drugs in the two-hour bags was methotrexate which removed the lining of his mouth and throat.
“It gives you ulcers so you can’t swallow. I was only eating yogurts; it was so painful it was ridiculous. I actually went from 12 stone to 10 and a half in the space of a week on that drug.”
McGrath was studying construction management at the time and DIT expected that he would defer the year
“The college were brilliant. They assumed I was going to defer the year and so did I. Further on when I got out of hospital in May, I emailed them to say I wanted to attempt the exams in September. So I did my projects that I was meant to do in semester two during the summer.
He says that the key to his recovery was the support he had and that he was able to avoid feeling stressed.
“I never really felt lonely, not once during it. My girlfriend was unbelievable. She was in every day. My mother and father were brilliant. My sister Julia was flying home regularly from England and my other sister Áine and her boyfriend were always up and down from Wicklow,” he says.
“My brother Padraig took it the worst. It was awkward at the start when he was coming in to see me but he eventually got used to it.”
McGrath says the messages of support he received from friends, team-mates and people from around the county gave him huge strength.
A week before his exams last September, though, he got a scare when one of his monthly tests showed up a problem. It turned out to be nothing more than a bad reaction to one of the drugs he was still taking and since then everything is back to normal.
“During the summer it was great to get back to training with the lads. It was brilliant playing football again. You appreciate every match you play; you appreciate it every time you see your mates. I take every day as it comes. For my first cycle I was in the room all that time and it was so tough, not being allowed outside. When you do get out of the hospital you’re able to walk down the street and appreciate the sunshine. Doing nothing but still enjoying it.”
Doing nothing is not what McGrath is used to. Last Saturday, he was part of a Wicklow side that beat Fermanagh in the Division 4 league final at Croke Park. A few weeks before that he managed the college team to an All-Ireland junior football championship win. Meath lie in wait in the Leinster championship on 27 May.
“From the minute it happened I thought there are people way worse off than myself,” he says. “It only affected me for four to six months of my life. You see people that it affects for years. I want to think maybe mine is over and I just want to move on.”
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