From Anfield to Accrington? Why Wembley will wait

If you read Pete Sixsmith’s match report on the Sheffield United cup match or Malcolm’s account from last Saturday you’ll know I was  up for the MK Dons game. Malcolm might have given you a clue that it wasn’t just any old visit. Pete did, too, but I deleted his brief reference.

It was, in fact, my first trip to the SOL since the start of the previous season, and my first Sunderland game since December, and it had to be organised with great care. Trains instead of the car, and clothes that were guaranteed to keep me warm. And I can now add that by the time I got home I was knackered, far more than usual.

The reason lies in events that began nigh on a year ago but please forgive my artistic licence; I’m starting a lot further back than that.

Many years ago I was stuck on a crowded plane at Athens airport. It was a couple of hours before it took off for a four hour flight and by the time I got home my bum was in a bad way. “Piles” said the doc, before advising me that suppositories would fix it. They did, and I got on with my life. A few years ago something similar happened on another flight. Another dose of suppositories and life went on.

And then came our game at Shrewsbury. It’s only about 70 miles, so no plane, but it does take three trains and that requires a lot of sitting around. In fact, it worked out to be a 12-hour day and I reckon I sat for 11 of them, given that I was in with the home fans. So it was no surprise to me that when I got home my bum was numb once more.

No problem, except a few days later I was on another plane, wedged into the middle seat and immobile for almost three hours. “Piles again,” I thought, the day after landing, but suppositories did the trick once more and I got on with my holiday. That’s what we do, isn’t it? We ignore embarrassing things and get on with our lives.

Only, this time I didn’t.

Back home, I decided to get confirmation of my self-diagnosis and I took my bum off to the doctor. He didn’t think there was a problem, especially as I’d had clear screening tests, but put me in for further checks, which is how I came to spend a very uncomfortable Saturday at Accrington Stanley. The pre-match pint, in the company of Salut!’s Malcolm, Hutch and Olivia was excellent but I had to endure that storm, the cold and the abandonment on an otherwise empty stomach in preparation for a colonoscopy.

The Peel Park Hotel

Inside the away section

Jake: ‘that wasn’t in the script’

Colonoscopies aren’t the most pleasant of examinations but they are done with dignity and they give instant results. For me and my wife that meant a side room and a conversation that started with:

“We’ve found a growth, and it doesn’t look good”.

The consultant went on to talk about it looking operable but there would be biopsies and a scan “to see what damage it has done” and he left us in the company of a nurse who said she’d stay as long as we needed in order to answer questions. Believe me, when you’re told you have “a growth, and it doesn’t look good” the one big question on your mind can’t be answered, not there and then.

The scan took place the Saturday before Christmas, and I got home and opened the match centre on the SAFC site for Portsmouth away. At least, I think I did – Loovens’s sending off didn’t register but I remember us doing OK in the first half then losing.

Over the holiday we beat Bradford, drew with Shrewsbury then repeated the sequence at Blackpool and Charlton. Not as good as desired but not fatal, a bit like my scan. My lungs were clear but my liver needed a second look.

That happened around the time the Checkatrade trophy was getting interesting, and it was followed by a meeting with a surgeon. I did have a malignant tumour but it probably hadn’t spread, surgery was likely to be successful and did I have any questions?

Going to games came up. “It’s a four to six week recovery after surgery, and I don’t want you jumping round or in crowds and tearing internal stitches,” she replied. And with that not only Wembley but also Bristol, Rochdale and Fleetwood disappeared off the menu.

Then came a reprieve of sorts, the op was moved forward. If we did get to Wembley I’d just be able to make it. No carousing, but an all-seater stadium should be manageable if all went well, which it did, although it took a while before I knew that. In fact, it was just before the kick-off against Oxford that I was told the tumour was gone. That afternoon, mind elsewhere, I half-listened to some radio programme one of the nurses tuned into and heard news of our draw. A couple of days later I was home in time to sleep though the Blackpool game and a few more afterwards. But I was recovering well and a Wembley trip, should we make the final, looked like it might be on.

It wasn’t. Unresolved doubts about my liver resulted in referral to an oncologist. The morning after Bristol, when others were desperately trying to navigate the Ticketmaster website, I was being advised to have chemotherapy. It would mean an impaired immune system, so no travel, no crowds, no pre-match pubs for at least six months, but it would increase my chances of avoiding a return of the cancer. Would you turn that down? Wembley went out of the window right then, as did the rest of the season and the start of this one.

seems a lifetime ago

I started chemotherapy the day we passed 4 million hits.

160,000 hits, 1,250 tablets or 162 days later, take your pick, it ended. But not the side effects. I have neuropathy and remain susceptible to cold. The trip up for the MK game had to be planned with great care. Meanwhile, standing – and thus away games – remains beyond me.

If I continue to recover I might make Tranmere in January, by which time I should also know if I’m clear. There’s no guarantee but I am optimistic as over half of those diagnosed with bowel cancer now survive 10 years or more. Given that we’ve made five Wembley cup finals in the 55 years I’ve been supporting Sunderland, the chances are that I’ll get to another. I can wait for Wembley.

Which brings me to my point. The surgeon reckoned I’d had a tumour for a year, maybe longer. I’d taken it to Preston in our Championship season. I could have carried it from Anfield to Accrington, yet it was still detected in time – perhaps just in time – to give me a decent chance of survival. And if I could have an undiscovered tumour throughout our journey from the Premier League to League One, how many readers, how many fans in a home crowd, could be ignoring symptoms or avoiding a screening? There will be some, I’m sure. Are you one of them?

I turned up at the doctor’s with something whose symptoms had disappeared, something embarrassing that I could have so easily ignored. Since that day the NHS has been magnificent. From my astute GP, through experts in their field and nurses who really care, it’s a system that works. But only because I let it.

Let it work for you, too. Take that first step. If you have any doubts get yourself checked out. If you have a screening test don’t miss it. Wembley will wait. Cancer won’t.

9 thoughts on “From Anfield to Accrington? Why Wembley will wait”

  1. Thanks John for a brave and inspiring article. It certainly puts football and its whims into perspective.

  2. John, thank you for the story. As has already been said getting things checked out, especially when they’re in embarrassing places is very important. Ignorance may be bliss, but the consequences can be very bad.
    Long may you remain cancer free and enjoy not one, but many trips to Wembley.

  3. Congratulations on your progress to date John, and long may it last.

    Your story certainly puts football results into perspective, and yet it also demonstrates the incredible part our relationship with our team plays in our lives – even when potentially life changing events threaten to over-whelm us.

    If our players read your piece it should motivate them to get to Wembley again – and WIN.

  4. Thank you John for a noteworthy piece. I hope you continue to improve and you get to plenty of Wembley matches and that we even win them.

  5. A heartening story John and I hope you continue to enjoy improving health because we don’t always appreciate just how close we come sometimes. The old adage ‘we spend the first thirty years of life trying to kill ourselves and the rest just trying to stay alive’ was never more true.
    I’ve had two instances when our wonderful NHS came to the fore. The first was in 1981 during the Falklands campaign (seems a lifetime ago) when I was helicoptered into Odstock Burns Unit in Salisbury. The following months on life support, then rehab, showed me the professionalism, care and dedication of all the staff at that great place. Fast forward 35 years to last Christmas when I woke bright and early, unable to move or speak, to find I’d been visited overnight by the stroke fairy. No warnings, regular check-ups etc. out of the blue. So back into hospital in Soton and back onto the NHS treadmill. That was 10 months ago and it’s been a long haul of rarely going across the doors and football is a TV viewing sport only, for now. TV and the match reports and pages of this site keep me going football-wise.

    What I have learnt is that when you are admitted into the system, whether via helicopter or ambulance, you bypass the gatekeepers of the NHS and all seems so straightforward. To gain access via your own awareness of symptoms or ‘not quite feeling alright’ is more difficult and requires a doggedness of not giving up and the accepting of screening processes and invasive treatments until your condition is investigated and treatment is reached. As we grow older life becomes more precious and there is nothing we should be embarrassed or ashamed or frightened by to further our longevity.

    We have a wonderful NHS system full of dedicated, overworked, undervalued staff at all levels. We know it’s abused, gamed and mismanaged but it is still a system we should be proud of. I’ve certainly had my lifetime’s NI contributions back tenfold and their door is always open.

  6. What a beautiful and important piece of writing, John. Salutary, sad but also uplifting and inspiring. So much so that it has easily cleared the hurdle erected by our occasional Turkish cyber attacker.

  7. It was great seeing you back at the match John and let me reiterate your advice for people not to ignore things.

    Three years ago the pain in my back was so bad I was struggling to even put my bins out or get upstairs. The walk to and from the the car on match day was taking me ages and I was using the disabled persons’ entrances to avoid standing in the queues for the turnstiles.

    The first two GPs told me it was age and being overweight and I put up with the pain for a while. But on my third visit the GP decided to send me for a whole battery of tests and scans none of which revealed the cause of the pain although one scan had revealed something which I was told was not cancerous but warranted further investigation.

    A second scan was also inconclusive and I had a third between Christmas and New Year 2016. A couple of weeks later I was summoned to Sunderland Royal to be told I did indeed have a tumour on my kidney and that it would require surgery to have it removed.

    A fortnight later I went under the knife and had only two nights in hospital before being discharged. I spent a week sleeping in an upright sitting position (which I found surprisingly comfortable) and missed the Spurs and Southampton games, so there were some positives to take. A week later the stitches came out and fortunately it didn’t take long for me to get back to what passes for normality.

    A few weeks later I was talking to a woman who told me her husband had had similar pains but wouldn’t see the doctor and unfortunately he was too late for treatment when he eventually did go.

    As John says don’t put off going to see the GP about any unexplained symptoms. It could be life changing.

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