Refusing to lose game of his life
Jim Stynes is showing typical courage and remaining positive in battle against cancer, writes John O'Brien
Published 19/09/2010 | 05:00
IF you have been a follower of Jim Stynes' Twitter feed, you will have noticed the steep decline in updates over the past few weeks or so. There is nothing odd about this. The pattern since he established the account last year has been a steady stream of messages interspersed with periods of relative inactivity. In the silences it has been possible to gauge haphazardly how well Stynes is feeling at any given moment.
Two weeks ago, Stynes posted a typically upbeat bulletin. "5 weeks since new treatment, ceased steroids, been tough. Just getting used 2 new protocol. Paul back from LA to finish doco-very exciting."
The Paul is Paul Currie, his long-time friend who helped him set up Reach, a charity in aid of young Australians, in 1994. The "doco" is the documentary they have been shooting for the past nine months detailing Stynes' stubborn battle against the cancer that first invaded his body early last year. Every Heart Beats True -- The Jim Stynes Story will be screened on Channel 9 in Melbourne today and nationwide from next week.
Last week Stynes explained how the film had boosted his flagging spirits. He had to quit the steroids he needed to prevent his brain swelling because he had started taking a trial immuno-therapy drug and the going got considerably rougher. He came down with 'flu and his spirits sagged. "Now I have energy again," he explained. "The documentary energises you. It gives you more purpose. Away you go again."
From afar we have always admired Stynes as a tough and inspirational character. But the past year has shown how weak and inadequate that assessment was. It was June last year when his neuro-surgeon confronted him with the grim prognosis that he only had months to live. "It's challenging not to think the worst when you're given nine months to live," Stynes said. Fifteen months on he is on the ropes but still fighting. Still refusing to give in.
A month after his diagnosis, he announced it publicly and a wave of sadness and incredulity swept across the city where Stynes is adored and cherished. Two years ago, he became president of his old club, the Demons, which was crippled with debt and on the verge of extinction. Stynes brought in a new board and saved the club but the cost to his health was severe. He became so embroiled in his job that he had ignored his wife's pleas to have the lump on his back checked out.
His former Melbourne team-mate, David Schwarz, captured the prevailing mood. "I thought 'you've got to be kidding me'," Schwarz said. "It can't be Jim. He's too strong. The ironic thing is he never even drank or smoked."
Cancer doesn't discriminate, though. It didn't matter that Stynes had lived the ascetic athlete's life. It didn't matter that he had won an All-Ireland minor title with Dublin in 1984. Or that he had answered an ad in a Melbourne newspaper looking for talented GAA players and, after a ropey start, etched his name into AFL legend by playing a record 244 consecutive games and winning a coveted Brownlow medal in 1991.
None of that counted when the pain in his back became unbearable and he had to go to hospital. They removed the lump on his back only for three more to suddenly appear on his brain. In all he has had 16 taken out. In May, he underwent an operation to have five removed only for one to grow back and a fresh one to appear. "Jaysus," he said to his doctor. "I'm losing at every post here." The lumps have kept coming and Stynes has kept fighting.
Ultimately, Stynes' story isn't compelling because he was stricken with cancer. For that in itself wouldn't be remarkable. What distinguishes it is the indefatigable spirit with which he has fought his battle and his passionate belief that by recording the most intimate details of his own struggle he could provide a useful service for those unfortunate enough to end up in the same predicament.
"I'm working 16 years with teenagers," Stynes said, explaining why he had made the film, "and I've seen them being held back from telling their stories. So now's the time for me to walk my talk. Let people in and let them see you don't have to be afraid. You can embrace it. It can teach you great things and you can end up being a better person."
By all accounts, Every Heart Beats True is funny and harrowing in equal measure. It is raw and, in places, shocking. In one memorable scene, Stynes gulps down a tumbler of his own urine, revealing the lengths he is prepared to go to extend his life. "The best multi-vitamin you can take," he tells the camera. Then there are the coffee enemas to clear his bowels of toxins, the reiki massages, the guinea pig trials for new drugs.
He has taken ownership of his situation and remained positive in the face of enormous and terrifying odds. A year ago, the Dublin 1984 minor team gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their All-Ireland victory and, although Stynes wasn't well enough to travel, he held his audience spellbound during a 30-minute video link-up. According to those present, tears were shed but the dominant response was laughter.
It was heart-warming to see such an acknowledgment because, sadly, Stynes is largely a forgotten figure in his native city. And there seems something terribly wrong about that, particularly given the dramatic twist his life has taken over the past 15 months. Wouldn't it be a gross injustice if his story didn't find an audience here? If there wasn't an Irish television station eager to snap up the rights?
It is a year now since RTE staged an exercise to select the greatest Irish sportsperson of all time. Stynes didn't figure in the top 10 nor in the long list that preceded it. Nobody argued the injustice of his omission. And maybe that was fair enough. His achievements, as great as they are, came in a non-Irish sport, 10,000 miles away and out of sight, naturally, is out of mind.
But what if you played around with the concept a little? Tweaked it ever so slightly. So instead of the greatest Irish sportsperson you went for something different, the bravest Irish sportsperson, say, or the most inspiring. Surely there would be no contest then. Jim Stynes would win hands down.