'If you want any sort of cancer, this is the one . . .'
A stroke of good luck has allowed Stephen McPhail to win his biggest battle of all, writes Richard Sadlier
Published 24/01/2010 | 05:00
W hen Stephen McPhail found out the extent of his cancer, he opened a bottle of champagne as soon as he got home. The diagnosis was exactly what he wanted to hear. "I came out floating, big smile on my face. That was it, happy days."
Though his doctor suggested it was merely a swollen gland at the time, it was a year ago when the "pea-sized lump" under his jaw was first noticed. Convinced it had grown over the summer, McPhail again reported it upon returning to pre-season training in July.
To investigate it further, he was sent for a scan and some blood tests. It was then that he first learned he suffers from a rare condition known as Sjogren's Syndrome, the symptoms of which include dry eyes, dry mouth, joint-ache and fatigue. The lump, however, was assumed to be an inflamed salivary gland, which can also be associated with Sjogren's.
Despite receiving conflicting medical advice at the time, he opted to remove the lump as a precaution. The international break in mid-October provided a window of opportunity, and once Cardiff manager Dave Jones learned he would not miss a game, he gave it the go-ahead. While that may sound harsh from Jones, McPhail shared his view. There was no way he was prepared to miss a game if he didn't have to.
"The start of this season was probably the best I've played in years and years," he says. "I felt really comfortable in the team. We were flying."
Given what he had been through in the previous 16 months, he was entitled to enjoy it. He describes captaining Cardiff City to defeat in the 2008 FA Cup final as the lowest point in his career. Just two days later he joined up with Giovanni Trapattoni's first Ireland squad on a training camp in Portugal prior to the friendlies with Serbia and Colombia. He appeared in neither game and has not featured since.
Two sendings off in quick succession against fierce rivals Swansea towards the end of last season resulted in a lengthy suspension which many supporters believed cost the club a place in the play-offs. They were none too impressed and he was hammered by the local media. He began this season with a point to prove.
When it came to it, though, removing the lump took far longer than they thought, and was "three or four times" as big as they expected. He was handed a mirror by the surgeon when he awoke. "I thought 'have I been bitten by a shark or what?'"
The extent of the scarring would rule him out of Cardiff's next game, at home against Crystal Palace. If that was difficult to accept, worse was about to follow. A fortnight later, the surgeon confirmed it was cancer. Though not an oncologist, he was upbeat about the prognosis. "He said 'if you want any sort of cancer, this is the one you want'. I was like 'Oh right, that's good to know'."
All things considered, he took the news well. "I felt comfortable with what he was telling me. I was like, 'right, this is what it is now', but at that stage I hadn't seen an oncologist yet and he was the one who was to check my whole body and see if it had spread. But at this stage I didn't know that."
Not wanting to cause unnecessary worry, McPhail kept the news to himself. Though he speaks to his parents every day, he said nothing. Still unsure what treatment he required, none of his team-mates were told either. Outside of the club doctor and physio, only his wife Michelle, the manager and the chairman knew. Until he knew exactly what he was dealing with, it was to remain that way. Anyway, he had enough on his plate at the time.
"My wife had just had a baby the week before that. It was a boy, my first boy. I was overjoyed. My first was a girl and now I've a boy. It was an amazing few weeks. But still I was confident after speaking to the surgeon. I never thought 'shit, I'm in trouble here'."
It was only when he saw the oncologist that the enormity of what he may be facing hit home. From that appointment he had a seven-day wait before the extent of his lymphoma would be determined. He could handle a stage one diagnosis, anything more would be "more of a struggle".
While some would have sought time off, he didn't miss a training session. "That week was a worry. That was the only seven days of worry. I knew after that exactly what I had. But up to that, did I have it in my stomach or whatever?"
He continued to play football as normal, but mid-way through that week, he tore his thigh off the bone in a game against Nottingham Forest and required surgery as a result. Told it would be 12 weeks before he could play again, football could no longer serve as a welcome distraction. On Friday, November 20, it was confirmed he had stage one MALT lymphoma.
"I remember the feeling going in, and I remember the feeling coming out. I was one extreme to the other. I thought I'd never moan about anything again. I was on crutches going in, I think I threw them away coming out. It was a brilliant feeling, my whole body just relaxed. Nice to ring my mam and dad to say everything was grand." His team-mates were told, and a brief statement on Cardiff's website made the news public the following day.
Three weeks of radiotherapy was required. Encouraged by Dave Jones to get away from Cardiff to concentrate on his treatment, he explored the possibility of a return to Dublin. There would have been a three-week wait to be seen in Cardiff anyway, so off he went. With the help of a school-friend of Michelle's, Christine Doyle, who worked at the Mater Hospital, treatment was arranged straight away.
The radiotherapy itself, for the first two weeks anyway, was relatively comfortable. "You just lie in this machine every day for three weeks for eight or 10 minutes. They fit you for a mask and that pins you to the bed so you can't move. Once I was in that mask I just closed my eyes. Never opened them. I never felt anything. You just hear banging, like an MRI scan really".
Throughout his time at home, he arranged to have treatment on his thigh in DCU from Bohemians physio Tony McCarthy, whom he considers "top droor". "I had a plan every day -- running, in the pool. I had targets, something else to concentrate on. I'd go from DCU to the Mater and get treatment at 2.0, then go home to Rush for 4.0. That was my day for three weeks."
In the final week, though, he began to suffer. He developed blisters in his mouth, a sore throat, and couldn't eat food properly for five or six days. Every time he sat down he felt like sleeping. "Christmas dinner didn't go down at all." It was exactly what he had been told to expect.
By now, support and encouragement was coming from all sides. Former team-mates and managers contacted him, and people he hadn't heard from in years were in touch. A Facebook page was set up which currently has over 6,000 messages from well-wishers. While grateful and appreciative of everyone's encouragement, it was the example and influence of his good friend Dave Worrell which stands out in his mind.
While playing for Montrose in Scotland, Worrell was diagnosed with cancer himself last year. Amazed at how positive he seemed, McPhail had no idea their roles would be reversed in such a short space of time. "I was actually speaking to him during his treatment not realising I'd end up in the same position so soon. I was just a friend trying to get him through. We grew up together in Rush. He's helped me loads. Just bouncing things off him, he had to give up football, but he's all clear now."
With the treatment completed just before Christmas, he returned to Cardiff to pick up where he left off. However, there was to be one more bout of suffering to get through. He would find out exactly what is meant by 'dry eyes'. "I felt an itch in my eye. Felt like there was someone scratching my eye. Felt like my eye closed up." He was treated in hospital that evening, and must now take eye-drops every two hours to help prevent it happening again. "That was a low point. That's when I thought 'what's going on here?' The symptoms were really coming."
To complicate matters further, he also suffers from Raynaud's phenomenon. As a result, he experiences severe levels of pain in his hands and arms in cold weather. He has come to terms with the impact such things may have on his life, but is all too aware it could be so much worse. "It's just little things that change how I think about things. Things I have to do or else I'll struggle."
For the next five years he will be examined every three months. The symptoms of his Sjogren's can be managed, and barring an onset of fatigue, his playing career will be largely unaffected. Having barely missed a day's training because of the disease, he's feeling refreshed and determined following a Christmas spent at home for the first time in over a decade. While frustrated by the ten week lay-off caused by the thigh injury, he talks about what he has been through in a very positive way. "When I was in getting radiotherapy, I was sitting next to people in the queue and they were struggling. How lucky am I that they got this so early?"
Actually, he is incredibly lucky. The oncologist told him only four per cent of patients in Wales learn of this particular cancer in stage one. But for the break in fixtures in October, it could all have been so different. "I was gonna leave it 'til next summer. There was no worry about it. It was such a lucky thing to do. If we had left it another ten months it could have been at a later stage by then."
A return to full squad training is only days away, and though no target has yet been set for his comeback game, it's approaching fast. "I'm straight back to feeling myself again, feeling strong. The blisters are gone. I've a small bit of a sore throat but that will be soon gone. My taste buds still don't work but that'll be fine soon."
Appearing to take a lot of it in his stride, he knows it would have been a very different experience without Michelle. "She was unbelievable. I even said to her recently 'how did you do it?. . . even after the baby? How did you get your head around it?' She was like, 'I dunno, I just always felt positive' and that kept me going." As much as they were both convinced he would survive, he knows it could easily have brought an end to his career.
His appreciation for playing has increased with age, but at 30, he knows the scenario will present itself soon enough. Having done his coaching badges in the hope of remaining involved at some level, he is interested in nothing else. Suffering cancer has reaffirmed this in his mind.
Believing he is in the wrong division to catch the eye of the Ireland manager, his focus is on Cardiff City. Their supporters still speak with pride of the FA Cup final appearance, but it remains a lost opportunity in the eyes of McPhail. He had fully expected to lift the trophy, and still finds it hard to accept he didn't.
That said, he considers himself more relaxed about everything now, and far less likely to get worked up about things in the way he once did. It appears life will be a little easier for his three-year-old daughter also. "She's a little gem. She can walk all over me even more now."
Results on the effectiveness of the radiotherapy will arrive in a week or so. In McPhail's mind, however, the all-clear can only be confirmed in one way. "I think until I get on the pitch and show people I'm ready and strong and ready to play football, it will always be in people's minds. Is he alright? Is he over it? That will tell people I'm fine, there's nothing wrong and that I'm determined to get cracking and get on with it."
I dare say there will be a bottle of champagne opened when he does.