Sunday 20 October 2019

Rugby star Tony Ward: 'Cancer was my hardest opponent to beat'

Tony Ward had to overcome many challenges in his dazzling rugby career. But nothing prepared him for the cruel illness that turned his life upside down.

Tony Ward, Irish Independent rugby columnist and director of rugby at St Gerard's School, faced his toughest battle when he was diagnosed with cancer
Tony Ward, Irish Independent rugby columnist and director of rugby at St Gerard's School, faced his toughest battle when he was diagnosed with cancer
Tony Ward of Munster
Tony Ward
Willie Duggan puts his arm around Ireland team-mate Tony Ward after the 12-9 Five Nations Rugby Championship defeat against England at Twickenham in 1984
Tony Ward the coach on the sidelines of a match
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

He was renowned as a wizard in an Irish rugby shirt. He toured with the Lions and overcame the mighty All Blacks with Munster.

But Tony Ward has just faced up to his toughest contest yet - a battle with a deadly form of prostate cancer.

Tony Ward, Irish Independent rugby columnist and director of rugby at St Gerard's School, faced his toughest battle when he was diagnosed with cancer
Tony Ward, Irish Independent rugby columnist and director of rugby at St Gerard's School, faced his toughest battle when he was diagnosed with cancer

For the first time, the legendary out-half and Irish Independent rugby writer has decided to talk about his illness.

"For over two years I have kept it under wraps and only a close circle of friends has known about it," Tony said this week at his home in Loughlinstown, Co Dublin. "But when I went on holiday in the summer I decided I did not want to hide it any more.

"I want to get the message out that it is imperative men have themselves checked - and I hope that can help to save lives.

"The last few years have been among the toughest and most stressful of my life, but I feel that I have got through it by being positive. I know it is probably a cliché to say it, but when you are in a situation like this, you really find out who your real friends are.

Tony Ward of Munster
Tony Ward of Munster

"One who comfortably fits that category is a certain Ollie Campbell."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the competition between Ward and Campbell for the Irish No 10 shirt was one of the greatest rivalries in European sport.

Tony, then a dazzling star who did for rugby what John Travolta did for disco, still talks with emotion but little bitterness about the disappointment of being dropped in favour of Campbell on a tour to Australia. And the rivalry continued into the 80s, with Ward mostly losing out.

But through it all, away from the public gaze, the rivals have remained close friends, and this has come to the fore again in recent times.

Tony Ward
Tony Ward

"Ollie rings and texts regularly to see how I am since I became ill," says Tony with emotion and respect in equal measure. "That is typical of the man."

Ward's life was turned upside down in spring of 2012 when he went for a routine check-up with his GP, Ray Power. He regrets now that he didn't go for that check-up even earlier.

Willie Duggan puts his arm around Ireland team-mate Tony Ward after the 12-9 Five Nations Rugby Championship defeat against England at Twickenham in 1984
Willie Duggan puts his arm around Ireland team-mate Tony Ward after the 12-9 Five Nations Rugby Championship defeat against England at Twickenham in 1984

Tony was caught entirely unawares by his illness, and urges others not to make the same mistake and delay if they feel anything is up.

Since retiring from the game, Tony has worked as Irish Independent journalist and RTÉ co-commentator, as well as being involved as a coach in schools rugby at St Gerard's in Bray, and earlier at St Andrew's in Booterstown. He sees these roles as labours of love.

Tony noticed something different one day when he was out shopping.

"I seldom if ever go into town to shop," says Ward, who still looks surprisingly youthful as he approaches his 60th birthday. "Instead, I wait until I am travelling somewhere for a match and I go shopping there. It might be Rome, Paris, the UK, wherever. I'd pick up toiletries or maybe some clothes.

Tony Ward the coach on the sidelines of a match
Tony Ward the coach on the sidelines of a match

"A few years ago, on one of these trips I began to notice that I needed to go to the toilet more often.

"It seemed like nothing sinister, and I did nothing about it. That's typical of men. It takes a conscious effort by men to check on their health - it's all about that macho hunter nonsense that we are above vulnerability."

When Tony went to his GP for a check-up after a gap of six years, the truth that he was riddled with an aggressive prostate cancer suddenly emerged to his utter shock.

Prostate is the most common form of cancer that hits men in Ireland and over 3,000 are diagnosed with it every year. It affects a gland about the size of a walnut at the base of the bladder.

"My doctor gave me an inspection and immediately noticed something was wrong."

Tony was given a blood test to check his PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen). The PSA level is often an indicator of a tumour or cancerous growth.

"I was told my consultant Hubert Gallagher (former teammate with Greystones) that I was off the scale when it came to my PSA."

"The cancer had spread from my prostate like juice trickling out of an orange, and it was a fairly virulent form of it. At least it had not spread to other organs."

Tony says he surprised himself with his own calmness as he faced the grim news.

"I am a natural worrier about things in general. Throughout my career I used get headaches before and after big matches. I worried about how I played and whether I had done my bit. Throughout my life I have tended to get worried about the most minuscule irritants. And then, when I was faced with a life and death issue I managed to get things in perspective.

"My response was - hey, c'est la vie, it's another challenge. It's a battle. It's like trying to get on the Irish team, or trying to win a match."

Tony was going through a marital separation at the time of the illness. He has four children - three daughters and a son. Three of them are grown up and his youngest daughter, Ali, is just going into sixth year in school.

"Suddenly, my life froze. Ali is named after Ali McGraw, the beautiful actress in Love Story, who is diagnosed with cancer in the movie.

"I immediately thought of the film. I had often thought how I might react if I was told I had cancer. It seemed like a self-fulfilling prophesy. This was my 'Jenny Cavalleri' moment.

"My kids were obviously very upset, but they have been incredibly supportive. You couldn't say that the stress of the separation caused my cancer, but it certainly didn't help."

Over two years after he was diagnosed, Tony is still undergoing hormone therapy - implants inserted in his arm to reduce the amount of testosterone flowing through his body. This slows down the growth of cancer cells. "Every so often you can get hot flushes and you break out in a sweat suddenly."

Two years ago, in the Mater Hospital under Dr Michael Maher, Tony had brachytherapy, an intensive blast of internal radiation. This was followed in the autumn with a course of external beam radiotherapy in the Beacon Hospital - five days a week for five weeks.

"It's a very strange feeling and naturally you worry about what is going to happen to your biological technology," he says.

Tony continued working as a rugby journalist for the Irish Independent and as co-commentator on RTÉ, and found it helped him cope with his illness. "Radiotherapy affects people in different ways. In my case the overwhelming feeling was one of tiredness. For two months I was zonked. I work at home and sometimes I found myself nodding off at the computer."

Tony pays an incalculable tribute to the help he received from his close friends and family.

The support received from Campbell is testament to and indicative of the enduring bond of what was in this case a great sporting rivalry.

Ward enjoyed many triumphs, both on the rugby and soccer fields, but his career is also tinged with disappointment that threads its way through our conversation.

It is remarkable that such an inestimable talent only played for Ireland 19 times. At the time when he was dropped there was a common feeling among rugby fans that an injustice had been done.

With both Ward and Campbell competing for the same place on the team, it would be natural if an enmity developed between them. But that is not the way it has turned out.

"Even though we had a personal duel, I am a softie at heart. I found it very hard to motivate myself when I was playing against him because we got on so well away from Thomond Park, Lansdowne Road or wherever.

"I could be preparing for a big match - Leinster against Munster, or a final trial. All week I would try to work myself up thinking 'I hate this guy, I'll give him hell'.

"Then on the day Ollie would run by me tap me on the back, and say 'Good luck today Wardy'.

"Then I would melt. All that pent up anger and mental preparation would dissipate. All my psychological rehearsing went for nothing. All my friends, like Ollie, are people of substance. I don't do superficial or airy fairy."

Although he has maintained a positive outlook throughout, like everyone who has had a grave illness, Tony Ward has had his dark moments.

"You can have horrible thoughts when you are on your own, but I have found that I am now able to get out of that state of mind.

"When, for some reason, I am going down a road I don't want to go down - and thinking the worst - I am able to negotiate myself out of it.

"I don't want to put myself on any pedestal, but I am proud of myself for getting through it."

Curiously, despite his tribulations, Ward feels that his illness has given him a more positive outlook on life

"I feel better about myself and within myself, and it has helped me come to terms with some of the disappointments of my career and my life to date."

Ward feels healthy now, and his PSA level - often an indicator of cancer - has dropped. "I go to the gym five days a week. I am not a gym bunny at all, but now my day would not be complete without it. I do try to keep healthy."

Once he knew he was seriously ill, Tony was not inclined to go public with it. "Despite the past perception of me as 'Mr Pin-up', I am actually quite shy, and uncomfortable in the spotlight. I didn't want people to look at me and take pity on me."

Ward's illness was a well-kept secret, but he has now changed his mind about going public. He was listening to an interview with Packie Bonner on the Sean O'Rourke radio show around the time of the World Cup, where the former Irish goalkeeper talked about a friend who had prostate cancer.

"I felt a hypocrite listening to Packie and me hiding it from everybody when I could and should do so much more myself. I am just one of many of thousands who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer. I urge people to go to a doctor and get themselves checked. It only takes an hour out of your day. The alternative doesn't bare thinking about."

Tony Ward will appear at the Irish Cancer Society's National Conference for Cancer Survivorship, which takes place at the Aviva Stadium on September 19 and 20.

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