How football helped a man cope with his cancer diagnosis

BY Mark Davies

18th Oct 2023 Lifestyle

4 min read

How football helped a man cope with his cancer diagnosis
In this extract from his new book A Love Letter to Football, Mark Davies tells the moving story of how the beautiful game can provide joy in even the most difficult times of a fan’s life
There is something peculiarly awful about the idea of watching and waiting for cancer to start attacking you. It’s definitely a better option than being given a finite time to live, but being diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer where the plan is to hold fire on treatment for the time being is pretty disconcerting.

Diagnosis and Middlesbrough memories

Man talking to doctor about his diagnosis
I woke up one night soon after my diagnosis in 2016 and found myself going through a point-by-point assessment of how things had gone since I was born in 1967, my mind flitting through images: the pond near where my nana lived, a steam engine pulling into a station on a trip with my railway-obsessed father. Billy Ashcroft scoring a thunderbolt goal for my beloved Middlesbrough against Crystal Palace.
"Being diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer where the plan is to hold fire on treatment is pretty disconcerting"
I felt desperately sad at the prospect of losing these precious memories much earlier than I had planned. But I was also conflicted: I knew I was lucky and a little voice in my head kept telling me to get over it. Most people discover they have my kind of cancer—myeloma—when their back ache gets so bad they go to A&E, and are told that not only do they have broken bones, but the culprit is an insidious cancer of which they have probably never heard. They get fitted with back braces, have bones pinned, and have a much more challenging outlook than I might have done had my cancer not been picked up early.

I flirted with fortitude

I did know though that at some point the cancer would become active. I tried to put that out of my mind: I wasn’t in any pain and apart from a suggestion that I avoid breaking any bones and therefore shouldn’t take up rugby, I could carry on pretty much as I was.
But I also tormented myself by wondering if I’d brought all this on myself through a slightly cavalier approach to health and fitness. I toyed with unhelpful rumination on whether this was some kind of spiritual payback for past misdemeanours. I wallowed in self-pity, flirted with fortitude and positivity. I was all over the place.
I needed things to cling to, to distract me, and preferably they would be things which wouldn’t compromise my fragile health. I floundered around for a bit: I took swimming lessons and I tried yoga. I went on a mindfulness course, and learned how to meditate. I had a lot of therapy.

Risks can loom large

Middlesbrough FC's Riverside Stadium
But of course one of the most obvious sources of support was sitting there right in front of me, so much a part of my life that I was taking it for granted. Football, as so often, was there for me, not as a matter of life and death, not in any way removing the fear echoing around my mind, but giving me something to focus on which wasn’t myeloma. The joy when things were going well in that part of my life would rub off and leave a shimmer to compete with the dull bits that really aren’t quite so good. Or alternatively it made me so sodding miserable I would stop thinking about anything other than why the bloody hell I stick with it.
It works for me. While it makes sense of course to focus on being as positive as possible, there is a simple reality about a myeloma diagnosis which makes finding an approach based on positivity quite challenging. The uncertainty of the incurability of the disease combined with the extraordinary progress made in medical science makes for a life when some days the risks loom large, and others where I can forget about it for literally hours.

Sense of balance

I have problems too with the often repeated mantra to stay positive. When people die from cancer it’s never because they weren’t positive enough. If it’s hard to summon up any positivity about something so grim, there’s no shame in that. And there’s a risk that if you just can’t summon up a spirit of relentless positivity you might feel inadequate, or as though you are doing it wrong or somehow failing, especially if you understandably succumb to an occasionally more pessimistic view. Or maybe that’s just me. Pinning my approach to football seems a much better bet, a balanced approach which sees both hope and adversity in almost equal measure, and tries to find a way to deal with it.
"Pinning my cancer approach to football seems a balanced approach which sees both hope and adversity in almost equal measure"
Supporting a football club like mine, Middlesbrough, is pretty good for finding this sense of balance in your life more broadly. It’s definitely helped me come to terms with the various challenges I’ve faced in life, partly because it’s a much more relatable experience than directing your affections at Real Madrid or something like that. Supporting a club like Boro is often about dealing with disappointment, and the kind of disappointment which can ruin weekends and last for days. And in this of course it’s similar for fans of most clubs on the planet. While all the chatter in the papers and on TV is about the Manchester Citys, the Bayerns and the Barcelonas, most of us are loyally following the Boros, the Augsbergs and the Bordeauxs and all the other teams without whom the game really wouldn’t function. The overwhelming football experience is much more about balance than end of season champagne spray.

Identity, pride and resilience

Like so many things these days a lot of it is about identity. If Boro didn’t exist anymore, we’d reinvent it in some form. The focus a football club can provide for the love and pride of a community can’t just be picked up and transferred elsewhere. It matters more than the results on a page, and even more in places where the impact of post-industrial decline is most acute, of which Middlesbrough is one.
"When things got really pretty bad for me, the love I have for Middlesbrough football club really came into its own"
A football club then transcends the game and becomes a symbol of local pride and resilience, a focus for something to lift the spirits, with the potential to send a ripple of joy across the area where maybe things the rest of the time are just not so good. And when things got really pretty bad for me, the love I have for my football club really came into its own.
This is an extract from A Love Letter to Football: From the Terraces to a Transplant and Back Again by Mark Davies, published by Pitch Publishing. 
Banner credit: Middlesbrough FC vs Nottingham Forest, 2021 by Paul Hudson via Wikimedia Commons
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