The story of my battle with this awful disease begins back in April 2013. I noticed a lump on one of my testicles, but wasn’t in any discomfort so didn’t think too much about it. Eventually, as the lump hadn’t changed, I went to see the Wales team doctor. I received a course of antibiotics, and all expectations were that the lump would go away. At the end of August I went to see the team doctor at Cardiff Blues as it hadn’t. His conclusion was the same: nothing to worry about, and another course of antibiotics.
In October the lump was still there, though I was
still in no discomfort. The team doctor referred me
to a consultant, Richard Coulthard. After a thorough examination, I was referred for a CT scan. I was told that regardless of the scan’s findings, I needed an operation to remove the testicle. At that point, though it may seem hard to believe, I was still thinking more about rugby. I told Phil Davies – still Cardiff Blues Director of Rugby then – that I’d need an operation, but would delay it until November. I was sure I wouldn’t be needed by Wales for the Autumn Internationals, and Cardiff Blues had a big Heineken Cup game against Toulon in October which I wanted to be part of. This plan was about to be turned upside down, as were my and my family’s lives.
On Friday 18th October 2013, Richard called to break the news that it had spread into a lymph node in my stomach and that he was pretty sure it was cancer. I needed a biopsy as soon as possible. The first thought I had was, was I going to die? Then I thought about my family: how would they cope? I just couldn’t believe it – cancer? I was too young, surely? On 7th November I was told it was indeed testicular cancer, but that we’d caught it early. Richard was trying to be as positive
as possible, but in reality the only word I heard was ‘cancer’. I knew I had a battle on my hands, but was determined to get through it. I’ll always remember telling my daughter Brooke the news later on. She hadn’t batted an eyelid to any of my previous operations for rugby injuries, but when I told her I’d be having treatment to make me feel better and that I might lose my hair, she went upstairs and brought down a pink wig from her bedroom. Love her.
Just before the start of the chemo treatment, they wanted to check that the scarring following my operation had healed sufficiently ciently. A young nurse was given the task of checking, and I removed my trousers so she could examine me. Next thing I know, she’d whipped out her phone! I reacted with shock – she apologised and explained that she was using the torch on her phone to have a better look. I thought my private parts were going to be all over social media!
Velindre were superb. Once the staff had adapted the anti-sickness medication to fit my needs, the sickness initially wore off. I remember saying to one of my nurses, ‘ This chemo isn’t so bad.’ She just gave me a look as if to say, ‘ There’s worse to come’, and of course she was right. I remember one of the nurses telling me about a man who came to them with cancer and after having the first lot of treatment, just never came back as he could't cope with it. Even now, I still wonder what happened to him. Pretty sobering stuff.
Apart from the really bad days, I trained throughout my treatment. Some people may find it crazy, but it almost felt like a few stolen hours of escape from my ongoing battle with cancer, and being able to train with Cardiff Blues certainly lifted my spirits. The banter with people such as Bradley Davies and Lou Reed, who were constantly taking the mick, made it feel like I was back to being a normal rugby player.
The support I received from the nurses and doctors at Velindre during my time there was outstanding – I can’t thank them enough. The work they do for people in the horrible situation they find themselves in is nothing short of incredible. The Cardiff Blues, my friends and my family were all amazing: a huge thank you in particular to my wife Becky, Ray, Scott and Uncle Dave, who were there throughout my treatment to keep my spirits up. I received messages from people around the rugby world, as well as messages from people I’d never met, wishing me well. I’m so grateful to them all. Cardi Blues players and Rhondda Schools U15s rugby team shaved their heads in support and to raise money for Velindre. My Uncle Dave and friends completed a sponsored walk from Llanelli to Tonyrefail, taking in the grounds of all the rugby
teams that I’ve played for along the route. It just shows how great people can be and I’ll never forget all the support I had. Of course, there were some dark days when I had no energy and just felt terrible. The cocktail of drugs I had did come with side effects, including hearing loss, damaged taste buds and numbness in your fingers, as well as the hair loss and sickness. During the darkest days I remained positive in front of the family, but when alone, I’m not ashamed to say I felt very down. But I was determined to get through it. I couldn’t leave my wife and daughter on their own in this world. I was going to be a survivor of cancer.
"I Knew I had a battle on my hands, but was determined to get through it"
In January 2014 after those initial bad days, I started to feel a lot better, and shortly afterwards I was given the news I’d longed to hear: I was given the all-clear. On 29th March 2014, I did indeed return to playing, coming off the bench after 57 minutes in a victory over Ulster at Cardiff Arms Park. The reception I got from Cardiff Blues and Ulster fans when I came onto the pitch and the stadium announcer said my name will remain with me forever.
Abridged version of the chapter ‘Battling Cancer’ from Matthew Rees’ Reasons 2 Smile (£9.99, Y Lolfa, www.ylolfa.com).