‘I went from being a healthy 26-year-old to maybe not being alive in five years’ -  Grace O’Flanagan opens up about cancer battle

By Stephen Findlater 

Almost a year ago to the day, Grace O’Flanagan made the biggest save of her life against India, a pivotal moment that sent Ireland on course for a first World Cup appearance in 16 years.

The goalkeeper described it “as one she won’t forget” as she came off the bench 24 minutes into a dire situation.

Ireland trailed India 1-0 in a tie which was pretty much all or nothing for their hopes of getting to London.

For two weeks, she had sat on the bench, watching on and supporting Ayeisha McFerran until the Larne woman clattered into Navjot Kaur in the 24th minute.

A 10-minute sin-binning saw Graham Shaw turn quickly to O’Flanagan to step in, with her first act to face Rani Rampal’s penalty stroke.

Rampal — the Indian poster woman who made her debut at just 13 — attempted to dummy her flick but O’Flanagan stood her ground and smothered the shot.

It provided the sea change for Ireland; Shaw kept the Dubliner in situ for the remainder of the tie even when his designated number one’s suspension was served.

The body language of the players in front of her visibly rose and they eventually turned things around to win 2-1, Katie Mullan and Lizzie Colvin scoring the goals.

While her intervention made her an unlikely hero, that O’Flanagan was able to even to line out for Ireland that day is an even more dramatic story.

Less than 18 months before, in her darkest moments she feared she would never get to pull on the national smock again or even be around at all to witness such historic hours.

The concerns started when she noticed a tiny lump at the back of her neck. She was studying for medical exams and had been in the gym in the morning. She assumed it was some tight muscles but when it didn’t go away and she could not think of a cause, her instincts kicked in where many others might have just kept calm and carried on.

“Being a typical medical student, I was doing some self-diagnosis and ruling out sorts of possible causes,” she told the Irish Examiner.

“I felt I was erring on the side of caution, knowing cancer was a possibility but not really expecting it.”

A scan and biopsy came back with reasonably reassuring results, nothing too major on the cards, and so she put back surgery until after her exams in 2015. Surgery, though, threw up something much more alarming.

There was no exact diagnosis but O’Flanagan knew the signs and it was definitely bad news. A second opinion from a consultant in Boston confirmed the worst.

“I was in hospital on placement and on my way to a small group tutorial when I got the call from my doctor telling me why they were getting a second opinion and what they thought it might be.

“I knew the kind of cancer they suspected and knew it had a poor outlook. I sat through that tutorial in a daze, a million thoughts running through my mind.”

“All of a sudden, I went from being a healthy 26-year-old to maybe not being alive in five years’ time. That was daunting.”

It was confirmed as a rare type of soft tissue sarcoma — epithelioid variant of myxofibrosarcoma — an aggressive cancer.

“When I got a definitive diagnosis a few weeks later, things became clearer. I had some idea of a prognosis — 75% chance this cancer would come back at some point, 50% chance of it spreading to the lungs, at which point there aren’t many treatment options.

“Death isn’t something you think about much as a young, healthy person. But just like that, things can turn upside down.”

There was little time for much else than further surgery to remove muscle and any possible remaining tumour cells. It was a success and she avoided the need for any radiotherapy.

“I had it and it was gone. As quick as it came it was gone. I was incredibly fortunate that it was a small tumour and found before it had spread.

“You can think the worst, and at times I did, but for the most part I stayed positive. I had a lot of good things going for me — I was otherwise healthy, I was young, the cancer was small, we caught it early.

“Everybody copes differently but, for me, it was about appreciating the positives.

“I went from ‘I have a lump, I hope I won’t need surgery’ to ‘ok I need surgery, hopefully it’s not cancer’ then ‘ok it is cancer, hopefully it hasn’t spread, or I don’t need more treatment’, and that’s where you take the win.”

“The game stays the same, you just shift the goalposts a little. You accept what is, and what can’t be controlled, and change your perspective.

“In any case, whatever comes I know I can handle it. I feel a stronger person for it, a better doctor, and I appreciate all the incredible opportunities in my life so much more.”

She hails the support network at work and from her club, Railway Union, for feeding that positivity.

She has regular scans for recurrence but, so far, all are clear, and she is feeling upbeat. It also has come in tandem with a much greater role with the Irish team.

She made her major tournament debut in 2013 at the European Championships but was largely peripheral until 2016, six months after she got the all-clear.

Since then, she has been a regular panellist, donning the number one smock at the 2017 Euros and making that save.

“It’s a game I won’t forget, a special day. As the number two keeper in a tournament, you don’t really expect to get a game, and as the tournament goes on and the stakes rise, the chances are slimmer.

“I’m not sure if there’s any real way you can prepare for an entry like that! It happened so fast, but I knew another goal would make it a real struggle.

“Adrenaline was rushing but I also felt incredibly focused. In that moment, only one thing was important and that was keeping the ball out of the net. The rest of the game I could deal with after.

“Once I made that save I knew we were still in it, and I think everyone on the team had that belief that the World Cup was within our grasp.”

A year on from her famous save, Ireland face India yet again, the stakes raised.

The Green Army are flying high off the back of a 3-1 win over a fancied USA.

India almost caused a shock of their own as they led hosts England until six minutes from time, but had to settle for a 1-1 draw.

A win would see Ireland reach the knockout phase.

O’Flanagan probably expects to be number two once again despite sparkling form in the warm-up friendlies for the World Cup.

McFerran got the nod for the US win and backed it up with the player of the match award. It means the pre-tournament rivalry must quickly become one of supporter and motivator.

“You know who your direct competition is for a spot and that can be challenging. Once selection is made, the job as the number two keeper is to support the keeper playing and help prepare her as best as possible.

“We’re on the same team and you want your keeper to have a good game. We’re a team within the team and pick each other up and drive one another to be better.”

Having someone like O’Flanagan at her back, McFerran does not have far to look for motivation.

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