Joe Deane isn’t the kind of person, or hurler, to tell anyone their business. But he’s prepared to talk about his experience with testicular cancer so others might take note. He spoke to Tony Leen.
I RANG Joe Deane once asking him to pen a player’s All-Ireland week diary for this newspaper. Joe knew his name was well down my list and that those above him had been crossed off. Not because Joe wasn’t a Main Man, but because he’d already confirmed something close friends had told me over time: “I live a very boring, unexciting, ordinary life,” he protested.
It’s entirely plausible, therefore, to believe his version of the conversation with a doctor that changed Deane’s life: “Is there anything else it could be?”
“It could be cancer.”
“Right, fair enough.”
At several points in his first interview on his experience of testicular cancer, the honour-laden Cork hurler suspects he’s coming across more macho than he is, or was at the time. Even so, in the taverns of Killeagh, he’d be seen as “tough out”. Think about it. How often does Deane lose the run of himself when a goal chance presents itself?
It wasn’t long ago that Deane felt “invincible”. He’d never woken up in a hospital bed in 29 years, and had missed one game (with a broken finger) through injury in an 11-season inter-county career. But when the urologist at the Bons Secours Hospital in Cork told him of the probability of testicular cancer, his life was about to get less ordinary.
Not that his outlook changed. Having loaded up on reassurance from his close friend, Dr Con Murphy, Deane and his long-time girlfriend and soul-mate, Ciara, headed home to East Cork to soothe his family’s tears.
“I was a bit worried, of course. The first question is: ‘Will I be alright after this?’ Once he (urologist, Dr Dermot Lanigan) said ‘yes’ I didn’t bat an eyelid. I’m not making myself out to be a hard man, but once I knew that, I was happy.”
He assured his parents that recovery rates were around 96%, rang his brothers in Tyrone and Longford, and called into Cork to tell his younger siblings in person.
“If I could go and meet them, and they could see I was fine, they’d take it better.”
In the dark hours of that Monday night, Deane had his most vulnerable moments. He’d attended the Killeagh GAA agm and driven back into Cork to stay with Ciara, who has always been the worrier in the relationship.
But as Monday became Tuesday, the fear seeped in. “At the back of your mind, there are moments when you are thinking how bad could this get? Could I die?
“Let’s face it, you hear people dying of cancer every day, and I wouldn’t have been au fait with the differences between testicular and other types of cancer in terms of seriousness. I had read Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About The Bike, and knew there was the capacity for further problems. For a brief second, it crosses your mind, but it never took a hold.”
Deane never let it. He knew Dr Con Murphy’s breakfast haunt near his surgery on the city’s western suburbs and headed there Tuesday morning for coffee and consolation. “Con was fantastic,” Deane says. His medical soothsayer took him through the processes, the treatment and the recovery. He told him what to expect, and the ramifications. There would be no blindside hits.
DEANE and the gregarious Cork team doctor go back a long way and in the build up to last year’s All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, it crossed the player’s mind one night at training to have him examine a hardening of one of his testicles. By the session’s end, however, Deane had forgotten it — “It wasn’t that I was thinking about it first thing every morning.”
The final came and went — Deane reckons it was Cork’s worst display in four championship seasons — and in early October a noticeable swelling prompted a formal visit to his doctor.
“Even at that stage, I wasn’t that concerned but within a few days the testicle was two or three times the size of the other one. It was getting sore and awkward and I rang Dr Con again.”
The diagnosis, when it came, made no concessions to immediate consolation. That would come later. “At that stage, you don’t know how far it has spread.”
The urologist was as certain (in the absence of a biopsy) that he could be that it was cancerous, but only the CT scan would tell the real story. “He assured me the recovery rate is very high, of the order of 96%. But I was going to lose the testicle anyway. He was straight down the middle with the information. He didn’t beat around the bush either. He wasn’t telling me I was going to be fine the next morning. And he raised the possibility of chemotherapy....”
Two days later, he was being wheeled down for the CT scan that revealed what Dr Con had predicted and Armstrong’s book had forewarned — small traces had also shown up in his stomach, but, broadly speaking, the prognosis was encouraging. Again, much like the initial bombshell, Deane’s response was impossibly low-key.
Was that the moment he turned the corner? His disagreement is immediately evident. “The blood tests had shown there was cancer, but I don’t think I ever got to a point of turning corners. I was never so far down the road that I felt ‘I’m in trouble here’. I always felt very positive, getting the operation done, getting the treatment, and getting better. Never felt a stage where I was turning any corner,” he stresses.
Bishopstown hurler Shane O’Neill was on the same Bons hospital corridor as Deane and passed the hours before the operation with his inter-county colleague. When he returned from surgery, the following morning, Ciara was waiting. Plus Mark Landers and Dr Con. Joe can’t remember getting many words in between cups of tea and midnight, but the hours passed quickly. His two friends headed out into the November night confident their man was on the mend.
Reflecting now, Deane views the subsequent uncertainty with a greater sense of perspective. “I could be going through chemo at the moment. I’m living a perfectly normal life again, whereas three months ago my life was turned upside down. I couldn’t look forward at all. Can I go on holidays? Don’t know. Can I go training? Don’t know. When am I going back to work? Don’t know. Am I going for chemo? Don’t know.”
“With extreme reluctance” he postponed a holiday with Ciara to Portugal. Afterwards he had planned to drive over the border to Spain to meet up with his golf pals and use his 14 handicap to fatten his wallet. But his life was on hold.
The day he left hospital, his Cork colleagues were gathering for a corporate lunch in Douglas that Deane had been instrumental in organising. Confirmation of his illness spread like that kind of news only can. Quickly.
Tom Kenny and “Fraggy” (Sarsfields’ Kieran Murphy) called down to see him that evening before Deane absconded to Ciara’s hometown of Dungarvan for a few days to grasp the enormity of what was happening to him. “The following Tuesday, I remember getting out of bed, and I was feeling great. I wanted to start the chemotherapy immediately. My oncologist at the Mercy Hospital, Seamus O’Reilly explained about the cancer in the blood but did say on the first visit that I wouldn’t necessarily have to go for treatment. (But) I wanted to get the process started, get it done and over with. I did the sperm banking in Dublin for three days, and everything else to make myself ready.”
He allowed himself begin to think of hurling and Cork again. By his chemotherapy calendar, he might be back in contention for the All-Ireland quarter-finals in August. He’d missed out on winter’s grunt training, and for someone who sheds fitness and gains weight quickly, that would make the comeback slower.
And then his life underwent another remarkable transformation, though by Joe’s telling, it was no big deal: “He (Mr O’Reilly) said the traces in the blood had dissipated, and there would be no need for treatment.”
“That was it.”
Did you cry? “Nah, I said ‘that’s great’. I wasn’t jumping around, or heading off on the piss. OK, it was a bonus, but as time was going on, the vibe I was getting was that the treatment was by no means certain. I’d be a positive person anyway, so I was nearly expecting it going in.”
Instead Joe went to the GPA awards, his cancer nightmare thus book-ended by his club agm in Killeagh and the players’ association. While he was in Dublin, a tabloid newspaper reporter came calling to his parents for the scoop on Joe. They politely declined.
HE’S talking now because he’s seen the impact his case has had, and can have, on him and those around him. Positive, primarily: “The thing is for fellas to get checked out as regularly as possible, and if there is a situation, always be positive. Always. Males are more bravado, especially younger guys, and it’s very difficult for them to speak to their father or doctor and say: ‘I’ve got a problem with my testicles.’
“We spend so much time on our cars, changing them, changing tyres, cleaning and tidying, but we never apply the same care to our own body. There was every possibility that I would have done nothing about it if the testicle hadn’t swelled up to a stage where I had no choice.”
He sees middle-aged men quietly approaching him about “a touch of that” they’d suffered many years since. But they lack the profile to address it publicly and say: “It’s okay, you can deal with it.”
The GAA fraternity excelled in their response, and they always do. Corner backs who might have beheaded Deane in the heat of battle wrote poignant letters and cards. Steve McDonagh, Damien Hayes, the entire Tipperary squad, DJ Carey, Gary Kirby, George O’Connor. Now Deane is ready to offer any assistance he can to others — including Mayo’s Ronan McGarrity, recently diagnosed with testicular cancer. “I’ve had cancer, I learned from it. I was lucky, I got away from it. It’s incredible the amount of people I’ve met since who’ve gone through it and are still around. I’m trying to write back to everyone, but it’s obviously taking a lot longer than I thought.”
His gratitude to Dr Con, the staff at the Bons and Mercy, his ACC Bank colleagues, especially boss John Cunningham, is heartfelt too. He sees his vulnerability in the rear view mirror.
What he doesn’t want, nor expect, is sympathy around the hurling fields of Ireland. Where he’s having a stinker and he’s getting the “poor old creatúr” treatment from supporters.
When Deane says the last few games “haven’t been going well”, he’s talking for himself, but could be describing Cork’s generally inauspicious start the campaign. “I think we’ve always tended to place more emphasis on the Championship. It’s very early in the season to be judging this Cork team. The new management is getting used to us, and vice versa.
“The weather has made it so difficult to get regular training. We’ve had sessions called off. Other nights we’ve just had an hour on the astroturf.
“It’s probably something we need to look at in Cork, in terms of getting top-class all-weather facilities specific for the county team. We are relying on the goodwill of the clubs to give us their pitches — Ballyhooley one night, Fermoy another, Carrigtwohill, Cloyne, Youghal, Cloughduv. It would be great if we had a centre for inter-county teams.
“It’s very early days, we’re not playing Championship until May 27. I’ve been involved for 12 years and we’ve won one League. We’re always competitive on the day of a League game. If we lose, we just move on.”
If Cork manage it as successfully as their “unexciting, ordinary” corner-forward, they’ll be doing well.
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