Dónal O'Grady: If I hadn't gone to the doctor when I did, it would have been curtains 

To help spread awareness, former All-Ireland winner Dónal O'Grady shares his story of colon cancer for the first time with Martha Brennan
Dónal O'Grady: If I hadn't gone to the doctor when I did, it would have been curtains 

Dónal O'Grady

Former All-Ireland winning GAA manager Dónal O’Grady isn't used to speaking to the media about his personal life. However, the Cork native made an exception this time around in honour of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and is opening up about his experience with BowelScreen in the hope of spreading awareness of the service.

The Sunday Game and Irish Examiner analyst and longtime Cork hurling stalwart had to face up to a new type of battle in 2017 when a last-minute decision to take an at-home BowelScreen test after he turned 60 had him making game plans like never before.

"The little test came in late November 2016 and maybe being a typical man I left it there and said: 'I don't need that'. That was my attitude,” O’Grady says. “I got a second letter then toward the end of December to say that if I didn't send back the test I'd be put to the back of the list."

Simple home test

BowelScreen sends an at-home stool test to anyone in their 60s in Ireland who registers for the free service. Though O’Grady had registered himself, it took him over a month to complete the test, which only takes a few minutes to do at home. The decision, egged on by follow-ups from BowelScreen, ended up saving his life.

"I had no intention of doing it up to that point but when I got the letter I said I may as well. So I did it and posted it back. It only takes a few seconds and you just do it at home yourself. Put it back in the envelope and stick it in the post box. That’s it,” says the father of two.

"I sent it off and didn't think any more about it and I got a phone call at the start of January to say that I should come in for a colonoscopy. I was lucky enough that there was a cancellation in the hospital in Cork. I did it in the Mercy Hospital and they wanted to see me before I went away, which is another way of saying that there's something wrong with you.

“They had spotted that there was a problem with my colon. I knew that though when they said Jane McCarthy, a doctor in the hospital, wanted to see me. She told me that there was a growth and when I went back a week after for a scan they told me that I had cancer of the colon."

No warning signs

O’Grady had thought he was in perfect health at the time and had experienced no symptoms to make him think otherwise. Nor had he noticed any indication that something was wrong with his body. 

From a young age, fitness has been a core part of his life. He had a stellar sporting career, winning All-Ireland titles with Cork in 1984 and with his club St Finbarr's in 1975, ‘78, ‘80, and '81 in both hurling and football as a young player.

"The surgeon in Cork University Hospital, Dr Emmet Andrews,  told me that where the growth was in the colon meant I would have had no symptoms for about a year. Usually, you might get blood in the stools or something like that to indicate something was wrong but where mine was growing it would have taken maybe a year for that to happen. If that had happened, in my case, by that time it would have meant that the cancer would have spread too far," O'Grady says.

"I was very lucky that I had pursued the bowel screening because if I hadn't and I had just gone as an ordinary patient to a GP six or eight months down the line because I had a few cramps or noticed blood in the stool it would have been too late. If I had been pushed back to the end of the BowelScreen queue it might have been a year before I was sent another test and I'd only have myself to blame.” 

Rapid response

O’Grady had an operation to remove the tumour the following March, less than three months after taking his initial at-home test. Following the operation, which was a success, he went through six months of chemotherapy at CUH and has been in “perfect” health since. Though his battle wasn’t “long-term”, O’Grady says that he couldn’t have had a better experience with the HSE.

“Once BowelScreen has you, so to speak, and there's a problem they look after you very quickly. There's a rapid response. The whole thing is the speed because with cancer of the colon if you can catch it early it makes a huge difference,” he says.

“I don’t see my experience as anything amazing. It was a health problem and my attitude is that when that happens you put your life in the hands of the professionals and follow what they say and they'll look after you. What's extraordinary is the amount of professionalism and knowledge that there is in the medical profession today and how good they are in Ireland. Everyone in the Mercy and CUH was brilliant.

“The thing about the health service is that once you access it in fairness it's second to none. Everybody working there, they're top class. I have the highest of praise for them. I'm very thankful to BowelScreen because I wouldn't be walking around here only for them. It was a game-changer.” 

You never know 

The sporting legend, who has recently returned to work in a coaching and analyst role with the Cork senior hurling team, says that he hopes his experiences might inspire more people to register for BowelScreen, especially men.

"They told me in the hospital that men are a bit slow and sluggish when it comes to doing things like this. We know we are. We have to be told maybe or dragged kicking and screaming to do these things but it definitely saved me in this case. Dr Andrews told me that if I hadn't gone about it then, it would have been curtains basically. There's a lesson in that for everybody,” O’Grady says.

"I can remember looking at the little pack, it was in a drawer in my bedroom, and I remember saying 'look I may as well do it' when the letter came and it made all the difference. 

"I’d advise anyone who gets an at-home care pack to make sure and send back the test. It doesn't cost anything and it only takes a half-hour of your time to do it and pop it into the post box. Why not? We all say ‘it’ll never be me’ but you just never know.” 

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