“Football was involved initially in saving my life.”.
At 24 years old, it actually was true for Conor, who had moved to London and was completing an internship at CNN London.
A big guy – at 6’5” football coaches always used to play him as a striker (“too tall to be a winger, not strong enough to be a centre-back”) – who kept himself in shape, Conor didn’t see himself as someone at risk from something like cancer, until things changed.
“I started to notice a little bit of a pain in my rib,” he tells FourFourTwo.
“I put off going to the hospital because I thought it might just be a tweaked muscle from the gym.”
It wasn’t until he was playing in a work football match that he decided to have it checked out.
“I got sandwiched in between two players. I just felt this unbelievable crushing sense of pain, only on my right side. I was very out of breath and I thought ‘Something’s up there’.
“Obviously cancer never crossed my mind. I thought maybe I’d broken my rib.
“I was hobbling trying to catch my breath. But the pain went away and I continued playing the match.”
Even after that incident in the football match, like many men Conor held off seeking medical advice, it was still another month before he went to the hospital to get an X-ray, – a decision that ended up being crucial. “My doctor rang me to say that I needed urgent respiratory care because I have a giant mass over my lung.
“The nurses were in disbelief that I had been walking around with such a mass so large in my chest. It turned out to be Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer and I had a melon-sized tumour.
“I remember saying to my doctor, ‘Can someone survive a tumour so big in their chest?’ He shrugged, and joked: ‘I’ve seen bigger’.”
Thankfully, Conor did survive it – going into chemotherapy almost immediately.
“I started treatment. I was diagnosed on May 18 and I was in chemo on June 1, 10 days before my 25th birthday. So I was still very young.
“I underwent six cycles of very heavy duty chemo called VIDE. Then I had radiotherapy to my chest, then on March 1 the next year they were able to excise my tumour from my chest.”
The protective layer around the lungs had stopped the tumour embedding itself, despite the size. Conor explains that he “only had to lose a very small slither of my lung” during the heavy surgery.
But it was the speed of that process that shocked him, and made him realise that men need to get better at being more honest about their health and taking action.
From there, finding out more was vital and Conor turned to Macmillan Cancer Support for help.
Many men don’t think Macmillan is relevant to them or feel ‘too proud’ to ask for help, however Macmillan’s cancer information and support specialists offer a listening ear to everyone and can talk about whatever matters to you.
It was the tricky subject of money that led Conor to making his first call to Macmillan’s Support Line, which is a free, confidential phone line open seven days a week, 8am to 8pm, to support people with cancer with any question, big or small.
“I called the support line initially to talk about finances, which is difficult for some people to talk about when they’re going through their treatment. I just wanted to know what was available for me.
“I couldn’t believe the access I had to financial help. I didn’t have money troubles, but I was a young man starting off in my career, about to get on the job ladder, and then I got cancer. So I was pleasantly surprised by the financial support available to me, which people on the line talked to me about, and explained how I could apply.”
“Macmillan also has a great information centre in University College Hospital in London, where I was treated.
“I got to know the nurses who worked there very well, and I felt I could talk to them about how I felt emotionally.” For Conor, this meant things like his loss of appetite and hair loss.
“My appetite was certainly affected. Nothing tastes the same on chemo, especially strong chemo, so I did start losing weight,” he says.
“Hair loss is a big one they don’t discuss enough with men when you’re young. Chemo completely destroyed my hair. I had a healthy, full head of hair with no signs of premature balding, no sign of young adult hair loss. Chemo just devastated it. They say ‘Don’t worry, you’ll lose your hair, but it will grow back’. Mine had a noticeable bald patch on the top of my head, that has only grown back with over a third of its volume lost.
“That was disappointing. I was alive, sure. But you can be grateful to be alive and still wish you had your hair…”
Opening up about cancer – whether that’s talking about treatment, side effects, welfare rights or financial guidance – should never feel like a burden, and Macmillan is encouraging men to get the crucial support they so desperately need.
For Conor, part of that new life was regular scans to his chest – his is a cancer that often returns to the lung or original site of diagnosis.
In the meantime, he ran the London Marathon in October 2021. But, like the football match, bad news followed. “Unfortunately, the cancer has come back, and it has metastasized. Right now I’m in treatment again.
“It turns out I’d run the London Marathon with two large tumours in my lower back. We didn’t know. I ran it in about five and a half hours, but for me it was just about getting it done.”
Though Conor had struggled with some back pain, it once again showed how difficult it can be to take the first steps in acknowledging that something wasn’t quite right. For young men, it can be much easier to look at the things you can do and ignore difficulties and discomfort that comes when your body is trying to tell you you’re not well.
That attitude can continue after diagnosis too: in fact, in 2020, only 31% of the calls to the Macmillan Support Line came from men. The Support Line can help people find the help they need, whether it’s concerns about the illness, mental health, side effects or money, as long as they reach out for it. Macmillan Cancer Support’s website also has information on cancer types, treatments and impacts and can direct people to the support that’s right for them.
“Young men tend to think of themselves as being invincible,” Conor says. “Young men tend to ignore pain.
“Not only are they less inclined to talk about how they’re feeling, they’re less inclined to feel pain, think it’s something serious and go and get it checked. There’s nothing wrong about trusting your gut. Don’t leave something six months in the hope it goes away, go and get it checked out sooner rather than later. You never know, it might just save your life.
It’s not easy to talk about cancer but it could help. Macmillan is at the end of the phone and online to provide support. Call 0808 808 00 00 or visit macmillan.org.uk (opens in new tab) and ask anything. For those who would prefer to speak online, there is also the Macmillan Online Community (opens in new tab) - join and chat anonymously.
Conor Pope is the Online Editor of FourFourTwo, overseeing all digital content, and joined the team in February 2019. He plays football regularly, both on grass and artificial surfaces, and has a large, discerning and ever-growing collection of football shirts from around the world.
He supports Blackburn Rovers and holds a season ticket with south London non-league side Dulwich Hamlet. His main football passions include Tugay, the San Siro and only using a winter ball when it snows.
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.