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INTERVIEW: I'm hoping my experience can be a lesson for others

Former-Blues boss Greg Abbott on winning the battle against prostate cancer

9 May 2018

Former-United boss Greg Abbott described himself as ‘well on the way to full recovery’ this week having just been through an operation as part of his treatment for prostate cancer, diagnosed following a health check with his doctor two months ago.

The popular former Coventry and Bradford midfielder was United manager for close to five years [between December 2008 and September 2013] and received a huge amount of support and well wishes from Blues fans when he revealed that he was taking a break from football to deal with the illness at the beginning of last month.

And he was quick to heap praise on the Blue Army when he spoke to us about what has been a tough period ahead of last weekend.

“The amount of support I’ve had from the people of Bradford and Carlisle has been absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “It really has been fantastic, and it’s meant so much to me and my family at a time when we probably needed something like that to happen.

“The good news is that I’m on the mend now. It’s a slow process but I’m getting better, and that’s the important thing that’s come from all of this.”

“I was really humbled by the response from Carlisle,” he continued. “It meant so much to me – like you wouldn’t believe. It sounds like a huge cliché, but I can honestly say that I took a lot of strength from the way the Cumbrian people reacted, and I can’t put into words how much I want to thank everybody.

“The thing is, I was at such a low point with trying to deal with the diagnosis and what it meant, so the comments and messages couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I loved my time in Cumbria, everybody knows that, and it was an honour and a privilege to first work for and then manage the club.

“We felt we were a really good League One side but, looking back at how it ended, I’d say the last six months of my time there were very tough. We felt we needed a little bit more in terms of resources, but things were difficult. I never made any excuses about that and I made sure we all just go on with it.

“I really wanted to take it further and I don’t mind admitting that moving on left a real scar on me mentally and emotionally. All you can do is pick yourself up and maintain the belief in the things you do, and that’s exactly what I did.”

Greg Abbott

“What the reaction to this news has shown me yet again is that Carlisle people really are wonderful people,” he commented. “We parted ways when there were some grumbles and, do you know what – rightly so – but it seems like they’ve recognised the work I did and the effort I put into the job, and they couldn’t have been better with me this last few weeks.

“It’s an unbelievably humbling experience to have so many people rooting for you in such a genuine way. Carlisle – what a place. Stuff like this reminds you why you fell in love with it all in the first place.

“I’ve been invited up to Carlisle later in the year by the club and I’ll definitely be doing that. It’s a city that deserves a successful football club and I really do hope that happens, which I’m sure it will.”

Right at the top of his list for a thank you for the support he’s received are, of course, those closest to him – his family and friends.

“Oh, wow, what can I say about them!” he said. “Amazing people, just amazing. They’ve provided such a support network for me it’s been out of this world.

“I know they’ve had to smile on occasions when I’m sure they’ve felt mentally stressed and tired as well, and they’ll never know just how much I love them for that.

“I’ve thrown myself into football since I was a boy, it’s been my life, but it’s when you see your family pull together when you need them most that you really do focus on what’s important in life.

“It’s fair to say that a lot of football people give most of their time and energy to the game, because they want to be successful, and everything else tends to be pushed onto the back seat.

“My family and friends have always understood that, and they’ve stood firm with me through every step of my career, and then, when this has come along, they’ve done exactly the same just by being there and saying and doing the right things at the right times. I get very emotional just thinking about it because I’m not even sure I deserve it.”

“I know I’m saying thank you to a lot of people here, but I have to mention the ‘football family’ thing,” he continued. “It’s been phenomenal. People in the game I don’t even know have been in touch.

“Lawrie Madden [former-Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday defender] was on the phone to me as soon as he found out because he’s had the operation and he knows exactly what I’m going through. He’s kept in touch because he wants to know where I’m at and how things are going, and that has been magnificent.

“I’ve had messages from managers I’ve never even been in the same division as and from players I don’t know. Fans from Scotland all the way down to Plymouth have sent their best wishes, so it’s been fantastic and ever so slightly overwhelming as well. Football gets a lot of bad press, but at times like this it shows how good this industry can be.”

Speaking more about the diagnosis, he said: “It’s been a tough time since I found out, I won’t lie to you about that. I think, like everybody, you see yourself as indestructible and that you’ll just keep going forever.

“The best advice I can give to anyone, having been through this, is not to take yourself for granted. Like I say, we all think it, whatever ‘it’ may be, will never happen to us. Believe me, it can, so swallow your pride and get yourself checked.

“I’d encourage every man over the age of 45 to go to the doctor and get checked. The fact for me is that I’ve given myself an extension of life because of it, and hopefully it looks like I’m making a full recovery.

“I’m a perfect example of a positive outcome if you do take that little bit of time out of your schedule to go and get these tests done. This is a disease that doesn’t announce its arrival and, once it’s there, it doesn’t take any prisoners. Do yourself a favour – do me a favour – make that doctor’s appointment now.

“The hour or so you’ll spend with the experts could be a life-saver. How stupid are we all if we don’t take advantage of that? One of the other good things coming out of this is that I know my connection with football helps me to get a message out there that people need to take control.

“Being involved in football means it’s helping me to get that message across, and I think that’s fantastic. It’s such a powerful industry when it comes to things like this, as the recent partnership with Prostate Cancer UK has shown.

“I’m determined to share every bit of support I’ve had with anyone else who is facing this.”

Having thrown himself into his working life for longer than he cares to remember the 54-year-old admitted that it was as soon as he started to feel ‘not quite myself’ that he decided it was time to make a trip to the doctor, as much for peace of mind as it was for anything else.

“I was getting headaches and feeling extremely tired, so I chose not to ignore it because it just wasn’t like me at all,” he explained. “A normal working day for me was 12 to 14 hours, six or seven days a week, so the doctor initially thought that would explain both symptoms, and he told me it was possibly time to slow things down a bit.

“He didn’t leave it at that though. As with a lot of men, I’m not prone to going to the doctor unless I absolutely have to. I tend to battle through things and make life hell for everybody around me until I’m better again. We all like a bit of pampering when we’ve got man-flu, don’t we!

“He knew that, so he took the opportunity to do a full health MOT on me, and I’m so glad he did. Everything appeared to be perfect from that, which was good news, other than he felt I was doing far too many hours at work.

“The blood tests then came back, and he told me that the PSA [Prostate-Specific Antigen] reading was too high. Things moved very quickly from there. From diagnosis to operation was about five weeks, which was unbelievable. My head was spinning and it all came as a big shock to me, if I’m being perfectly honest.

“I’d only gone in to see him to talk about getting headaches … and that led to me being told I had cancer but, and I can’t stress this enough, it meant that I ended up being lucky. Without those headaches I’d still be bumbling along and oblivious to it all now.

“I’m going to repeat this and repeat this – stop thinking bad things won’t happen to you, get off your backside (literally) and go and get checked! It’ll do one of two things. You’ll either get a big thumbs up and the peace of mind I always talk about, or it’ll give you an extension to your life.”

With the operation now done, and the road to recovery already being trampled, it will come as no surprise to hear that the self-confessed workaholic has a full return to work firmly fixed in his sights for sooner rather than later [but we’re not too sure his partner Sally will be allowing that to happen!].

“I know this is typical of me, but I was telling people I’d be back in work in two or three weeks before I’d even had the op,” he admitted. “The doctor laughed at me when I said that, which I felt was a bit of a challenge, but as per usual I was wrong, and he was right.

“It’s week four since I had the operation now, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to go to the Bradford City Memorial service on Friday [11 May] as my first proper trip out. I can only walk and stand for short periods of time at the moment, but that’s improving all the time, and it feels important to me for obvious reasons to be at that event.

“Once the final drains and bits and pieces have been removed my mobility will improve dramatically. It means I have to work from home for a while, but the important thing is that I’m smiling again and I’m in a really good place mentally.

“I’m through the worst and hopefully the period where it’s most likely to come back, which is the next two years or so, will go smoothly as well.

“To be honest, I can tell things are going well because the messages of sympathy have dropped right off! I was getting bombarded with them for a while there, and that doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I’m more used to getting stick and being on the wrong end of the banter.

“It has been a very emotionally challenging period, as I’m sure you can imagine. I’m very calm in my decision making now which, if you speak to my family in particular, they’ll tell you I possibly wasn’t like that a few months ago.

“I see myself as someone who can give advice to those around me, both inside the game and for those closest to me, and it’s taught me that if you do things properly in life you will get a lot of support at times when you need it most.

“You tend to win battles when you have this level of support and, like Sally has said, I’ve had an army around me this past few weeks. I’m reaping the rewards of what they’ve done for me at the moment and I feel like I’m a very lucky man.”

The interview was concluded with an insistence that the following message was passed on …

“From the bottom of my heart I hope the club makes the right appointment that sees it push forward and get the success everybody up there deserves. Please let everyone in Carlisle know that is my genuine wish – they really do deserve to feel the good times again.”

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