Chris Pelow on a hockey career changed by cancer diagnosis: You do think ‘bloody hell, my life is over’
Chris Pelow looked set for a promising hockey career, before a throbbing pain in his foot changed his life forever. He spoke to Stephen Findlater.
Sydney University pre-season training is ramping up for the 2012 season; Chris Pelow takes a regulation bang to the foot. A week later, the dull throbbing has yet to subside.
The 24-year-old Dubliner asked a club mate, Damo Cunningham, a podiatrist, to have a look.
“He spotted something straight away and got me an MRI for the next day.” Boom.
“That afternoon, they called me back and wanted me to see an orthopaedic surgeon. This is kind of escalating.” Boom.
“I saw the surgeon, explained a little of what had happened. Then, straight out, ‘there’s a lump in your foot; I don’t want to startle you, but it could be cancer’.
“Thirteen days later, start to finish, the amputation came.” Boom.
He still doesn’t know if that initial “ding” on the foot — or anything else — kick-started the cancer. The pace of events allowed little time for introspection.
“When I learned, in March, 2012, I was going to lose the leg, you do think ‘bloody hell, my life is over’.
“You think, ‘I am never going to play hockey again’; I started thinking about my last game for Corinthians, against Lisnagarvey, in the Irish Hockey League… knowing I won’t experience that again.
“I am not going to get back into the Irish set-up… You look back and say ‘what if?’ It’s only natural. But, unlucky as I was, I am still here.” Hockey was in the blood. Both his parents loved the sport; he got his first stick aged two. Trophies abounded, with Taney national school and then at Wesley College.
He played in the first team with Corinthian Hockey Club midway through his teens, winning two Leinster senior cups.
By 2011, then 23, he had played at every underage international level and had developed through the Leinster panel, into Paul Revington’s wider Irish senior set-up, a year out from the London Olympic qualifiers.
Such pedigree opens up opportunities. Australia came calling, with Sydney University offering grade-one hockey. The plan was to stay for a year; circumstance would keep him there for six.
Out of nowhere, two weeks in March, 2012, changed everything. One of Pelow’s surgeons described it as a “one-in-a-million” situation, a synovial sarcoma — an aggressive form of cancer — that started in his foot and which had the potential to move up his leg.
Pelow, though, prefers to think he hit a one-in-a-million jackpot as a survivor.
Usually, sarcomas of this ilk affect either the knee or the hip.The speed from identification to amputation left him with his knee intact, keeping the possibility of a vastly increased range of movement.
More dramatically, doctors said they recommended amputation as soon as possible to save his life, illustrating Cunningham’s quick, chance assessment of the situation.
“Every day longer, I was risking the cancer spreading further. The thing was, the pain was sore, but wasn’t excruciating.
“We were a month out from the start of my second season in Sydney and I just wanted to get it sorted.
“I was playing sport at a high level. If I wasn’t, I probably would have just left it. It was just niggly; I wasn’t screaming my head off.
“I don’t know what it was about it that Damian saw to say get an MRI. It was luck-of-the draw; another physio may just have given it a rub-down. It could have been a completely different outcome; I owe him a lot and a lot to luck”.
But, again, the pace of events was good for his headspace, allowing him to “get it over and done with, rather than thinking about it, getting depressed”.
His parents had to scramble to travel halfway around the world; costs were quickly incurred. The hockey community — worldwide, but close-knit — kicked in instantly; 17,000km apart, matching plans were underway.
The Friends of Chris Pelow fund — organised by Corinthian Hockey Club and Chris’s schoolmates, Henry Micks and Irish international goalkeeper, Iain Walker — spawned overnight, raising €30,000.
That figure was mirrored in Australian dollars in Sydney. Chris is forever grateful for the fund: he has bought and adapted prosthetic legs, which can cost as much as €10,000 a pop.
His father, Ronan, in a passionate address to the crowd at half-time, during the 2012 Irish Senior Cup final between Cork Harlequins and Railway Union, paid tribute to the close links.
“I can truly say, hockey connections saved Chris’s life. From day one, his medical care has been in the hands of friends, fellow members of Sydney Uni. His surgeon, Sanjeev Gupta, was a past first-grade player, who now plays masters.
“Sydney University, together with you, the Irish hockey community, prove my long-held belief that nothing surpasses hockey as a sport and as a support structure.”
Post-amputation, with his rehab advancing well, he entertained Paralympic thoughts: “Why not? I was a fit, strong guy.”
He progressed reasonably well at rowing, for a year or so; he also looked at running, but the motivation to put in the individual hours was just not there.
“I didn’t have that love or passion for it that you need to commit years to it. There were pressures from all sorts of other people and it would have been great to go, but to do something like that, you need to love it.”
Coming back to playing hockey, though, took much longer to consider.
“I didn’t want to get back into it in Sydney. I was happy coaching for a couple of years, but it took me a long time to get my head around playing again. I was used to being at such a high level.”
When the cancer hit, Chris had only been a couple of months into a job with The Recruitment Company. They assured him his role was safe and their faith has been rewarded in spades.
When he planned a return to Ireland, earlier this year, The Recruitment Company offered the opportunity to open their first foreign office in Dublin. Being back in the bosom of his home club, in Whitechurch Park, meanwhile, gave him an itch to scratch.
Plenty of his contemporaries are still in and around the first team and he would take in their games in the Leinster league.
Davy McFeely — an old schemer in the club — saw an opportunity to get Chris involved. McFeely’s persistence coaxed him to line out for the third team.
Leinster Division 4, with the Corinthian club’s third team is not the level of old. He did, however, get a level of satisfaction from “ripping in a reverse” into the bottom corner, against Railway Union.
“Everything is that little bit slower; I can’t run as quick and the agility is not there. Physically, I can do everything.
“Being back, playing a couple of game, seeing guys from the Weston or Railway team coming up to you and saying its great to see me playing — guys I never met before — that has been special. I thought I would be more frustrated!
“Now, it is good to be physically able to be back on the pitch and able to run around, pass the ball. That I can physically do that, I have got to be grateful for.”