In September 1996, 17 year-old Gary Higgins’ life was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with stage four testicular cancer, the most advanced and aggressive form of the disease.
Now, more than 15 years later, Gary (pictured with his wife Lorna) is looking forward to the over 35’s Gaelic football tournament which takes place on Saturday, May 24 in Desertmartin in aid of Macmillan Cancer and he is determined that he will be lining out on the day for Ballinderry.
Speaking publicly for the first time about his illness, Gary said: “It just goes to show you that if you work hard and never give up, you can overcome the worst situations.
“It was September 1996 and I had come home for the weekend after working in Bundoran. On the Saturday I went to Ballymena to spend my hard earned money. On the way home I was violently sick. That was the first sign of it. I went to the hospital and after a series of tests I was told that I had testicular cancer.
“After more scans, doctors discovered that there was an obstruction in my bowel. I had to have major surgery to remove part of my bowel.
“Doctors then found two spots of cancer on my right lung and realised that it was quickly spreading to my brain.
“I had to undergo eight treatments of chemotherapy. I was in for one week, then out for two.
“After my treatment, things were going well but I was told that the cancer had come back. The treatment was only curtailing the cancer, it wouldn’t cure it. At that stage I was given the choice of a super dose of chemotherapy, in which they give you all the chemo at once. I was told that it would either kill me or cure me, but because of my age the doctors were confident that I would survive.
“It worked and I was given the all-clear. After this I lead a pretty much normal life. I travelled to America with friends for a few months and returned back to football training at Castledawson GAC Club.
“In just under three weeks, I had made the senior team. I was glad to be back. I felt that I had been given a second chance at life so I decided to take a leap of faith and open my own business, Sportsworld, which thanks to all of my loyal customers, means that I’m still here after 14 years.
“At that point, I had to go for routine check-ups, first it was every two weeks then it was gradually reduced to every month then every year.
“It was seven years later and I went for my routine check-up. I had never felt as good or as strong in my life but three days later I received a letter telling me that the cancer was back. I was devastated, it was worse this time because I knew what was in front of me.
“At that stage, I could have given up but I was determined that I wasn’t going to let it beat me.
“I was engaged to get married and my fiancée and I decided to bring the wedding forward. I wanted something to look forward to in between my chemo and surgery.
“I had to undergo 140 hours per week of extremely intense chemotherapy for six weeks with only short breaks in between.
“This was then followed by life threatening surgery to remove half of my right lung.
“After the surgery, I was told the devastating news that I would never be able to play football again and that my quality of life would be dramatically changed. If I was late for a bus, I wouldn’t be able to run and catch it. My fitness levels and ability to play any sport would be out of the question.
“I asked a great friend of mine, Chris, who is a physio, if the surgeon was right and he told me, it’s not up to them, if you want to play football again, you will.
“That was a turning point for me. I was told by doctors to blow into a spirometer three times a day to regenerate my lung capacity. I made sure that I did it every five minutes.
“I started cycling the very next day to build myself up again and I have never looked back.
“I really missed the social side to football and I started coaching underage teams jut to be part of it. Then I moved to Ballyronan and started playing for the Ballinderry thirds, and I absolutely love it. I have made a lot of new friends.
“I competed in my first massive white collar boxing fight night in Ballymena on October 31 to raise money for cancer. My fight night name was ‘The Miracle Man’ Higgins.
“The event attracted over 1,200 people and I fought hard for three rounds against an experienced boxer. However the decision after the rounds did not go in my favour but I am extremely proud of my achievement and to be part of a fantastic cause.
“It just goes to show you that if you work hard and never give up, you can overcome the worst situations.
“I consider myself to extremely blessed. My wife, Lorna is most amazing person in my life. She has been with me through everything. It hasn’t been easy but she made it that bit easier and now we have two wonderful daughters.
“I would like to thank my family and friends for the support they gave me through my illness and recovery.
“I would also like to thank all the great health professionals involved in my treatment and recovery. I cannot speak high enough of the care I received throughout my illness.
“I am just so glad that I am here today and fit to take part in this tournament. Later this year I have a routine check-up. Hopefully it will be my last appointment,” said Gary.
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