As the news that former tennis player Martina Navratilova and Exeter City footballer Adam Stansfield have cancer hits the headlines, the disease that plights 1 in 3 of us during our lifetime is brought to the forefront of the public spectrum once again. Sport stars arguably face a different fight to the rest of society however, a fight against their body that has made them experts at what they are in their chosen field. The physical attributes that have helped them succeed will be of no use, it is a competition like none have played before. Lewis Constable evaluates the relationship between sport and cancer, and the impact it has on society to see sport stars deal with the disease.
Injuries to hamstrings, groins, knees and ankles are commonplace in professional sport. Some temporarily postpone your involvement in your chosen event whilst others can even end your career if severe enough. However, these injuries are, to coin an overused cliché, is ‘not the end of the world’. The media are swarming for professional athletes to give their insight into the world that offers escapism to so many fans watching and idolising their heroes. The money being pumped into sport means that no professional athlete will ever be seriously crippled in society if they are sensible with their money.
Therefore, it is understandable that the bubble sports stars are placed in is suddenly burst when they receive news that the life threatening disease cancer has hit them. The fear that something bigger than merely their profession is going on in their lives is difficult to comprehend for anybody, but for sports people in particular, it rocks their perception of their own invincibility.
John Hartson, recently beginning to overcome his battle with cancer, is a prime example of how the threat of the disease can reveal their insecurities. He waited for four years before getting a lump checked out, claiming ‘I broke my heart in the hospital car park. I actually knew it would be cancer, had this feeling in my gut.’
It is when the news of disease is digested and the confrontation of everybody’s worst nightmare begins that we see sport stars at their most vulnerable. The elevated status in society is broken down. The confidence of their own fitness and health that comes with the territory of being a sportsperson is shattered and replaced by anxiety.
When, as a public, we hear that one of our idols has cancer, it becomes all the more important to how we see them react. The responsibility to act as a role model cruelly increases. Lance Armstrong is one of the primary examples of how the sporting spirit and competitive edge can inspire a dogged defense for their survival and others who have been diagnosed. Writing online for a cancer support website www.livestrong.org, Armstrong exhibits the never say die attitude that every self-respecting sportsman has; ‘if they tell me that I have a 40 or 50 percent chance to live, then I’d turn around and say, “Well, that’s okay. At least they didn’t tell me I had a 4 or 5 percent chance to live.”
Scott Hamilton, a figure skater in the USA, had a much publicized battle against cancer. He echoes Armstrong’s sentiment, whilst the passion of his job clearly shines through and, he believes, aided him in the recovery process; ‘I love my job. I absolutely love what I do. Cancer controls your life, and I didn’t want cancer to take me off the ice. I didn’t want it to end the part of my life I love the most. Just by being in this competitive life, I think helped me’
Although cancer is a wake up call for everybody diagnosed with it, it could be argued that it would have a wider impact on sporting stars in terms of their place in society. Hamilton actually believes that the experience helped him; ‘The air smells nicer, the sunset is more beautiful. Some days it is the same old stuff. One thing I am grateful for is the experience of enduring the process, so I can better relate to the people going through this process and I feel more human’.
Of course, it is not proved being a sportsman does not increase or decrease your chances of survival. Ernie Cooksey, an immensely popular football league player for Oldham Athletic, was at the peak of his physical fitness before dying of skin cancer in 2008 aged 28. Arsenal legend David Rocastle also perished to an aggressive form of cancer aged just 33 in 2001. The impact these two cases had over the sporting world was huge. It further raised the profile of cancer awareness whilst inspiring charity days in memory of their battles. The fact that ordinary people who live in fear of this horrible disease can witness their idols struggle and ultimately fail in their fight can only inspire the everyday man and woman to recognize and realize the dangers of cancer and the importance of self checking. This is where sport has become the perfect battling ground against cancer. Charitable sporting events occur regularly in aid of cancer charities, whether it is a 10k run or a celebrity football match, raising millions of pounds each year for the ever improving medical facilities that are allowing cancer treatments to improve beyond recognition. This is where sport really wins in it’s battle over cancer.
Written By Lewis Constable