Greg Blevings is just 15 but he has spent much of his life battling a brain tumour — enduring two life-changing operations and gruelling chemotherapy.
In total, he has had 15 operations to manage his condition so it is hardly surprising that he seems so much more mature than his age should allow.
Put simply, this is a boy who has had to grow up much quicker than his peers and it is the positivity, courage and maturity with which he has faced his illness that makes him an inspiration to us all.
It is a testament to the Newtownards teenager that despite everything he has been through he has progressed through school normally — sitting a GCSE examination today — and has aspirations of becoming a doctor one day.
Greg was just three years old when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour situated deep inside his brain, in a location that has made it impossible to remove entirely.
The news was a devastating blow for his family.
David Blevings, Greg’s father, explained: “He was too young to remember, but when we were told it felt like the end of our world.
“As a parent, to hear that your child has a brain tumour, you feel like your world is falling apart. It’s not something you ever expect to be told.”
The family’s nightmare journey began when Greg started to experience headaches.
Mr Blevings explained: “We knew something wasn’t right from the way he was behaving so we took him to the doctor.”
He was immediately referred to the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald where doctors discovered the pressure in his head had built to a dangerous level.
They decided Greg needed an emergency operation to insert a shunt into the affected area to help relieve the pressure.
The next day he was referred to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children for further tests and was subsequently diagnosed with the brain tumour.
“Greg’s tumour is in the centre of his brain,” added Mr Blevings.
“The doctors told us it would be too dangerous to operate as they were worried that by trying to remove the tumour they might actually end up causing damage.
“We made the decision that it would be safer to leave the tumour and monitor it, as the shunt seemed to be helping and he had no symptoms.”
For the next three years Greg lived a normal life like other children of his age — going to school and playing with friends — until tests revealed the tumour was growing.
“Greg was seven when the headaches came back so we took him back to the doctors.
“This time we decided that he should have an operation to remove the tumour. It was horrendous when he went for the surgery. It took about 14 hours.
“Saying goodbye to him before the surgery was probably the worst part. It was such a big operation and there were risks with it, but we knew it was the best thing to do at the time.”
Despite the best efforts of the surgeons, they were unable to cut out all of the tumour.
“It was so close to crucial parts of his brain so they couldn’t get it all,” explained Mr Blevings.
“A year later Greg had to go back for another operation and he was in theatre for another 14 hours. It affected part of his brain and he had to learn to walk again. It was very difficult for all of us — but especially for Greg.”
In a remarkable insight into his attitude to the tumour, Greg said: “It was hard but it had to be done. I wanted to get back to school and get on with my life.”
Mr Blevings said: “That is how Greg has been throughout. There are obviously some dark times, but he has really been so brave.
“The tumour came back again last year and this time Greg decided he didn’t want the surgery. He didn’t want to have to learn to walk again, so it was decided the best course of action would be chemotherapy.
“It is tough going but he has been going to school as much as possible. He just wants a normal life.”
Greg added: “I have been really impressed by what I have seen during my treatment, so I would like to be a doctor.”
Now in Year 11 at Regent House, Greg is in the middle of sitting a number of GCSE examinations while at the same time receiving chemotherapy for the tumour, which measures 3cm.
He celebrated his 15th birthday yesterday with a hospital appointment and revision at home.
His dad said: “He is back at the books already. His school has been fantastic support — sending homework out for him to help him with his studies.
“The chemotherapy is going okay. The tumour hasn’t shrunk but it hasn’t grown either — although we have been told there are signs of dead cells, which to my mind is a positive thing.
“The chemotherapy finishes in October so we will have to wait and see what happens then.”
The difficult medical decisions faced by his surgeon
One of the doctors who has treated Greg Blevings during his lengthy battle with a brain tumour has paid tribute to the courage and determination of the schoolboy.
Roy McConnell, consultant paediatric neurosurgeon from the Belfast Health & Social Care Trust, said he has always been impressed by the remarkable spirit shown by his young patient.
“He is an amazing wee guy,” he said. “He has a very old head on his shoulders. He has always asked questions that are appropriate to his condition, much more than the average child his age would ask.”
Mr McConnell has been involved in Greg’s case from a very early stage and he said the family has always been heavily involved in the decision-making when it comes to his treatment.
He explained: “His parents are lovely. They have had to deal with a tremendous amount. Each time we have had to have a discussion about the tumour it has turned their world upside down.
“His mum Judith, my heart goes out to her and how she deals with everything.
“When there is bad news she goes away and comes back when she has the strength to talk. I have a feeling it is Greg that has held the family together.”
Mr McConnell explained that the tumour Greg has been diagnosed with is not a particularly rare tumour in terms of the cell type. It is called pilocytic astrocytoma, which is one of the more common tumours seen in children, but Mr McConnell said the location has made it particularly difficult to treat.
“It is on his pineal gland which is probably one of the more awkward parts of the brain to access safely. It is the part of the brain that controls balance, which is why Greg had difficulty walking and standing after surgery.”
During two separate 14-hour operations the surgical team has opened up Greg’s skull in order to access the tumour which is located deep inside his brain.
Essentially, the operation involves scooping out as much of the tumour as possible, although as it is close to the part of the brain which controls balance, this has led to difficulties after the operations.
“Having been there before and having removed most of the tumour but stopped because of the critical structures in the brain, we felt it was unlikely we would get it all out this time,” explained Mr McConnell.
“This time around we felt the best option was chemotherapy.
“This is one of the biggest issues we face when treating patients such as Greg. As a clinician there is a temptation to go for broke, but then you can cause damage. You have to balance between completely curing the patient of the tumour against the quality of life they will have following the operation.
“It is a huge challenge for a child to come through that amount of surgery.
“We do always try to get full excision of the tumour but sometimes the price may be too much to pay.
“Ultimately, here in Belfast, we always try to ensure we are providing the best treatment possible and try to ensure we are keeping ahead of what is available nationally and internationally.”
Day of golf that could help people like Greg
The amazing treatment of Greg Blevings has highlighted the importance of research into brain tumours.
The Seve Ballesteros Foundation works together with Cancer Research UK to beat brain cancer — a partnership set up by the golfer in 2009 to raise money for research. His aim was to make a real difference in the fight against brain cancer, and his own personal experience of a brain tumour made him determined to raise as much money for research as possible.
He wanted the money raised to go directly to Cancer Research UK, which has a world-class research centre in Belfast, and now Greg and his family have offered their support to a fundraising drive to help fund further research into tumours.
A pro-am is taking place on September 17, organised by Brett Borkowski at Kirkistown Golf Club. Mr Borkowski said: “A friend of mine, Leslie Campbell, lost his son Ben three-and-a-half-years ago after a brave battle with brain cancer.
“Then my eldest son Jordan and I had the opportunity to meet Seve Ballesteros prior to his death in 2011. Given that both Ben and Seve lost their lives to brain cancer, yet their lives were so different — in age, one famous, one just a child, yet both incredibly brave, I felt it right to do something to support the important work of the Seve Ballesteros Foundation.”
Jean Walsh from Cancer Research UK urged people to sign up and take part in the pro-am.
“Greg’s story is truly an inspiration,” she said.
Entry fee is £650 per team and the day will include an evening meal and entertainment. Entry is on a team basis with three amateurs playing with a nominated professional from the Irish Professional Golfers Association.
To find out more about the pro-am event, telephone Mr Borkowski on 07515 941 387.