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'I'm stronger for it': Goalkeeper Grace O'Flanagan discusses cancer battle ahead of Ireland's World Cup qualifier

 

Net gains: Ireland goalkeepers Grace O’Flanagan and Ayeisha McFerran
Net gains: Ireland goalkeepers Grace O’Flanagan and Ayeisha McFerran

By John Flack

As a cancer survivor, Grace O'Flanagan is well used to battles in life and sport and in her latest, she has forced her way back into contention for a place in Ireland's squad for the Olympic qualifiers against Canada at Donnybrook at the end of November.

The goalkeeper was diagnosed with the killer disease four years ago but, thankfully, she made a full recovery and is the proud possessor of a World Cup silver medal, having been Ulster woman Ayeisha McFerran's understudy during the tournament in London in August 2018.

O'Flanagan came off the bench to replace the Larne woman in the final with Ireland trailing the Netherlands 6-0 and made a string of saves in the last 15 minutes to keep a clean sheet but that was to prove her last game until her dramatic recall to the national squad.

The 30-year-old Railway Union player is back in the panel for the two-match series against China at UCD after a year out when she didn't pick up a hockey stick, having stepped back through choice to concentrate on her day job.

The Dublin GP won her 36th cap in Sunday's 4-2 win over the Chinese, who, like the Irish, are preparing for a two-legged showdown for a place at the Tokyo Olympics.

A place in Tokyo for what would be a first Olympics for the Ireland women's team would obviously be the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition for the current crop of players, O'Flanagan being no exception.

However, she will keep hockey in perspective, having survived the darkest period of her life.

O'Flanagan, like all the Irish players, savoured the moment after the World Cup final as the national team celebrated with their silver medals, having exceeded even their own modest expectations by reaching the final against the mighty Dutch.

But 18 months earlier she was wondering if she would still be alive let alone playing in the biggest game of her career.

She became concerned when she noticed a small lump at the back of her neck and when it didn't go away she became increasingly anxious and began to fear the worst.

She said: "Being a typical medical student, I was doing some self-diagnosis and ruling out sorts of possible causes.

"I felt I was erring on the side of caution, knowing cancer was a possibility but not really expecting it."

A scan and biopsy led to surgery after her exams in 2015 and, while there was no precise diagnosis, a second opinion from a consultant in Boston confirmed the worst.

O'Flanagan added: "I was in hospital on placement and on my way to a small group tutorial when I got the call from my doctor telling me why they were getting a second opinion and what they thought it might be.

"I knew the kind of cancer they suspected and knew it had a poor outlook and I sat through that tutorial in a daze, a million thoughts running through my mind.

"All of a sudden, I went from being a healthy 26-year-old to maybe not being alive in five years' time. That was daunting.

"Death isn't something you think about much as a young, healthy person. But just like that, things can turn upside down."

To her eternal relief, further surgery to remove muscle and any possible remaining tumour cells proved a success and she didn't have to undergo radiotherapy.

O'Flanagan said: "You can think the worst, and at times I did, but for the most part I stayed positive. I had a lot of good things going for me - I was otherwise healthy, I was young, the cancer was small, we caught it early.

"Everybody copes differently but, for me, it was about appreciating the positives.

"In any case, whatever comes I know I can handle it. I feel a stronger person for it, a better doctor, and I appreciate all the incredible opportunities in my life so much more."

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