“One season I was top scorer – and I had cancer!” Julian told us that his cancer diagnosis in 2016 came with a prognosis that he had six to 12 months left to live. Yet, a few years later, he was coming back to play five-a-side football and score for fun.
“Yeah, I’m proud of it,” he laughs.
The key is to understand that everyone’s cancer story is different – and that stories don’t always feel like they go in a straight line. Julian has had many ups and downs in the six years since he discovered he had cancer, but over time and with the help of Macmillan Cancer Support, Julian has found a increasing freedom to talk about his feelings, which has massively helped him deal with what he’s going through.
He was only 28 when he noticed regular numbness in his left foot. But it wasn’t until he was trying to play football one day that he realized something was wrong. “I was kicking one day. I never had a problem kicking but that day I was everywhere. My left arm wasn’t working properly, I couldn’t pick things up.
At first doctors thought he had had a stroke and were rushed to a stroke unit, where an immediate MRI showed he had a mass on his brain “the size of a a golf ball”.
A week after those attempted kicks, he was told it was stage four glioblastoma and was given his pessimistic life expectancy.
He was always a good footballer, playing all sorts – fives, sevens or 11s – and was comfortable anywhere on the pitch, although he preferred attacking positions. “Anywhere except the goal. I’m 5’9″, and I scratch that,” he laughs.
Learning he had cancer hit him hard, especially because of what it meant for his ability to play.
Mentally and physically, he was going through so much. “I tried five different chemotherapy drugs to treat my cancer. They missed. I also had two episodes of brain surgery, to reduce the mass as it continued to grow.
Along with getting to grips with his diagnosis, Julian had to make some quick life decisions and couldn’t believe the amount of paperwork that came with it, adding further pressure to an already very stressful situation.
He hadn’t landed his dream job as a football coach for a long time, but unfortunately had to make the decision to retire: “I didn’t know anything about disability benefits and what you can get claim because I have always been a worker.”
It was there that a macmillan (opens in a new tab) nurse was initially able to help, he said. “She said to me, ‘You relax, you’ve had a traumatic experience. I’ll take care of that. You don’t have to worry about it.
“It was such a relief. The paperwork is time consuming, and having someone step in and do it really helped. I was thinking about the prognosis, how much time I have left, and what memories I want to create. When Nurse Macmillan came in, she was like an angel. My angel Macmillan!
The “counseling, financial help and relief” provided by Macmillan meant that he felt able to confide in her his darkest times which he did not want to impose on his loved ones.
“It’s easy to give up,” he says. “I’m not going to lie, some days I felt like giving up. Abandon treatment and wait to die. It’s a bad attitude to have and it’s not fair to the people around me who love me. They know it’s hard, but they keep me going.
So having a nurse around was different, and it helped Julian open up. “She always asked me how I felt.
“I remember telling her that I felt suicidal and felt like I was letting people down. She told me never to feel like I was letting people down. She berated me, Basically – but in a good way!She told me there was light at the end of the tunnel.
It made him realize he wanted to share more with his loved ones, including other male friends – and was surprised to find it was easier than he expected. “I had a lot of support from my mates, so I told them how much I loved them.
“It turned out that it wasn’t difficult. I told them how much I appreciated them and they replied the same. Any problems I had, I could call them and tell them I was having a hard time.
This caused Julian to reassess the ideas he grew up with; that men shouldn’t talk and shouldn’t open up. “When we were younger, men who opened up were considered ‘wuss’, because you show your feelings. Ever since I was diagnosed, I’ve been very open about my feelings.
And he credits a new generation of men in the public eye for helping to create a better discussion around these things, too. As a Manchester United fan, he points to the abuse United captain Harry Maguire received online and his response to it as a useful talking point.
“Having people like Harry Maguire and top players talking about their mental health and the importance of speaking up is great. We come from a time when we were told to hold on to our feelings,” he says .
“My dad never showed his feelings. He was very old school, like my grandfather. The idea was that if you show feelings, you show weakness.
“Actually, I think you’re showing strength.”
Macmillan’s research shows that unfortunately many men still find it difficult to open up and although men account for just over half of cancer cases, in 2020 only 31% of calls to the own line Macmillan’s assistance came from men. It’s that kind of support that has kept Julian going and now feeling like he’s in a much better position. Julian hopes that by sharing his story, other men going through or affected by cancer will find the confidence to talk about it too.
“It’s not easy to talk about cancer, but it might help. Macmillan is on the phone and online to provide support. Call 0808 808 00 00 or visit macmillan.org.uk (opens in a new tab) and ask anything. For those who would prefer to talk online, there is also the Macmillan Online Community – join and chat anonymously.