Watching Pele’s funeral procession on the news as his coffin was being delivered on top of a fire engine to his old club Santos, I was stuck by an iconic photograph that was flashed up from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico showing Pele and British footballing legend Sir Bobby Moore swapping shirts at the end of a group game which was described as one of the ‘all-time World Cup classics’.
Little would these two icons have known that football was not the only thing they would have in common as both sadly succumbed to bowel cancer.
In the UK, this disease is the fourth most common type of cancer but the second largest cause of cancer deaths (behind lung cancer), with almost 90% of those diagnosed aged over 60.
But as diets, exercise and other lifestyle factors have all played their parts, bowel cancer has sadly become more prevalent in younger people. When Sir Bobby Moore passed away in 1993 he was only 51 years old.
With the disease so prevalent, it reminds us of the need to continue being able to talk freely about the initial warning signs of bowel cancer including bleeding from the rectum and in your poo. As the late bowel health campaigner Dame Deborah James made loud and clear talking about poo is not taboo, it’s a life saver! She was equally vocal about other bowel cancer symptoms such as sustained changes in one’s bowel habits, persistent tiredness for no obvious reasons and abdominal pain.
In my own case at the beginning of the pandemic these were all symptoms I had but being a man of a certain age, ( I was in my mid 50’s) I thought they were covid and would go away, little did I know what was happening in my own body. I was one of the lucky ones in that it was identified by The Royal Free Accident and Emergency Team and within 48 hours I had a lifesaving operation.
As I reflected on Pele, I wondered whether he or even Sir Bobby Moore had noticed the change in their own bowel habits and whether this have changed the outcomes – something we will never know!
Both Pele and Sir Bobby were supreme sportsmen and members of a number of top-level teams in the domestic and international arenas. As we know well, sports teams tend to use a culture of banter and humour to communicate and engage with each other but this might not be the right way of addressing vital issues of both mental and physical health.
That said, we have come a long way since the 1970s, and there is considerably less stigma about talking about mental and physical health especially among men but there is plenty more work needed in terms of raising awareness and improving chances of survival.
That sad fact is that bowel cancer does not discriminate against anyone, famous footballer or the proverbial person in the street. We must ensure the legacy of these two legendary players by reminding people, especially reluctant men, to check their poo and listen to their bodies to so they can see their doctors if there is a problem.
Following my own bowel cancer diagnosis and surgery, I was asked in late 2020 to front the Bobby Moore Football Shirt Friday campaign which meant posing in a football shirt to go out on social media.
The only problem was due to the pandemic I could not go and buy a shirt for my own chosen team Leeds United and the only one I could get hold of was a Millwall F.C shirt which I happily wore to pose for the camera ( after all it was a great cause ).
Following the posting on Twitter and other social sites, I was inundated by Millwall Fans sending me messages supporting the cause and inviting me for a drink at the next home game as they claimed me as one of their own!
This shows what a great outlet the sports world can be to get across important messages, and I am sure is something that would not be lost of on those two legends who swapped shirts in 1970.
While the football team in the sky gets stronger and stronger our job is to slow its progress in any way we can, right here, right now.