GAA Football

"I was very, very lucky I found it early" - Mark Lynch reveals testicular cancer diagnosis

Mark Lynch had just turned 34 and wasn't long retired from inter-county football with Derry when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After a successful operation and chemotherapy treatment, the Banagher man is in remission. He spoke to Cahair O'Kane about how lucky he was that he recognised the signs…

Former Derry and current Banagher star Mark Lynch with his son Paudie after the club won an intermediate championship in 2018. Mark was diagnosed with testicular cancer earlier this year at the age of 34, but has had successful treatment and is in remission. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“THE second he stopped talking, I knew.”

Four days after he discovered a lump on his right testicle as he went to take a quick shower before departing the London flat in which he spent the working week, Mark Lynch was sat in front of a radiographer in Altnagelvin Hospital.

Even by then, he’d convinced himself it was what he thought it was.

Testicular cancer.

He’d just turned 34 and was now a father-of-three following the arrival of Niamh, born in January, a younger sister to Paudie (6) and Oisin (3).

Two months later, in March this year, there wasn’t a single symptom in his body other than this lump.

He’d been out for a run when the hospital rang to tell him to come on ahead for the scan.

Lynch had always checked himself, at least once a month. Little did team doctors Michael Logan and Paul John McCormack realise the seed they were planting on all those trips with Derry, in all those effortless conversations that bounced through every topic beneath the sun.

He knew what to look for. When he found it, he knew what it was.

For the train journey and flight home, he puts it as far from his mind as he can and chatters on to his neighbour and workmate Ryan Murphy.

Sunday is Mother’s Day. Working in London for weeks at a time, he holds back in revealing the discovery to his wife Bernie until the Monday morning.

When he returns back from Altnagelvin that afternoon, March 23, it just blurts out of him.

“I felt bad because when I came home, Bernie was looking at me not thinking it would have been bad, and I just said it.

“I didn’t build it up, I didn’t take her out of the room, nothing, I just stupidly said: ‘It’s cancer’.

“But we let the kids play away and we sat down, I explained it to her. It wasn’t a nice conversation to have. But Bernie being the great woman she is, she just said ‘ok, we have to get it sorted and we’ll move on’.”

No symptoms. No family history.

Within two weeks, he’s on the operating table having the tumour and his right testicle removed.

Another two weeks could have made a colossal difference to the impact it’s had on his life.

“The tumour turned out to be 20mm in size. It was 15 days from I found it until it was out. I definitely think it grew in those couple of weeks.

“They reckon it would have doubled in size in another fortnight. If it’s done that, then it’s got to a stage where it’s possibly in your lymph nodes and other places it can spread to.

“I’m lucky. I’m very, very lucky.”

* * * * * *

YOU go through Derry minors, Jordanstown, Banagher and a 15-year career with the county seniors and ask his team-mates what they think of Mark Lynch, you won’t find a dissenting word. Not one.

People gravitated towards him. Standing a bit over six foot, his summer weight was 15 stone. The physical presence was obvious, but it was always the way in which he treated people that drew others to him.

Talking about himself is an unnatural state, but he agrees to a rare interview on the basis that he hopes the topic can have a positive impact.

On a Friday afternoon in the quietest corner of Silky’s Café in Dungiven, he’s back at himself.

Chemotherapy robbed him of a stone-and-a-half that he’s since regained.

Other than forcing down an odd bite of toast, he didn’t eat for 10 days during the treatment.

His hair fell out in his mother-in-law’s house and Slaughtneil manager Paul Bradley, whose wife Siobhan and Mark’s wife Bernie [nee McKaigue] are sisters and cousins of current Derry captain Chrissy, shaved his head.

“Paudie just thought it was for the craic, just to see,” he says.

“Bernie kept everything so normal that the kids really didn’t notice anything. The rest of my family, my parents, brothers, sister, cousins, and all Bernie’s family were great. I can never repay them.

“Paudie and Oisin are mad for the pitch, and if someone saw I wasn’t in great form, they’d take them to it.

“Covid didn’t allow a lot to happen but as long as Paudie got outside, he was oblivious to a lot of it.”

Covid, ironically, sped the entire process up. To go from finding a lump to having a tumour removed in just two weeks is rapid by any standards.

So much so that it was only after the operation to remove it that the cancerous nature of the tumour was actually confirmed.

By then a CT scan had assured him that there was no spread.

“My tumour was 90 per cent cancer and 10 per cent dead cells. It was one of the most aggressive types. If I hadn’t checked it for even a month, it could have been a lot different.”

A cycle of chemotherapy was advised to him on the basis that it would reduce the likelihood of the cancer returning from 50-50 to less than three per cent.

“It’s not handy, chemo. But there are people up there far, far worse than I was. I can only count myself to be lucky, to be honest.

“I had one cycle. It’s three weeks. For 14 days, you’re in bad nick. It affects people differently.

“The results are very good. It’s a very treatable disease, testicular cancer.

“If you can get it early, it has minimal impact on you in terms of what other people have to go through. I can’t stress that enough.

“I’m so grateful to the doctors and nurses in Altnagelvin and the cancer centre in the City Hospital in Belfast. They were brilliant.”

A very private individual, other than family members there were very few who knew about his diagnosis until he began chemotherapy.

The absence of club games meant questions weren’t being asked about why he wasn’t playing for Banagher. Within days of going through the operation, he was chatting to neighbours outside the shop in Feeny who were completely oblivious.

But he came to seek counsel and find comfort in people’s knowing.

He found a great companion in Ryan Mortimer, a young footballer from neighbouring Craigbane who had just passed four years clear of cancer when Lynch got his diagnosis.

“Everyone was brilliant but he had experience of it, and I’d text him about how he felt at different times or what did he eat when he was in bad form, things like that. It might seem small, a text or a phone call, but they were huge for me.”

As he went in to begin chemo, his cousin Jacinta Faulkner sent him a video compilation of well wishes from a litany of former team-mates, opponents and managers.

“I can’t speak highly enough of everyone. I still have people to thank, and I want to thank them face-to-face if I can, because I don’t think the phone call is enough.

“I was always one of those people too that thought ‘I wonder should I text, or do they think I’m imposing by texting?’ I now know to text, because I know what the text meant when you got it. I’d be here all day to thank people.

“I said to Bernie it would get out at some point. I’d be private but I didn’t mind, because every conversation or every text, it seemed to be easier to cope. I’m more than grateful.

“My thank you will never be enough for the lift they gave me.”

* * * * * *

“I’m certain that all the boys in whatever squad he played in always looked up to him, not just as a footballer, but as a person. I can’t emphasise enough the great lad that he is and how humble and down to earth that he is, despite the great ability that he has and the achievements he has had, it never ever phased him, he was just still Mark.”
Adrian McGuckin after Mark Lynch’s retirement from inter-county football in 2018

FROM he was no age, he bore the weight of expectation.

In the 16-year-old centre-back of Derry’s 2002 All-Ireland minor winning team, there lay every hallmark of a future star.

For the first while, he was ‘Mickey Lynch’s chap’. It took time to become his own man out of the shadow of a father who starred for club and county, but Mark Lynch’s name has comfortably held its weight for well beyond a decade now.

From pushing in as Derry reached the All-Ireland semi-final in 2004 until he retired at the end of the 2018 season, he played in every single championship game.

People naturally gravitated towards Mark Lynch during his distinguished 15-year career with Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

In 2014, he was destined for an Allstar only for Derry going out in the first round of the qualifiers to Longford. Had they even hung about until the last 12, it couldn’t have been denied.

For that year and the two either side of it, he was one of the best in the land.

His peak was no accident. The timing was perfect, from he was 27 until he was 29.

Work for his father and uncle Lawrence’s construction firm, M&L Contracts, was all in Belfast.

“I never worked, really,” he says of those three years.

Every other day almost he’d meet then-Derry coach Paddy Tally at the Falls Baths and would do a gym session or hit the pool. He’d train in the evening.

In games, he was covering 7km. Around 2km of that was at sprint pace. In the later years, those numbers would go up, but they weren’t what was important.

“The productivity I was outputting in 2013 and 2014, what you saw at the end of it, was higher.

“Productive running, to me that’s what changes the game. If you’ve a man getting on the end of a ball and causing damage.

“I was playing sweeper one year and going up three or four times in a half, maybe in the whole game.

“But if I got three or four points out of those runs, ‘Mark Lynch was up and down all day, did you see him?’ That’s the viewpoint of most people looking at the game.

“As years got on, could I have done the same running? Was I in better shape? Probably. But the real difference under Brian and Paddy was I was playing football steady. That puts you in form and you are fitter and better.

“You don’t miss a session and you’re getting extra sessions. Where I was letting the team and management down in the years after that was missing sessions here, there and everywhere, and that ultimately counted.”

The infamous night Derry and Dublin bored the country half to death in 2015, he’d been up at 4am to help pour concrete at the cancer unit in Altnagelvin.

Raced down the road to Dublin, and when he got back the men were still working at it. He’d horsed it back up the road to the hospital to join Bernie. Paudie was born the next day.

In January past, with daughter Niamh ready for her arrival, he and his wife took a walk down to the cancer centre, in which he’d installed the radiation bunkers for the cancer treatment rooms.

“When we were building it, we always said we hoped we’re never in here.

“I mind standing in it saying to Bernie before Niamh was born, ‘imagine being in here’. Little did I think I’d be in the one in Belfast three or four months down the line.”

That game against Dublin came to change the course of Derry football, and unfairly taint Brian McIver’s reign.

Under him the previous year, they’d played some great football and even despite the league final hammering by the Dubs, they had Donegal on the rack in Celtic Park before letting them off to go and reach an All-Ireland final.

Lynch’s own assessment of his career with Derry is unnecessarily harsh.

“I consider myself, really, truly, honestly to have failed with Derry.

“There were certain days I performed but there were days I didn’t, and I felt if I had performed Derry would have won the game. We could have won an Ulster or gone further.

“I’ll say I failed but we were so close to winning something big at that time.

“The team we had, we should have got further. Years we were cruising leagues, beating the top teams week in, week out, getting through the first round of Ulster and then failing after that.

“A National League [2008] and a final [2009], an Ulster final appearance [2011], but if you lined that CV up against other boys…”

When Paudie was born, the priorities tilted towards work and a lot of it wasn’t around home. With an all-or-nothing approach to football, missing a session on a Tuesday night ate at him on a Sunday.

It was almost against his better judgement and any sense of personal pride that he continued to soldier, but in a period where it’s become unfashionable to stay around Owenbeg, nobody has given more to Derry football this century.

He kept on because that’s what the county needed him to do.

“I could only ever see winning when you had a team pulling one direction. In 2013 and especially 2014, when I was scoring, I was always very conscious of speaking to players and saying ‘sorry I could have laid that off, I saw the run’.

“I mind standing [in Altnagelvin cancer unit] saying to Bernie before Niamh was born, ‘imagine being in here’. Little did I think I’d be in the one in Belfast three or four months down the line” - Mark Lynch talks about his diagnosis and treatment

“I would have scored a point or a goal and straight away apologised to someone. They weren’t expecting an apology but I needed them to know that I saw their run or their work.

“There’s a difference between motivation and commitment. You’re never motivated to drive to Owenbeg every night, there’s no way you drive down a road every single night going ‘I cannot wait’.

“But you’re committed, and I had to try and make sure players were committed to a cause that was worthy of being committed to. They have to all feel part of it.

“That’s just the way I viewed it. I tried my best.”

* * * * * *

MARK Lynch heads out through the door of the café, into his car and turns left for Feeny.

His house is next door to former club and county team-mate Paul Cartin’s. Both of them live yards from the pitch, which has had a serious refurb in the last 12 months, between a new ultra-modern gym and floodlights.

Will he play for Banagher next year?

“Mm-hm. I’ll go for as long as I can go.”

He could have played physically this year, but once he’d taken eight weeks to clear after chemo at the end of May, it was back into work in London, and that meant missing training. He simply refused to take a jersey off a youngster when he hadn’t been about.

In only the very briefest of moments after his diagnosis did he allow himself to think how Bernie, Paudie, Oisin and Niamh, his parents, his siblings, Bernie’s family, would deal with the idea that he might not be here.

Time was of the essence, but awareness too. Mark Lynch knew what he was checking for, knew how to find it and knew what to do when he did.

He had no hang-ups about a doctor examining him, or the crazy idea that his or anyone else’s masculinity is somehow affected by the loss of a testicle.

It will be five years until he can say that he is “cured”, but he is in remission and feeling great.

Those conversations with the team doctors proved invaluable and, as is a theme in his life, he just wants to help others recognise the importance of checking yourself, and of the difference even weeks can make.

“I never said to anyone ‘do you check?’ I just knew that I constantly did.

“It paid off for me, and that’s the message I want to get out.

“There’s no harm in checking. A minute or less does it, and it can make all the difference.”

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