Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
IT was the perfect start to the delayed cricket season for Trevor Britton last month – a wicket with his first delivery for NCU champions CIYMS. But, then, doing and coping with the unexpected is nothing new for the Donemana man.
Eighteen months ago, Britton’s life was irreversibly changed when he was diagnosed with a rare form of testicular cancer.
With a wife and two children under four, Trevor remembers the bombshell news with searingly brave clarity.
“On New Year’s Eve 2018, we were planning for the year ahead. My face had been flushing, as if I was permanently blushing. I felt something wasn’t quite right. My wife kept pushing me to go to the doctors – it was probably nothing to worry about – but what’s to lose?
“I went to my local GP on January 10 and he said you’re a young, healthy, fit man but just to be sure we will send you for a scan (of the testicle).
“There was a slight swelling but nothing really visible. I didn’t think any more about it. A week passed and I still hadn’t heard anything so my wife encouraged me to ring up and ask if there were any cancellations.
“It was January 21. I got a call back to say there was a cancellation and to go to Omagh Hospital. I made my way to hospital, thinking nothing of it. I had no symptoms, no sickness. As the doctor said, I was fit and healthy, was only 36, and had been playing cricket for 20 years. The only thing was tiredness but that’s because I thought I was working too hard.
“I lay down on the bed and then things went quiet. ‘What’s going on here’, I asked myself. The nurse then said “I’m sorry to tell you Mr Britton but your left testicle has cancer cells”.
“My wife is a cancer nurse and I thought she knew my wife. ‘You must be joking’. That was the initial shock. But she added: ‘No, this is an emergency you need to be red-flagged.’ ‘From thinking you are fine and healthy to be told you had cancer is the worst ... I can’t even describe it. Even saying the word it still gets to me.
“You always think to yourself, ‘it’ll never happen to me, it can’t be right’. I couldn’t take it in. “I was straight onto the phone to my wife and we just broke down. We couldn’t believe it had come to our door.”
“I drove back down the road that day and don’t even remember getting home. The next few days are just a blank, waiting to see a consultant for the operation. We had a three-month old baby, my wife was on maternity leave and our first boy was three.
“January 28 must have been the snowiest day of the year. I was actually three hours late to Coleraine hospital for the operation
“The doctor explained what would happen and the chemotherapy that will follow. The cancer was removed but you can do nothing for 12 weeks after the operation. Life was still busy at home but I was so weak I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even play with my boy and of course he didn’t understand why. I had still no sickness and people were saying ‘you look so well’.
“The 12-week review took place in Altnagelvin where my wife works, so that was very difficult for both of us. It brought back so many memories.
“I was told the cancer hadn’t spread, so that was the good news, but it was such a rare tumour that they didn’t know all the details. That was the scary part. I was sent to a neuroendocrine specialist in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
“Because it was such a rare tumour, I had to have a nuclear examination and stay in a hotel for five days after every exam. Many trips up and down to Belfast followed, spending time away from the family which is hard when you see your boys crying and the wife, whose family live in Sligo, left on her own - my little boy, Sam, asking ‘where’s daddy’?”
But Trevor was determined that life would continue as near as normal as possible and three months later he was back playing cricket. A couple of games for the Second XI and then, remarkably, his first senior game of the season was the Challenge Cup final.
“I didn’t know how I was going to feel, but I took a couple of wickets – he had to wait until his eighth delivery to get his first! – and the people at CI have been great, offering me a place to stay in Belfast when I was at the hospital.
“Cricket is a release, the changing room banter, that’s what you miss.”
It does help that CIYMS is a winning team. The Belmont side won four trophies last year, including a clean sweep in the NCU and Britton described it as the “best team I have ever played in, with only the Irish Cup, after a semi-final defeat “which could have gone either way” eluding them.
Growing up in Donemana, it was always destined to be a cricketing life for Britton, although his first sport was indoor bowls which he started at the age of 11, playing for Foyle, alongside his parents in the Foyle Churches League.
“I was a country lad and everyone played cricket. We just got on our bikes with our cricket bags on our backs and went down to the field,” he remembers.
Trevor played his first senior game at 17 – “I was a late developer” - but even then he made an instant impact, taking ‘three wickets for not many’. However, it was a member of the opposition that he impressed most and, with so many quality spinners at Donemana, when Bready’s South African professional Wian Smit approached him, he made the move to Magheramason where he stayed for seven years.
While he was there, Britton’s talent was recognised by Cricket Ireland who selected him as one of three players to attend an ICC High Performance Training Camp in Pretoria in 2006, ahead of the World Cup the following year.
“Eoin Morgan, now the England one-day captain, and Kenny Carroll, who replaced my good mate Johnny Thompson who had to go home injured, were the other two at the camp – that was the life!
Cricket every day for three months, one to one coaching, although I remember having to get up at 5am and running miles! It was a great eye-opener.”
After captaining Bready to the 2009 Senior Cup final, Britton moved on to Brigade where he won the League, Senior Cup, the following year, and Ulster Cup during a four-year stay before the bright lights of Belfast lured him south!
“I had been at the EurAsia tournament in Abu Dhabi back in 2006 with Ireland A and a few of the NCU boys on that trip were always saying it was a better league to play in. So I always wanted the chance to see if they were right.
“The opportunity came when Chris Doc (Dougherty), who played with me at Bready, was captain of CIYMS and apart from a year at Bonds Glen, when I wanted to be close to Noeleen who was expecting our first child, have been there ever since.”
Life may be no longer normal and Trevor admits when people ask ‘what are you doing next week?, he no longer gives an answer.
“We plan nothing anymore,” he says.
“I know the cancer is always going to be there and just hope that it doesn’t reach the stage where if it comes back they can’t do anything. I still worry about every lump or bump and if I feel sick or if I start flushing I worry that it’s back.
“You have to be vigilant. Neuroendocrine tumours can pop up anywhere and there are no side-effects, but in September I was told I was cancer free and it’s so far so good, although I will be going every three months for a check-up for the rest of my life, I’ve been told.
“I’m telling my story to make everyone aware. The only person who can look after your health is yourself. Anything you feel that’s not right, go and see about it. There are no medals for staying in the house. If I hadn’t listened to my wife, I mightn’t be here today.
“There is now a Euro Centre of Excellence at the Royal Victoria Hospital with a new neuroendocrine unit, although fortunately, at the moment, there are very few cases in Northern Ireland.”
And there is a remarkable twist to Trevor’s story.
“When I was really sick last year a very good school friend of mine, in New Zealand, Samuel Clarke was always in touch and he discovered he had cancer of the testicle as well! He only took action after hearing about me and I encouraged him to go to the doctors! Two people in the same class getting testicular cancer. What are the chances?
But Trevor has already helped someone. Trevor continues to live life to the full – he will be back in cricket action, a vital member of the CIYMS team at the weekend - and is looking forward to the day when his boys are old enough that he can take them to the cricket and watch them playing.