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‘People get diagnosed with terminal cancer … I’m glad for the chance to live – Carl Ikeme

The Wolves goalkeeper is in full remission after being diagnosed with acute leukaemia 13 months ago and says he feels grateful to savour simple pleasures again.

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Carl Ikeme was forced to retire after his cancer diagnosis but has remained positive throughout his treatment. Photo: Andrew Fox for the Guardian

The first week of pre-season training at Wolverhampton Wanderers was over and Carl Ikeme had just popped out to buy some paint for the house when his mobile started to ring. His world was about to be turned upside down. “It was the doctor at Wolves,” Ikeme says. “I remember him talking about Stiliyan Petrov and Geoff Thomas, and I knew what it was. I was devastated.”

On a still summer afternoon in Sutton Coldfield, in the relaxed family home where his two little girls are happily playing, Ikeme has been reflecting on that awful moment 13 months ago when he was diagnosed with acute leukaemia and the life-changing journey that followed.

Ikeme’s career as a professional footballer is over because of the toll that chemotherapy has taken on his body, but the good news – the only news that matters, really – is that he is in “complete remission” and living at home again with the loved ones who inspired his recovery. “I was 31 when I was diagnosed – it’s young,” Ikeme says, puffing out his cheeks. “There’s a lot of life to live at that age. Obviously you want to be around to see your children grow up – and you don’t need any more motivation than that to pull through it.”

The level of support has overwhelmed him at times. Wolves fans held aloft a banner at every game last season, a six-figure sum has been raised for Cure Leukaemia in Ikeme’s name, and heartfelt messages flowed in from all over the world, including the ‘goalkeepers’ union’.

Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas and Peter Schmeichel were among an all-star cast that paid tribute to him, singing “one Carl Ikeme” on a three-minute-long video. “They’re the three keepers that I really admire, so to hear them actually say your name and show their support, it was crazy,” says Ikeme, smiling.

An affable and down-to-earth character, Ikeme smiles a lot during the two hours that are spent in his company. It is certainly easy to see why he is such a popular figure at Wolves, where he made 207 appearances after joining the club as a 14-year-old, and how his positive outlook on life has helped so much over the past year. Little more than two weeks after he had been diagnosed with leukaemia, Ikeme posted a picture on Twitter from his hospital bed, saying: “Still happy, still grateful”. Another photo followed on deadline day, six weeks later, under the caption: “Ikeme transfers from one room to another. Medical underway”.

It is remarkable to think that he could remain so sanguine. “I was properly grateful anyway before all this happened,” Ikeme explains. “I’m grateful that I’ve got my family and friends, for what I’ve been able to achieve in football, for having a roof over my head. And even in that situation that I was in, there’s still someone who’s worse off. There are people who are diagnosed with cancer that is terminal. I was given a chance – and I’m grateful to have that.”

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Carl Ikeme made nearly 200 appearances for Wolves in a 15 year career at the club. Photo: James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images

Yet for all his admirable courage and the wider sense of perspective that he talks about, there is no getting away from the fact that it has been extremely hard for Ikeme and his family over the past year or so, especially in the early days. Saba, Ikeme’s wife, has been a rock throughout and it is deeply moving listening to Ikeme recall the moment when he had to explain to her what the doctor had said.

“She was the first person I told. I was obviously upset, as you would be after that sort of news. I was in shock. I got back home and thought: ‘I need to tell Saba.’ I called her, and I couldn’t get it out on the phone, but she knew something was up … Sorry, I’m getting emotional,” says Ikeme, as he pauses for a moment while telling the story. “I got back and Saba came in and I told her the news. She was nine months pregnant at the time, due next week. I’ve never seen her cry the way she cried. It was tough.”

Even though Ikeme knew something was not right during that first week of pre-season, he never imagined there was anything serious wrong. Much of the close-season had been spent in the gym with Matt Murray, the former Wolves goalkeeper, and Ikeme reported back on 26 June feeling good and looking forward to working under Nuno Espírito Santo, the club’s new manager. The first indication there was any sort of problem came after some routine blood tests.

“My platelets had come back a little bit low, which the doc alerted me to straight away but it still wasn’t a cause of concern. He just thought I might have had a viral infection,” Ikeme says. “A couple of days later we had a tough session on the pitch and we did another 45-minute gym session afterwards. I came back and had a nosebleed. I wouldn’t normally tell the doctor about something like that, but I did. I complained about having a headache during training as well. So we repeated the blood test and it was still low.

“The doctor pulled me out of training and said we would go and see a specialist on the Monday, and he could guide us as to what to do. So I went to see Manos [Nikolousis, a consultant haematologist] and they did another blood test and checked my glands, and still thought it could be a viral infection. Then a day or two later I had a phone call from the doctor, saying that I had cancer.”

Although Ikeme dreaded the thought of breaking the news to Saba and his parents – “No one should have to tell their mum and dad that” – he tried to put his emotions to one side as quickly as possible. “I had to go and see Manos on the evening and speak to him about the plan. As soon as I knew the plan, it was like: ‘My head’s on this now.’”

There was only a brief moment, Ikeme says, when he felt sorry for himself. “The first day or two maybe, you do think: ‘Why me? I’m not a bad person.’ But then afterwards, I thought: ‘I’ve been overly blessed in so many ways that other people haven’t. I had a baby daughter, another one coming, I got to live my dream by playing football for a living, so why not me?’”

Ikeme told Wolves that he wanted a statement out as soon as possible to enable him to concentrate fully on his treatment. That announcement left everyone at Molineux in a state of shock and reverberated across the football world, resonating with one former player in particular. Petrov, the former Aston Villa and Celtic midfielder, had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia in 2012 and it says much for the Bulgarian that he wanted to visit Ikeme within 24 hours of the news being released.

“I’d never met Stan before,” Ikeme says. “But he came to the hospital. He had the same sort of leukaemia as me so he was letting me know what was in store. It was nice to have someone who had been through it, who could talk about it and give you guidance at certain points of the year. He could really relate. And when I got to Manchester, Joe Thompson [the Rochdale midfielder] was getting treated there, so he came into see me. They both offered their support and I knew I could call them if I needed to ask them anything, so it was good to have that.”

Ikeme moved to the Christie cancer hospital in Manchester within a couple of weeks of being diagnosed and it was there, lying in a hospital bed, that he found out he had become a dad for the second time. “On 16 July, 10 days after the announcement went out,” Ikeme says, smiling. “I was on FaceTime, it cut off and next thing I knew, 20 minutes later, Maya was born. It was crazy to think that you’re not there for the birth of your child. But I had a pretty good reason.”

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Carl Ikeme: ‘I’ve been overly blessed in so many ways that other people haven’t’. Photo: Andrew Fox for the Guardian

Ikeme stayed in Manchester for the next 11 months as he underwent intense chemotherapy. He returned for “little spurts”, including on Christmas Day, and even surprised his Wolves teammates on one occasion by turning up at the team hotel in Birmingham, just before they played at St Andrew’s. “I was in between treatment, so I popped in and quickly said hello,” Ikeme says. “There was a bit of an infection risk. But I wanted to see everyone to let them know that they were still in my thoughts.”

As the weeks and months passed by in Manchester, Ikeme kept a keen eye on what was going on at Wolves. The club set up a live streaming service in his hospital bed, which meant that he could watch every Wolves game, and Nuno was regularly on the phone, asking Ikeme how he was feeling but also involving him in what was happening on the pitch by seeking his thoughts on the performances. It was a nice touch and genuine, too.

It is hard to imagine, though, what was going through Ikeme’s mind as Wolves cantered to promotion. He had been the club’s No 1 for the previous five years, helping the team to recover from the blow of slipping into League One, and was now missing out on one of their most successful seasons. The timing felt cruel, all the more so because of the World Cup finals in Russia, where Ikeme would have been Nigeria’s first-choice goalkeeper.

“I’d love to have been part of the season going up, but my journey was just different and that’s fine,” Ikeme says. “The World Cup was probably a bit more difficult to take. The World Cup, to me, is the pinnacle of football. No disrespect to Wolves, because I loved playing every minute for them, but the World Cup is a different stage – they’re the memories you have as a kid. So that was something that I’d knew I’d miss out on and never get the chance to do again.”

There was, of course, a much bigger picture. Ikeme only wanted to get better and set himself a target to be out of hospital in time for his eldest daughter’s fifth birthday. Mila would not be disappointed – on 23 June Ikeme announced that he was in “complete remission” and looking forward to getting some normality back in his life. “It still doesn’t feel like it’s over because I’ve still got treatment going on for two years,” Ikeme says. “But it was a relief to get that news and know that I could go back home.”

By then his football career was over. Adrian Bloor, the consultant haematologist in Manchester, had given Ikeme the answer he had prepared himself for when he asked about the possibility of playing again. “It wasn’t a shock,” Ikeme says. “I wasn’t expecting him to say: ‘Go and get your boots on, mate, and get back to training.’”

It will take time for everything to sink in and Ikeme is still turning over in his mind what he would like to do next. Writing a book about his experiences in the past year is something that appeals, media work is another possibility and he has not ruled out going into coaching – there is already an offer on the table from Nigeria. “I spoke to coach [Gernot] Rohr at Nigeria and he said I can come in as an assistant to him. That’s unreal and it’s something that I’m interested in.”

For the moment, however, Ikeme is more than happy to take things step by step and savour life’s simple but beautiful pleasures. “It’s just enjoyable to wake up with your children every day,” he says. “Little things, like eating food at home, enjoying being around Saba, taking a walk to the park and just watching the kids run about – that’s all I need.”


CREDIT: All images used in this report, except otherwise indicated above, including the cover photo was taken and own by Journal du Cameroun.


SOURCE: This story was first published on BBC Africa website, and still retain the copyright of this content and all it’s images, except others indicated.

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