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Geoff's new battle

August 5 2003

Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace

GEOFF THOMAS is used to hitting the comeback trail... by NEIL ASHTON

The ex-England star lost count of the times he was written-off during a playing career which spanned nearly 20 years.

But he isn't battling to save his career anymore. This time it's a battle to save his life.

Thomas was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia cancer, to put it bluntly last month and will make the ultimate sacrifice unless he can find a suitable bone marrow donor.

It's a traumatic tale but, in typical Thomas fashion, the former Crystal Palace midfielder declared: "I'm going to fight this and I'm going to give it a real go. If it's not meant to be, then at least I never gave up."

Thomas, who is 39 this week, experienced plenty of highs and lows during a career that peaked when he won nine England caps under Graham Taylor in the early 1990s.

He made his name as captain of the Palace team that reached the FA Cup Final in 1990 and included the likes of Ian Wright, Mark Bright and Nigel Martyn.

But Thomas has also had his fair share of pain. He battled back from three cruciate ligament injuries and nearly 20 operations during spells at Palace, Nottingham Forest and Wolves.

He gained notoriety for that infamous long-range miss against France back in 1992, but he hasn't got time to be bitter.

Instead, he's preparing for another fight. Thomas is undergoing an intensive course of chemotherapy and is being injected with the drug Interferon to keep his immune levels up while he waits for a bone marrow transplant.

He knows he will probably lose his hair, but is determined he won't lose his life.

Thomas, who owns a designer clothes business in the Midlands, explained: "The doctors have told me it's an incurable disease. In your mind you wonder how long you have left, but they are trying to keep the cancer at bay with chemotherapy.

"Whenever I feel low, I just think of the poor kids who have suffered this disease. At least I have had a life. Most of them have had no experience of it and may never get the chance."

The only way Thomas can beat the disease is through a bone marrow transplant and that means finding the perfect match.

He added: "It has totally changed my life. I've got a business which I have to sort out quickly. I have to pour my heart and soul into getting better and that's all that counts.

"I don't want any distractions. I want to give myself the best chance."

Thomas only discovered he had leukaemia when his wife Julie insisted he went to the doctor after he complained of breathlessness and stomach pains and was waking up at night in a cold sweat.

It was a decision that changed his life instantly. Thomas, whose father Gordon died of cancer, said: "The first thing I did

when I heard was check the life assurance policies to make sure my wife and two children will be looked after.

"Suddenly you become a lot more practical, and start thinking about every eventuality but I've also remained very positive.

"You have to because if you think about it all too much, it will destroy you. It's easier for me than it is for people around me. Everyone tries to be strong, but no-one can do anything other than the doctors.

"I have to be strong. I don't know what my family are going through, but they have their moments.

"As far as I'm concerned I think I'm going to be fine. There's no other way. The first two days were a roller-coaster of emotions because the news was a bolt from the blue.

"But now I'm learning all about it and the more you know the more comfortable you feel. I didn't even realise I was having chemotherapy until I read the box the tablets came in.

"Already I'm starting to feel ill because of them and that's when I realised something potent was being put into my body.

"When I had the tests at hospital, there was a guy sat next to me who was shaking and had lost his hair. He was a typical cancer patient he also had CML but he'd had the bone marrow treatment and was coming out of it.

"That gave me a lot of confidence. I've also had lots of messages from people who have been through it.

"One person said I have to treat chemotherapy as a friend because it is going to look after you I tell you, it's some friend!

"It batters you, but you have to be strong and it's good to hear stories about people who have come out the other side.

"The disease has got me, but it's very rare. There are three phases to it and they have caught me in the first.

"Chronic is first, then accelerated, and then blast. The longer you stay out of the last two the better.

"I'm just living in hope they will find a suitable bone marrow donor and then we can sit down and talk about whether that's the right course for me."

But Thomas, who also played for Barnsley, Notts County and Crewe during a career spanning more than 500 games, has already made his decision.

His sister Kay has undergone the necessary tests and it is possible she may be a suitable match.

There is also a chance he may find a donor through the Anthony Nolan Trust a charitable organisation that helps patients find a bone marrow match outside their own family.

Ironically, Thomas signed up to the foundation as a potential donor when he was at Nottingham Forest and is confident the call will eventually come.

Thomas said: "I'm not frightened. I'm gearing myself up for the day when I can go into the hospital and have the operation.

"They will blast me for two weeks with chemotherapy before theatre and then I could be in an isolation unit for as long as two months.

"Don't get me wrong, I know it's not going to be easy, but it could be the only chance I have.

Doctors have told me there is a 10 to 15 per cent chance of it being rejected and then it's Goodnight Vienna because your immune system is gone. However, if I do make it that far, it will take me another six months to a year to recover.

"It's a risk, but it will be worth it because as things stand my condition will slowly deteriorate."

Thomas prefers not to think about it, but he has already prepared himself for the worst. The disease has already caused him to lose more than a stone in weight and he gets out of breath when the Interferon begins to wear off.

His two daughters Madison, 10, and Georgia, seven are staying with their grandparents while Thomas and his wife fully come to terms with their situation.

But, inspired by Tour de France winner and cancer victim Lance Armstrong's book It's Not About the Bike, he is already facing the future head-on.

Thomas is planning to take Julie to New York next year as part of his 40th birthday celebrations.

And he insists he has no regrets over his football career he is even looking forward to an emotional return to the game.

Thomas dreams of going back to Selhurst Park as manager of Palace one day and emulating the achievements of his mentor, Steve Coppell.

He added: "After all this is finished, I want to return to football. I loved playing for every club I was at, but Palace are closest to my heart because I spent so much of my career there.

"Going back as manager really would be something special."

So, too, would beating the Big C.

This article first appeared in The People on August 2. Thanks to Neil Ashton.

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