Page last updated at 23:02 GMT, Sunday, 24 May 2009 00:02 UK

Cancer battle of a World Cup hero

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

George Cohen
George was awarded an MBE.

George Cohen and fellow football legend Bobby Moore were friends.

They were both members of the '66 cup winning squad but as well as their love of football the pair had something else in common - bowel cancer.

As George Cohen approaches his 70th birthday later this year, he reflects on the cancer he survived and yet killed his team mate.

"He knew I had cancer but we did not really talk about it," he said.

Cancer history

"We knew that he was not well. I don't know whether we consciously made an effort not to talk about it but we just asked how each other was, knowing damned well his history and mine.

"We knew there was not much point talking about it - we just asked how things were and left it at that."

A colostomy - at 38 you can imagine that!
George Cohen

George, a former Fulham fullback, said that, tragically, his friend had not had the same chance of beating the disease that he had been given, due to a misdiagnosis.

For several years doctors thought Bobby's symptoms were irritable bowel syndrome, whereas George's GP was quick to suspect that he had cancer.

"Early diagnosis helped me. I believe Bobby was misdiagnosed tragically.

"I would not have survived if I had not had a doctor who recognised the symptoms almost straight away.


Blood flecks in the stools, particularly if the blood is dark or plum-coloured should not be ignored
A persistent change in bowel habit to looser or more frequent bowel motions
Stomach pain, especially if severe
A lump in your stomach

"It was in about 1976 that I had my first diagnosis.

"I had gone out for my normal twice or three times weekly run of two or three miles but I felt so bad on the way out that I turned round and came back.

"I rang my doctor because I realised there was something wrong. You do when you have been fit all your life."

When he reported his fatigue and an attack of diarrhoea his doctor carried out an internal investigation and was not pleased with the results, so referred him to a specialist who confirmed a blockage and said he needed surgery.

Cancer returns

Eighteen months later he suffered the same symptoms and was told the cancer had returned.

"I had to have another major operation and was in hospital for 10 weeks. which culminated in having a colostomy. At 38 you can imagine that!

"It was not very good. It sounded absolutely dreadful at the time - it is just inconvenient now.

"Then another 18 months later it had come back into the pelvis, which they could not get at, and it could not be operated on so I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy and in 1980 they said I was clear.

"I did not have chemo after the first two major operations though which I found rather strange.

"But very fortunately I did not lose my hair and that was wonderful."

Red flag

George, who was awarded an MBE in 2000, said he had been very fortunate because his ill-health had been such a red flag that he had noticed the very earliest symptoms.

"I never used to be ill," he said.

"I finished playing at 29 because of a cartilage operation that had gone wrong, while I could run forwards I could not twist and turn as you need to do in a football match.

"I was always fit and healthy, I was one of those fitness fanatics and I trained throughout the year. I never stopped in the closed season.

George Cohen bavk row third right
The '66 Cup winner's squad

"I had lots of tours anyway and I loved athletics I had lots of friends that were athletes and I used to go in the summer and train with them."

George said he had a family history of cancer, his father died from lung cancer and his older brother Len also discovered he had bowel cancer. He, too, made a full recovery.

The entire family - which includes George's nephew, England rugby union winger Ben Cohen - have now been offered regular screening through the NHS.

But George says he has the odd health niggle, but is grateful to be alive.

"My health is very good, you get the odd thing because you have been a footballer such as arthritis.

"My back and spine are out of sync and I have a limp but I am 70 this year and lucky to be here."

But he said he often thought of his England team mates Bobby and Alan Ball, who died from a heart attack two years ago and said that although they did not meet often that he had happy memories of their time together.

"You remember things such as reunions.

"Or when I shared a room with Bobby in New York and we went out shopping to buy some records. I have memories like that and they are nice.

"It was a case of when we saw each other we got on very well and you miss those occasions."

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