Gombak midfielder battles cancer to get back into S-league

Gombak United midfielder Adrian Dhanaraj lifting weights at a gym.

You couldn't tell just by looking at him.

Beneath his smile, Gombak United midfielder Adrian Dhanaraj is fighting a battle.

A battle against a cancer that rages inside a toned, fit physique.

One that he vows he will win so he can get his football career back on track.

Just weeks after having his world brought down by news that he had been diagnosed with cancer, the 28-year-old told The New Paper of his resolve to return to the S-League as early as next April.

"I'll definitely be back playing, there are no two ways about it," he said when The New Paper visited him at his home in Yio Chu Kang on Tuesday morning.

Then again, that's just the way Dhanaraj is.

During the two-hour interview, the former Young Lions, SAFFC and Geylang United man struck this reporter as a "glass half-full" sort of guy.

Sure, he felt down when he learnt he had developed Hodgkin's lymphoma.

But he wouldn't allow himself to wallow in self pity. Instead, Dhanaraj decided he would tackle the disease head on.

"I felt the lump in my neck on my birthday, which was Sept 3. Ironic right?" he said with a wry smile.

"On your birthday, you tell yourself you're lucky to be 28 years old and healthy... but then you later find out you have cancer.

"I allowed myself just one day - the day I was diagnosed - to feel pity for myself, cry, ask why it had to happen to me. That was it."

Shocking

In fact, the hardman, who earned two international caps for Singapore in 2010, even played in an S-League match for Gombak against the Courts Young Lions the day after he discovered the lump.

The Bulls won 1-0 with an Iqbal Hamid Hussain strike, but Dhanaraj was just inches away from joining him on the scoresheet with a shot which rocked the crossbar.

A day after the match, he visited a general practitioner, who subsequently referred him to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. There, the X-ray results suggested bad news.

"The doctor dropped hints that it could be lymphoma, and honestly I didn't know that meant cancer," said Dhanaraj.

"But after I phoned my mum, who knew what it was, I began reading up. We prepared ourselves for the worst."

His mum, Su, a nurse by training, is working in Papua New Guinea.

She flew straight back home to be with her boy, and even pulled some strings to make sure the process of Dhanaraj going through a computed axial tomography (CAT) scan was hastened.

Shocking

The scan revealed disturbing news: A large growth, about six by four inches, in his chest and smaller ones on both sides of the neck.

Recalled Su: "It was all very quick. Five days after the CAT scan, we got the diagnosis. Another five days later we began the (chemotherapy) treatment.

"During this time, he read up a lot on lymphoma, so now he knows what he needs to do to recover."

Dhanaraj says the support of his family - dad Peter, Su, and elder brother Christopher - has been tremendous, but the chemotherapy sessions take a toll on his body.

He said he usually felt "severe lethargy" for a few days after a session, and likened the feeling to "a ginormous hangover".

But he keeps his mind off it by working out.

Remarkably, Dhanaraj's daily regime sees him hit the gym for a couple of hours in the morning before going for a run of at least five kilometres in the afternoon.

Feeling good

Feeling good

"For the one or two hours I spend in the gym, I feel pretty good," said Dhanaraj, who even visited the gym on the day he left hospital after the first chemo treatment.

"Exercise helps you cope, and apparently the older a Hodgkin's lymphoma patient, the harder he has to exercise.

"So in a way I'm thankful I got this now, while I am fit."

Dhanaraj has had to tweak a few habits, but for a player known in the football fraternity as a consummate pro and one of the fittest, it wasn't difficult to adjust.

His diet now mainly consists of vegetables, tofu, tempeh (fermented soybeans) and lots of green tea.

And he hits the sack at about 8.30 every night.

Dhanaraj added that his resolve to return to professional football was strengthened by the many messages of support.

His teammates wore red T-shirts that read "Get well soon Adrian" as a tribute to him, during their 1-1 draw against champions Tampines Rovers last Saturday.

"On top of that, I've received a lot of well-wishes from the football fraternity and people outside football," he said.

"It shows me there's a lot of love and support for me. I can't ask for more.

"I'm very overwhelmed. In these situations, you think you're in it alone. But all of a sudden you get all this support coming in, and you know you're not.

"In addition, I've got one of the best employers in (Gombak chairman) John Yap, who told me to just focus on my recovery. That really helps a lot."

The early signs on his road to recovery are encouraging.

Good news

Last Monday, in his first check-up since chemotherapy began, results revealed that his white blood cell count had not dropped. It is unusual for someone who had undergone chemotherapy treatment, and the doctor said it is a good sign.

He said, while laughing: "The doctor jokingly asked me if I actually went for chemo or not!" For all his positivity and optimism, Dhanaraj did betray moments of despair during the interview.

Relating the story of how the doctor explained that the cancer had developed over the previous four to six months, he said: "It's still very surreal. Up till now, sitting here, I can't believe it. I can't believe I actually have cancer.

"Come to think of it, over the last six months I ate a lot more but I still lost two or three kilos. And after games, I felt more tired than usual.

"On top of that, this was the first season I started to get niggly, minor injuries. I tore my quadricep muscle, then I had problems with my back and ankle...but I didn't think anything about it."

Revealing how his only previous major injury was a broken leg which ruled him out for nine months in 2004, he joked: "I don't get many injuries but when I do, they're extreme - a broken leg and cancer!"

Just like how he bounced back from that sickening broken right leg all those years ago, the smart money is on Dhanaraj eventually winning the battle against cancer as well and returning to the S-League.

Because that's just the way he is.

"I felt the lump in my neck on my birthday, which was Sept 3. Ironic right?

About Hodgkin’s lymphoma

About Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Hodgkin's lymphoma is a cancer that begins in the cells of one’s lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system.

The cancer begins when a lymphocyte – a type of white blood cell – becomes abnormal, with males between the ages of 16 and 40 at higher risk of developing it.

The abnormal cell divides itself over and over, and the buildup of these extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumour.

In Adrian Dhanaraj’s case, he first felt a growth the size of a ping pong ball on the right side of his neck on Sept 3.

A computed axial tomography (CAT) scan later revealed he had a large growth in his chest and smaller ones in several other areas of his upper body.

Dhanaraj began the first of a dozen chemotherapy sessions on Sept 17, five days after being diagnosed.

The fortnightly sessions last four hours each time. For seven to 10 days after each treatment his immune system is weakened. During this period, even a normal cold or cough could turn deadly.

After he completes the 12 chemotherapy sessions – projected to be in February – Dhanaraj must undergo daily radiation therapy sessions for two weeks, to make sure whatever abnormal cells left behind are completely eradicated.

He also has to undergo a bone marrow biopsy to ensure the cancer did not spread to his bones.

After that, it will take between six and eight weeks to get back to regular fitness.

Hence, his target of a return to S-League football in April. After that, Dhanaraj must go for regular check-ups and have to be monitored for two to five years.

msazali@sph.com.sg

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