“Cancer was one of those things that I thought would never happen to me.
“I want to urge other men not to ignore the warning signs, and not to be frightened. There are treatments out there, and an early diagnosis will save your life.”
As a trustee of the Leeds United Foundation, chairman of a law firm and managing director of a charity for homeless people, Andy Howarth was a self-proclaimed “workaholic.”
Determined to live life to the full, he spent his spare time at Elland Road watching his beloved Leeds United, going to music concerts and gigs, and spending time with his wife and two sons.
So, it’s no surprise that when he started feeling unwell, Andy put it to the back of his mind. Likening himself to Atticus Finch, a character from Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Andy describes how stubbornness delayed him from seeking medical help.
“I love work, I love life, I love sport, I love my football club, and I didn’t want anything to interfere with that,” said Andy.
“So whilst I knew I wasn’t well, it was never going to be anything major for me. It was going to be something that paracetamols would sort out, or an extra glass of wine, or both – and I’d be fine.”
Thankfully, Andy’s wife of 40 years, Helen, knew there was something seriously wrong with his health.
She urged him to go to the doctors – ‘bullied him into it’ as Andy says – and in September 2018, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
“I was so frightened of going to the doctors. But when I finally went, my doctor was absolutely wonderful,” Andy said. “He almost immediately recognised that it was bowel cancer, and once I was diagnosed, I was whisked through the treatment programme. It was almost bewildering because it all happened so quickly.
“The medical teams were incredible. We talk about the NHS and how good it is, but until you’ve been on a treatment programme like that you just don’t realise how professional, how dedicated the staff are. It really opened my eyes, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Within a week of being diagnosed, Andy had surgery to remove the cancer. He then began a six-month course of chemotherapy – but not before requesting special permission from his oncologist to see his hero, Paul McCartney, perform live in Glasgow.
“Even then, I didn’t want to put my treatment first,” Andy said. “The chemotherapy had to be started within a certain time and I left it to the very last day because I had to see ‘Macca’. When I did finally start the chemo, I got through it and I came out the other end.”
During his treatment and recovery, Andy turned to both football and music to help him through. A Leeds United fan since he was 10 years old, Andy was inspired and motivated by the club’s success under the new ownership of Andrea Radrizzani and the management of Marcelo Bielsa.
He said: “Leeds United were so supportive throughout my whole experience. When I was in hospital following surgery, Helen and my son were invited to watch a match in the hospitality area, and the directors really looked after them. It cheered me up to know that they were having a good time.
“When you’re as passionate about the football club as I am, Leeds United just keeps you going. The club is a massive part of the city. It’s in my blood, and I can’t imagine being without it. Without the football club and music, I think my recovery would have been a lot longer. It gave me strength.”
Andy, now 67, has recently had blood tests and scans to check that the cancer hasn’t come back. The results were clear, but he will continue to be monitored for a further three years.
“When I finished my chemotherapy, I wanted to ring the bell at the hospital to celebrate the end of my treatment,” said Andy. “But they said I can’t, not for another few years yet. So that’s hard. But physically I feel fantastic.”
It wasn’t until his treatment had finished that Andy began to reflect on what he and his family had been through. He began to accept that things could have turned out very differently if he hadn’t sought medical advice when he did.
“Emotionally I suffered not so much for myself, but for my kids, Gavin and Chris, and my wife. I felt like I was letting them down. They mean the world to me, and the thought of leaving them devastated me,” Andy said.
“My focus on work was to the detriment of my family. I felt as though I’d put them through hell, and that perhaps if I’d gone to the doctors earlier it may have been a much simpler process. My grandson, George, was born just after I was diagnosed, and it almost felt like I’d betrayed him.
“But we got through it together, primarily through humour. We laughed a lot. We’re a strong family and we stick together. My wife saved my life. Thanks to her, I’ve had two years with my grandson, George, and six months with my granddaughter, Grace. I’m really lucky that I’m still here.”
Andy said the cancer had taken its toll on his mental health and added: “It makes you so vulnerable.
“You realise you’re not invincible, that you can’t just plough your way through things and it will get better.
“We need to look after ourselves, and not ignore signs that we might be ill. If there’s anything you’re not sure about, go and talk to your doctor.
“Having cancer treatment on a Saturday afternoon instead of watching football isn’t something you would choose to do but it could save your life.”
If you notice any cancer symptoms or unusual changes to your body, please speak to a doctor as soon as possible.
As well as more common symptoms, such as a lump in your breast, blood in your poo or a cough that doesn’t go away, there are other less well-known symptoms that could be a sign of cancer.
These include: unintentional weight loss; new pain, for example in your stomach; unexplained tiredness; loss of appetite; feeling or being sick without a known cause.