Chris Mallet ~ Hodgkin’s disease

Chris Mallet ~ Hodgkin’s disease

Originally published in April 2003 icon

Lymphatic Cancer (The Facts)

Chris Mallet


Fourth Time Lucky With Hodgkin’s Disease


Rugby international Chris Mallet has spent the last three years having back-to- back treatment for Hodgkin’s disease - a lymphatic cancer which recurred four times. He was only 20 when it was a first diagnosed, a strapping Scottish-born athlete wearing the colours of the Wasps’ under-21s squad.


Now 23. and in remission since last year, Chris is pursuing his dream of playing rugby for his country once again. He has. never given up and, along the way has helped others and found "a diamond" of a girlfriend.

As well as concentrating on building his body back up to peak condition, Chris has also been working tirelessly with The Lymphoma Association set up a website for yot people, due to be launched later this year.

Here he tells his inspirational story.

"I’m starting to enjoy myself again after three years of fighting for my life. I’m out watching live sport, rather than on TV, seeing friends and training at the Wasps’ ground. I always knew I’d get well. I’ve played sport of some kind all my life and hate losing at anything, so I’ve looked upon my illness as a rugby game I don’t want to lose.

I feel like I’ve got an inner health now, and have just got to make the outside fitter. At the end of 1999 I was two stone heavier, but didn’t feel healthy inside. I’d known there was something wrong all season. I had a persistent cough, lots of niggling injuries that weren’t healing properly, and I felt bad all the time.

My doctor said it was probably because I’d had a virus which had burnt me out. This is quite common in sports. It was the tiredness that annoyed me the most. I was even going to sleep during the day, and still feeling exhausted. And I lost a stone in the 10 days before Christmas.

Open quotesWhile I was in the gym, I noticed a lump in my chestClose quotes


I went home to Scotland, ate well and put weight back on so that by the beginning of February 2000 I felt fully fit again. I played for the under 21s and after 60 minutes of one game, was brought off to rest. I was meant to be meeting friends for dinner that night, so I went home to have a sleep before going out. I got into bed at 5:30pm and the next thing I knew someone was banging on my door at 4:30pm the next day!


At that time I was sleeping so much I just put it down to being whacked after the game. But while I was in the gym doing weights the next day, I noticed a lump in my chest. The Wasps’ physiotherapist thought I’d probably injured something and had a swelling, but two days later I felt a lump sticking right out of my neck.

I was quite happy when the physio told me it was a lymph node, because I thought that if it was a viral infection we could do something about it. Next morning I was sent to hospital via my GP for blood tests and a chest X-ray. The radiographer told me I had to have a CT scan straight away. With my family working in hospitals (my mum’s a practice nurse in Scotland, and my uncle’s a biomedical scientist) I knew there was normally a waiting list for them. My first thought was: ’How long is this going to keep me out of rugby for?’

Open quotesIt’s one of two things: testicular cancer or lymphomaClose quotes


The doctor came out after the scan and explained that they’d seen white bits in my lungs which shouldn’t be there. He said: ’It’s one of two things: testicular cancer or lymphoma.’ I knew it wasn’t testicular cancer, because of information I’d seen about it, but didn’t know what lymphoma was. The haematologist was coming over to see me and, while I waited, I phoned my mum who burst into tears down the phone. What the doctors said didn’t worry me, but I felt really bad about upsetting my mum.


I was booked in for a biopsy for the Monday morning, got the results on Wednesday and was told that I had Hodgkin’s disease. I’d read up on both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was relieved that I finally knew what was wrong. I’d had pressure from my rugby coach, about not being able to train as hard, and now I knew there was a reason for it.

I’d read Hodgkin’s was curable, although it can come back. The first thing I asked the consultant was how long I would be treated for, and when I could start playing rugby. I was a stubborn young man! He said I’d be treated in outpatients and that, as long as the lymphoma responded well, there was nothing to stop me playing the following season.

I went home to Scotland for my treatment, as I had the best family support network there, and between March and August 2000 had seven-week cycles of outpatient chemotherapy at the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy. Initially, I didn’t find it too physically demanding, although I had a lot of nausea after my first session. The nursing team was really good, and managed to adjust the cocktail of anti-emetics (drugs to control nausea) that worked best. I wasn’t always hungry during treatment but was advised to eat well when I could, and drink plenty of water.

In August I was told I was in remission, and went back to Wasps to see if I could start coaching young children while I got back to fitness. I was aiming to be fit by that December, but as I watched my team mates play I started feeling rough. The entire week I was there I knew something was wrong. I was getting bad headaches and then I felt a lump under my right arm.

Open quotes
The doctors decided to do high dose chemotherapyClose quotes


It had recurred. I was more pi**ed off and angry than scared. I have never really worried about life and death, but always felt I’ve had more to offer and this felt like another kick in the teeth. My mum was completely devastated.


The doctors decided to do high dose chemotherapy. I had a Hickman line (tube) inserted in my chest into my veins, and went into hospital to have chemotherapy constantly from the Sunday night through to Friday. My mum managed to get time off, and my godmother and younger brother visited as well.

I couldn’t eat during this treatment, but used to look forward to my mum coming in every night with a flask of Baxter’s cock-a-leekie soup - the only thing I could manage. It kept me alive!

I was scanned after two high dose treatments and there was no sign of the lymphoma, so they decided to give me a stem cell transplant. I went to Edinburgh to have the stem cells filtered out of my blood. At the end of November I went into the Great Western Hospital for six days of high dose chemo before the transplant. They kill off your body’s immune system, then perform the transplant so that your body accepts the stem cells.

I was released in time for Christmas but was back and forth to hospital, throughout January, having various blood transfusions to help keep the platelet and red blood cell count high until my body started producing them again. They took the line out of my chest in February 2001, and when I had a PET scan in March, to see if I had any cancerous tissue in my body, it came back clear!

I’d lost more than three and a half stone, by the time I came out of hospital, but knew my body could be rebuilt. I saw my illness like a hard rugby game. I wouldn’t walk off the rugby field after 60 minutes, because the game was too hard, so I wasn’t going to give up on my life because the treatment was too hard.

I spent the next months partying and enjoying myself. I met my girlfriend Lisa at that time. We had a great holiday together in August before she went back to university in Scotland, while I started training towards my ultimate goal -again. Then in mid-October the glands under both my arms came up. I knew Hodgkin’s had come back, because I hadn’t been putting on weight, but this time it was confirmed by a top lymphoma consultant at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, where my uncle was working at the time. Ruth Pettengell requested a fine needle biopsy, and the node under my left arm was removed. Both samples showed Hodgkin’s disease.

Open quotesI hate losing at anything, so I’ve looked on my illness as a rugby game I don’t want to loseClose quotes


I honestly felt that someone was telling me not to play rugby. It was like every time the door opened, someone slammed it shut again in my face. My uncle decided to rent a house near St George’s, with a room for me, so that I could be treated there, rather than in Scotland, and Lisa took a sabbatical from university and moved down to stay with me.


I had a different course of high dose chemotherapy - six treatments in all which ran from October 2001 to the end of February 2002. A CT scan on 27 December showed the cancer had gone, but I finished the course. Then in March, I went out with a friend and it hurt when I drank alcohol (one of the signs of Hodgkin’s), and I started getting really bad headaches again. A PET scan confirmed that I had cancerous tissue in my neck, sternum and under my arms.

I had two months of outpatient chemotherapy on a regime called ABVD, to stop the cancer spreading, and it was at this time that a registrar told me that the chances of a cure were almost gone. This was the fourth time it had recurred, and he said they might be able to put it into remission - but not cure it.

But after the two months I had another CT scan and there was no sign of Hodgkin’s in my body. This was a big shock to everyone, and they decided to go ahead with their belt-and-braces plan of giving me radiotherapy to my entire upper body and then remove my spleen. Just as they started the radiotherapy on my abdomen, in August, my spleen reacted so badly that I was rushed into the operating theatre for a spleenectomy earlier than expected.

Chris playing rugby

All the radiotherapy was eventually over by the end of October 2002, and another CT scan on 7 November showed there was still no sign of cancer following the May all-clear. As my consultant Ruth says, we found a ’window of opportunity’. I had been struggling with my platelet and red blood cell count (which are affected by chemo and radiotherapy) before I had my spleen out, but when I had it out instead of all my counts dropping, as expected, they rocketed! We don’t know if my spleen was in fact dying, and killing off healthy and unwanted cells, but even my consultant has said that since the day it was removed things have looked up and I have felt 1,000 times better.

A recurrence could be a possibility but, the way I see it, nothing is guaranteed in life. If I hadn’t got ill, I could have damaged my knee during a game and never been able to play rugby again. None of us know what’s around the corner. I’m just grateful for all the support I’ve had. Without my mum, uncle, Lisa and the close friends I have at Wasps -including Malcolm Sinclair - getting better would have been a lot harder. You need a good team around you.

At the moment I’m happy to wake up every day and be alive and have choices. Before I got ill I wanted to play rugby, and that’s be my major motivation throughout the last few years. The physios and doctors have said it’s a realistic prospect that I could be fit for the new season, there’s one thing my mum would want for me, it would be to see me run out on I field one day in the blue shirt of Scotland. I know there wouldn’t be a prouder woman in the world."

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