George Cohen: I managed to kick bowel cancer. If only my friend Bobby Moore had been so lucky

George Cohen

World Cup winner George Cohen was cleared of bowel cancer only for his teammate Bobby Moore to die of the same disease

More than 15 years have passed since World Cup legend Bobby Moore died of bowel cancer. But the feelings of shock and horror are still vivid for his England teammate George Cohen.

For George has battled the very same cancer. First diagnosed at just 36, he recovered, only for the disease to return twice. He was finally given the all-clear in 1990, but was then in the excruciatingly painful situation of watching Bobby die of the same disease three years later, aged 51.

It's an experience he is determined to try to prevent anyone else suffering, which is why, in his first full interview about his own bowel cancer, he is happy to talk with extraordinary candour about the disease - regarded by many as a taboo.

'I'm incredibly fortunate,' says George, 68. 'And nothing has brought that home to me more than Bobby's death. Bowel cancer is very treatable if it's caught early enough - I'm living proof of that.'

For four years, Bobby was told he was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. By the time his cancer was diagnosed, secondary cancer had developed in other organs and his condition was terminal. He died in February 1993.

'Bobby was so unlucky,' says George. 'His cancer was misdiagnosed twice. I'm alive only because my bowel cancer was picked up early and I got superb treatment. No one should die from their own or other people's ignorance.'

If bowel cancer is detected early enough, more than eight out of ten cases can be successfully treated - however, it is still one of the UK's biggest killers, claiming 44 lives every day.

George's cancer was diagnosed in February 1976 after he felt 'suddenly exhausted' during one of his regular four-mile runs.

He'd retired from professional football seven years earlier (he played for Fulham and for England, and was a member of the 1966 World Cup team) and was working as a land buyer for a building company.

Victorious England World Cup winners in 1966

Champions: Cohen (circled) and Moore celebrate winning the World Cup at Wembley Stadium in 1966

He prided himself on keeping super-fit and ran several times a week. But halfway through this run he was overcome with such fatigue he could barely lift his feet. He struggled back to the home in Tunbridge Wells he shares with wife Daphne, now 68. He then had an attack of diarrhoea.

'I'd never had a day's illness in my life, so I assumed it was just a virus,' George recalls. 'Although my father had died of lung cancer at just 51, the thought that I, too, might have cancer never entered my mind; I'd always been healthy.

'But I felt sufficiently ill to ring the doctor, who saw me that very day. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made.'

Two days later, an internal examination in hospital revealed the truth. The doctor explained that he had found a blockage in his colon which he suspected was a cancerous tumour. George was booked in for an operation within the week.

'I was numb with shock,' George explains. 'Going home and telling my wife was the hardest thing I've ever done. We had two young sons - Andrew was then 11 and Anthony was just nine.

'Daphne was magnificent. We'd met at 19 and married at 21. I didn't realise until that moment just how strong she was.

'She refused to countenance the possibility that I might die, which was a huge psychological boost. She was determined to understand everything about the treatment. Now I can see it was so beneficial, because it helped us feel in control.

'But the hardest burden for her was keeping family life normal. We didn't tell the boys. There seemed no need to worry them. Having cancer is bad enough, but seeing the effect on your family is agony.'

George spent ten weeks in hospital recuperating. Reassured that the operation had been a success, he gradually put the ordeal behind him. But 18 months later, in August 1978, the symptoms returned.

George and Daphne Cohen

Cohen credits his wife Daphne with giving him the strength to battle bowel cancer

'I thought I'd got away with it, but then I had another spell of diarrhoea and I felt exhausted - just like the first time,' says George. 'I was devastated.'

This time George needed a colostomy - his colon was cut and brought to the outside through the abdominal wall to create an artificial opening, or 'stoma'.

Instead of being able to empty the bowels normally, waste is collected in a colostomy bag that is attached to the opening.

'I was only 38, and it was a massive blow,' says George. 'But the support of your loved ones makes all the difference - Daphne was indomitable.'

With two gruelling operations behind him, George dared to believe the worst was over. But two years later, in early 1980, he began suffering back pain. A scan showed that a tumour was pressing on the nerves in his back. It was inoperable.

Instead, George was offered chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the Royal Marsden Hospital, a specialist cancer unit.

This time, Daphne was told to prepare for the worst. 'When the doctor advised me to get my affairs in order, Daphne was outraged. "He's not going anywhere!" she announced. I'll never forget her words.

'Even so, battling cancer for a third time needed all our resolve.'

The treatment was horrific. George was in such agony that Daphne, a former travel agent, had to administer pain-killing diamorphine every morning and throughout the night.

Only love for his family kept him going. 'I had a wife and children I adored,' says George. 'I wanted to live.

'But it was hellish. Even now - almost 30 years later - I can still hear the beep of the radiotherapy machine in my head, and it brings back all the feelings of fear and pain.'

However, George's treatment proved so successful that in 1990 doctors gave him the all-clear.

'It took a long while to sink in,' admits George. 'I didn't understand how the doctors could be so confident - but they've been proved right. However, I was just beginning to put the whole thing behind me when Bobby was diagnosed. The shock was terrible. How could it happen to both of us?

'Bobby was always so poised and considerate - a real gentleman. There's a well-known tale that, before he shook hands with the Queen after our World Cup victory, he insisted on wiping them clean of the grime of the match. That thoughtfulness summed Bobby up.'

the years George and Bobby met at various charity functions. 'He knew that I'd been ill, but we weren't so close that we discussed symptoms,' says George.

'Besides, there was a huge taboo about cancer - and bowel cancer in particular - which still stops people getting treatment in time.

'Watching him decline was difficult. Daphne and I attended a party at the National Portrait Gallery in July 1991, when Bobby was unveiling a portrait of Sir Bobby Charlton.

'He looked so unwell that Daphne was worried. "His eyes have the same lifeless look yours did," she said. Within 18 months, Bobby was dead. When he died, it brought it home how fortunate I had been.'

The importance of early diagnosis was reinforced when, in 1983 - seven years after George's diagnosis - his elder 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 been offered regular screening through the NHS.

George is also a tireless patron for the Bobby Moore Fund, established by Bobby's widow Stephanie to raise vital funds for research and increase public and GP awareness about high-risk symptoms. It has raised more than £10 million to date.

'It's my chance to pay back and celebrate the life of a friend,' says George. 'I help publicise the symptoms and the importance of getting early treatment.

'If you get treatment for bowel cancer in time, your chances are excellent. It's like stopping a train before it hits the buffers.'


If you have any of these symptoms and they last longer than four to six weeks, consult your doctor:

- Bleeding from the bottom;
- Changes in bowel habits;
- Stomach pain;
- A lump in your stomach.

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