23 Jan 2022

Louth GAA player's incredibly brave battle through cancer and wife's illness

Louth GAA

Louth GAA player's incredibly brave battle through cancer and wife's illness

Joe Woods got married to his soulmate, Katie, last July and the couple are expecting their first child in October.

Joe Woods got married to his soulmate, Katie, last July and the couple are expecting their first child in October. To the naked eye, all would seem well in their world, even if that couldn’t be further from reality.

Their debut term as husband and wife has seen them encounter health hurdles that, in Joe’s words, “couples mightn’t see in a lifetime”.

And isn’t that how the tale is best told? Via Mr Woods, a Dublin-based prison officer, who’ll forever have the events of his 30th year within mental distance.

“I got married last July, in the middle of the championship, and my wife had a stroke in August,” he says, rhyming off his story as flawlessly as a priest saying a prayer.

“She spent a couple of months recovering after that and I suppose my chest pains started in October. I thought it was just indigestion or heartburn so I passed little remarks and just got tablets off the doctor for what I’d thought was wrong.

“After a couple of weeks the pain started to progress into my back, around the start of November, and it became really severe to the point that I was lying on the ground and couldn’t move; I was sweating and getting the shakes. I lost a lot of weight too which concerned me as well. I went to the doctors and they couldn’t really tell me what was wrong.

“My wife called an ambulance for me in December - I was lying in the house in awful pain. I was taken to hospital but sent home after three days on pain relief tablets. But about two days later I was taken in an ambulance again and spent a week in hospital.

“They did MRIs, X-rays, CT scans and just couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They took four biopsies from my back and another from my neck to see what was going on and still had no diagnosis. I was eventually sent to Dublin to see a specialist and he examined me and I got surgery on my neck to take out the lymph nodes to get them tested.

“When I was finally diagnosed with lymphoma (cancer), I got a scan which showed that it was in my back, chest, bones and stomach. It was really a shock to hear that. Before it was confirmed I went to see a doctor in the hospital and was asking him questions. He told me that he didn't know whether I’d still be here in a year’s time. That was a scary time, a doctor not knowing if I’d be alive in a year.

“I was diagnosed with lymphoma in February and began chemotherapy within two days; I’ve been receiving it since then and I’m due to finish it on July 23. I’ll get another scan after that and if all’s good, I’ll be finished and back on the road to recovery.”

Democrat: “So you might still make the championship?”

Joe: “That’s what I’m hoping. When I was first diagnosed, I was told that exercise was a good way of combating the sickness and fatigue. Before the lockdown I’d done two training sessions with Na Piarsaigh, which I found really difficult in terms of running and catching my breath, so I knew the season was going to be difficult for me, but I wanted to stay involved.

“But then the lockdown, it sort of suited me in terms of football because I haven’t missed anything. I’ve started training on my own so that I’ll hopefully be back in time for when the league and championship starts, and be able to link up with the Na Piarsaigh squad and train with the lads; maybe play some part in the season.”

Perhaps now readers can begin to appreciate, if only vaguely, the magnitude of the challenge the pair, who live in Carlinn Hall, have faced and almost overcome. It’s what makes the pending arrival of their little one all the more sentimental.

“We can’t wait for it; it’s given us something to fight for,” Joe adds.

Existence was more than just meaningful at this stage 12 months ago, it was pleasant, savourable. Na Piarsaigh had won the club’s first trophy since the junior championship triumph of 2002, collecting Kevin Mullen Shield honours, and with John Garvey taking over mid-season, the Rock Road men, with Joe as captain, looked positively on the remainder of the campaign.

He verged on tying the knot with the love of his life and when he got that deal across the line, pieces of the jigsaw were falling into place all over the board. Training to become a prison officer in Portlaoise, with strong career prospects, and the makings of a comfortable future.

On one particular morning he set off for the midlands with little to worry about, but within just a tally of hours matters had taken a turn for the worst.

“I was on my way to work and Katie rang me,” Joe recalls, his voice breaking for a second. “I couldn’t really understand what she was saying, but the last thing going through my mind was that she was at home having a stroke. It basically sounded to me like the phone was breaking up and I couldn’t really hear her.

“The conversation ended and she managed to get through to her mother, who copped on straight away that something wasn’t right. She called up and found her, and one thing led to another.

“She got to the hospital and was told she’d had a stroke. We couldn’t believe it, you wouldn’t associate a stroke with someone so young. She was so lucky to have been able to make that call to her mother before it was too late.

“I was going to leave the job and the training to be with Katie, but my family, friends and Katie herself convinced me to stick with the job; there wasn’t much I could do to help her while she was in hospital at the time.

“So I continued working, travelling to Portlaoise every day from Dundalk. On my way home I’d stop in the hospital with her and stay there until 11 or 12 at night. I’d be up again at five in the morning to go to Portlaoise the next day.”

Just 26 when struck down, Katie has since undergone two operations following the discovery of a hole in her heart. It’s unconfirmed if the cavity was the cause of her stroke, although there is a strand of thought that indicates it may have been.

Ten months on and “Katie’s good”, says Joe, her treatment at Dun Laoghaire’s National Rehabilitation Centre having continued digitally post the Covid-19 outbreak.

It was understandable, given the circumstances, that the Na Piarsaigh defender wanted to keep any personal worries he had away from his wife, although there came breaking points when positivity wasn’t, it seemed, always a viable avenue.

“She was sick and trying to recover, so when I got sick, it was a strain on her as well because of the problems she was having to deal with without worrying about me. I tried to stay positive, but she did get very scared and emotional at the thought of what might happen.

“Not knowing for that couple of weeks, from speaking to the doctor before the new year to finally getting the diagnosis towards the end of February, the thoughts about ‘what’s going to happen?’ are running through your head. You can’t help by wonder, ‘will I be here next year?’

“I tried to stay positive the whole way through and I find now that staying positive is a massive bonus for me. The thoughts of going back to play football and that normality are a great comfort. Fortunately, I’ve overcome the worst part of the illness; I’m in remission and hopefully over the next couple of weeks the cancer will be totally gone.

“But there are times where you’ve a few minutes to sit down and try to process it all. It’s just unbelievable and staying positive is great, but it’s not always easy. There was one day when I broke down and started asking myself ‘why’s this happening to us?’.

“I spoke to Katie and one of my friends, and after getting off the phone to him I felt so much better; I was relieved to be able to talk about it instead of bottling all the feelings. Talking really helps and it has helped.

“What happened to us, in the space of a couple of months, some couples mightn’t see it in their lifetime. We were very unfortunate, but they’re just the cards we were dealt; we couldn’t sit at home and feel sorry for ourselves. Positivity has been a big factor in overcoming our situation to date and I’d say that to anyone who gets similar news; try and stay positive, it does help.”

The cancer battle is only really palatable to those who’ve experienced it, and endured its multifactorial price. Unlike readying yourself for a championship final or a derby clash, all of which Joe has over the course of his playing career, there is no pre-cancer-treatment training, nothing to compare with its extremity.

“It was totally different from what I thought it was going to be. I’d heard stories of people getting chemo and they’re okay to go back to work after a bout - my own grandfather went through chemo and he returned to work after receiving it.

“Before I started I thought, ‘it’ll be great, I’ll play football, stay at work and be able to do all these things’, but it’s been very tough and there have been days that have been hard for me.

“But trying to describe it to someone who hasn’t gone through it is difficult because while it mightn’t look as though it’s taking its toll on you, physically, mentally and emotionally, it does.

“The club have been great through it all though and I’m forever getting messages to see how I am; they’re keeping an eye on me. The thought of going back to play football has kept me going and the lockdown, for me, football-wise, has been a blessing in disguise because I haven’t missed anything.

“I’d have done my best to play through the treatment had things been normal, but I don’t honestly think my body would’ve allowed it. Even now that I’m back training, trying to do the runs and recover, it’s very difficult. But to be able to play some part in the league and championship this year is what I’m hoping for; it’d be a great achievement for me.”

A fitting way to mark his heroism would be a championship medal, a gong which evaded him in both the 2008 and ’09 intermediate finals. However, this year, the Naps have eyes firmly fixed on the junior grade’s Christy Bellew Cup prize.

And with a future black and amber star set for arrival in late autumn, there may be many more reasons to smile.

But, for now, Woods is celebrating life and the roles those closest to him have played on his whirlwind journey.

“I’d like to thank my wife, Katie, for everything she’s done for me and my family and friends; the support I’ve got has been second to none. It’s unfortunate that it takes an event like this to see how good people can be and the various lengths they’ll go to do things for you.”

Joe turns 31 this week. Here’s to hoping the year to come is memorable for all the right reasons.

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