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'I ticked off quite a few major life tragedies'

By Stefan Frost
(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images for RPA)

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Andrew Fenby became the latest recipient of the RPA Blyth Spirit Award on Wednesday evening after recovering from testicular cancer. The award is handed out to those who show courage in the face of adversity and the former Scarlets and London Irish man fits that mould, having approached his diagnosis of stage two testicular cancer in October 2020 – aged 35 at the time – with resounding positivity.

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He shared the accolade with Leeds Rhinos legend Kevin Sinfield, who completed a 101-mile charity challenge to raise money for those affected by motor neurone disease. Much like his compatriot, Fenby completed the London Landmark half-marathon in early April, raising over £10,000 for Orchid Cancer to help support those with penile, prostate and testicular cancer. Former England international Alex Corbisiero won the award the year before after he too was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

“It’s quite incredible to see the people who have won it before me and what they went through,” Fenby said to RugbyPass. “It’s very humbling and amazing to reflect on what I have been through in the last twelve months. This is as much an award for my family and my wife as it is for me. It’s dawning on me now how bad last year was. I was trying to stay positive but now I’m out of it and reflecting on it, oh my god that was bad.”

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The warning signs came when Fenby and his family relocated to North Wales in the wake of the first coronavirus lockdown. “In August I was putting my eldest Freddie into the car. He had a tantrum and got me flush in the right testicle. I had a strange sensation and went to get checked by my GP who said I was okay. I then went private to get a scan and while I was getting checked there was an instant gulp from the radiologist.”

That reaction was vindicated when the results came through – it was not good news. But to give Fenby the best chance of a swift recovery, the surgeon scheduled two months of chemotherapy. To make matters worse, this came at a time when Fenby’s professional life was also in turmoil. After retiring from rugby in 2016 having started at Newcastle and finished at Saracens with lengthy stints at Scarlets and London Irish in between, he had set up a sports management agency but was forced to close that practice after the pandemic crippled revenue.

In spite of that, Fenby remained resolute and decided to make use of his newfound free time by completing an online mini-degree in computer science. “It was a really tough year. At the time I had a sportsman mentality. I thought: ‘I’m just going to solve this and crush it’. I had my blinkers on. I’m a positive person so I didn’t wallow in bed and feel sorry for myself.

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“I had to keep myself busy. Each chemo cycle had a three-day stint in the hospital. I would walk around the ward and see middle-aged people looking unhealthy and didn’t want to be like that. That’s why I never watched TV and kept going on 5km runs every week while I was getting treatment. I play a lot of professional squash now as well. I want to be club champion so that was my drive to stay fit.”

After successfully completing chemotherapy, Fenby was called in for a CT scan. Unfortunately, the blood markers he got back brought more bad news. Three lymph nodes were still causing issues and so in June 2021 he underwent a major operation, called a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection, to have them removed. Thankfully it was successful and three months later he was back playing squash.

“My son calls the scar I got from it the ‘crocodile bite’. I have had a few operations during my career but they kept repeating that this was a big one with a serious risk. I was under for seven hours.”

Since recovering, Fenby has had time to reflect on the past year. He is in awe of how quickly the human body can recover but what impresses him even more is the resolve and unwavering support he received from his family throughout.

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“It was the hardest for my wife who had to keep everything together. I wasn’t earning, so she was financially supporting the family with a newborn in the house as well. I can laugh at it now. Homeless, unemployed with cancer and a young family. I ticked off quite a few major life tragedies.”

There was no moment when Fenby felt he was going through things alone. In fact, he made a point of speaking to the surprisingly high number of friends he met playing rugby who also had testicular cancer.
This included Ben Pollard and Andre Quinn. Both are strength and conditioning coaches who spent time working with Saracens and London Irish respectively.

Fenby adds that in one season when playing for the Scarlets, three of that 44-man squad have since been diagnosed with the same form of cancer. Talking through things with people who have experienced the same helped Fenby assume a much more positive mindset when he began chemotherapy.

“I’m very open and would talk to anyone about what I was going through. I found it therapeutic. I didn’t know much about testicular cancer at all when I first got diagnosed. I had no idea about how it travels throughout your body. And there are loads of different types you can have. That is why I decided to do the half-marathon for Orchid Cancer. It was as much about spreading awareness.”

Fenby admits he is much better placed now to help those forced to go through what he did. He still calls friends about it and extends a helping hand to anyone needing advice on dealing with the disease. And he has one important line for anyone he calls: “One bit of advice I give to all my friends is to check your nuts.”

  • Andrew Fenby was speaking following his RPA Blyth Spirit Award in association with hasta win at the Eterlast RPA Awards 2022

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