Four years after life-saving surgery, Banbridge and Ireland hockey star Matthew Bell is sharing his powerful and inspiring story in a memoir

Matthew Bell with his parents John and Suzanne, sister Ashlea and brother-in-law Timmy
Matthew Bell with his parents John and Suzanne, sister Ashlea and brother-in-law Timmy

‘Second Chances’ recounts Matthew’s courageous cancer battle and his remarkable recovery.

The 30-year-old, from Waringstown, decided to document his journey to help, and give hope to, other cancer patients.

“The response to the book has been incredible and I'm just excited to get a copy in my hands,” Matthew told the Chronicle.

“When I was recovering, someone sent me a YouTube video of a police officer called Clodagh Dunlop who had a brain stem stroke.

“I watched the video and I couldn't believe how similar our recoveries were.

“I saw she had a book out and I sent her a message on Instagram asking where I could get it and she sent me a copy. I read it in two days…I couldn't put it down.

“That made me want to document my story as, over the recovery period, a lot of people have said to me ‘your recovery is inspirational’.

“I don’t see it as inspirational, but I thought if I could put it into a book, and if it helps even one person then it's definitely worthwhile.

“The first chapter is the ‘worst day of my life’ when I found out I hadn’t been selected for the Olympics in Rio.

“Then it fast forwards a few years to the time when my grandad was ill and I was waking up with migraines and vomiting. That was the start of the symptoms but, at the time, my parents put it down to grief for my grandad.”

It wasn't until September 13, 2019, when Matthew was preparing for the new season with German side Crefelder, that he was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour - the size of three golf balls.

He spent six weeks in hospital in Germany, undergoing five surgeries, before being flown back to Belfast by air ambulance.

Months of intensive treatment and rehabilitation followed. Matthew couldn’t speak for seven weeks, was unable to eat and had to learn to walk again.

“Probably one of the worst things you can be told is that you have cancer,” he admitted.

“One in two of us are going to be affected by cancer in some way in our lifetime.

“I’m just thankful that I’m here to tell the story - and that I’m back playing hockey.

“I still have spells of tiredness, my balance isn't great and my eyesight is still not 100%.

“I wouldn’t say I'm back to the old Matthew, but I'm healthy - which is all you can ask for, I guess.”

Matthew had this advice for anyone facing a cancer fight: “I would say to stay positive, that’s one of the things that got me through my recovery.

“Obviously, every cancer story is different. I was lucky enough that, being an elite sportsperson, you have to have a positive mental attitude and that definitely got me through that period of my life.

“I would also say to anyone that if you think something’s not 100%, then go and get it checked out.

“I don’t know what would have happened if they had found my tumour a couple of months earlier, would I have been as badly affected? It's hard to know, but it’s something that will always play at the back of my head.”

The book’s title ‘Second Chances’ was carefully chosen by Matthew and is particularly poignant.

“Whenever I got the diagnosis on Friday 13th, they could tell from the scan that with the pressure in my head, and where the tumour was, if I didn't have emergency surgery I was going to have a brain haemorrhage in the next few days.

“And, where the tumour was in my brain, if I had taken a brain haemorrhage I wouldn’t be here today.”

Matthew was an inpatient in the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital for four months.

Proceeds from the sale of ‘Second Chances’ will be going to Friends of the Cancer Centre, as a ‘thank you’ for helping save his life.

“There’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for that second chance,” he said.

“The support, kindness and love from friends and family throughout the whole recovery process was amazing, and is something I can never repay.”

The book launch is not the only chapter Matthew is celebrating - he recently turned 30, got engaged to girlfriend Jane Alexander and they’ve just bought their first home together.

And, there’s exciting times on the pitch too: “I played a full season for Banbridge Thirds last year and I’m playing for them again this year in a player/coach role.

“The assistant coach stood down last year from the Firsts and Scott McCandless asked me if I would take it on, and I was more than happy to - which is very special.

“Once I stop playing, whether that is this season or next season, I definitely will look to go into coaching.

“I can’t play to the same level that I used to, but I still have that knowledge that I can pass on to other members of the squad.”

Second Chances by Matthew Bell, published by Excalibur Press, is on pre-sale now priced at £9.99.

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