Australia and West Ham footballer Dylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 17. Here, his mother Tracy tells us how good nutrition helped him keep fit to play throughout his treatment and until just months before his death.
Interview by Andréa Childs.
Q How did Dylan find out he had testicular cancer?
A In April 2011, when he was 17, Dylan found a lump in his testicle. He didn’t say anything straightaway because he didn’t feel any discomfort. Although we’re from Perth, Dylan was signed with West Ham United and he was playing so much football that when he did start to feel pain he put it down to all his exercise. When the discomfort became more consistent he visited his GP, who told him that he had a cyst and it was nothing to worry about. Then three months later, when he was playing for Australia in the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico, he was offered a five-year contract with Nike and underwent a random drug test which came back positive for a tumour, and Dylan was finally diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Q How did the diagnosis and treatment affect Dylan’s football?
A Dylan’s treatment included many doses of chemotherapy, surgery to remove his lymph nodes and a liver resection, but he fought very hard to maintain his fitness and he continued to train and play with the team. He made his senior West Ham debut in September 2012, 18 months after his initial diagnosis and three months before having high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.
Q What part did nutrition play in his continued ability to play and compete?
A Dr Richard Weiler, who was then Chief Medical Officer at West Ham United, put us in touch with Jane, so that she could provide dietary advice to support Dylan during training and chemotherapy. That was in September 2011. I truly believe that it was because of his diet that Dylan was able to continue playing for so long. He competed for Australia in the Under-22 tournament in Oman in January 2014, just three weeks after completing another course of chemotherapy.
‘I truly believe that it was because of his diet and Jane’s advice that Dylan was able to continue playing for so long’
Dylan playing for Australia in January 2014 three weeks after undergoing his sixth regime of chemotherapy. He passed away three months later. His fitness and strength belied his three year battle
Q Did Dylan’s diet change much during his cancer treatment?
A He always enjoyed healthy meals and ate an athlete’s diet but what Jane helped us do was focus on antioxidant-rich foods with cancer-fighting properties that supported him through treatment and recovery afterwards. I would send her a weekly food diary of what Dylan was eating, and she created food plans to ensure he was getting enough energy from his meals. She suggested ingredients to protect against nausea, such as ginger and peppermint, and recommended probiotics and turmeric to help Dylan’s digestion. She even arranged for healthy meals to be supplied to him when he was in hospital. It was hugely empowering for Dylan as he was able to bounce into hospital and stay for the minimum time possible. Not feeling weak or being confined to bed made him feel so much more positive.
Q Was that also a help to you and the rest of the family?
A Yes, because after talking about Dylan’s health each week, Jane would always make time to ask about the rest of the family – how we were sleeping, our anxiety and stress levels, our immunity – and give us nutritional advice to help.
Q What is your vision for DT38, the charity you founded in Dylan’s memory?
A Dylan died on 18 April 2014. West Ham United thought so much of him, they retired his number 38 shirt, and that’s where the name of the charity comes from. Dylan was misdiagnosed and it breaks our heart to think that his death could have been prevented. Our focus is on educating young people about testicular cancer, its symptoms and what is needed to detect the disease. If we had insisted that Dylan had an ultrasound of his testicle, his cancer would have been diagnosed sooner. The charity’s motto, and the title of our educational book, is Delay Is Deadly; Get Educated (DIDGE, which was Dylan’s nickname).
‘Early detection is the key to surviving testicular cancer. The right diagnostic approach is vital. Always insist on an ultrasound. Delay is deadly; get educated.’
Find out more about the work of the Dylan Tombides Foundation at dt38.co.uk