AFL coach reveals secret: my brain tumour battle
MARK Harvey was 34, retired and in his first full-time season as an assistant coach at Essendon. It was 1999. At work, around his friends and in the newspapers, people kept asking him the same questions: do you want to be a senior coach one day? Why aren’t you applying for jobs? What are you waiting for?
Each time, Harvey tried to deflect the attention, to avoid answering, to buy himself some time. He wanted to coach his own AFL team, absolutely, but he was in no condition to. What he didn’t know then was that a small tumour had grown on the pituitary gland in his brain, flooding his body with human growth hormone, making his organs swell and messing with his mind.
How could he contemplate his next career move when he thought he was going mad?
Harvey isn’t sure when he started to get sick. But for more than a year after he retired in 1997, things weren’t quite right.
First, he’d get bad stomach pains. Then he’d have pins and needles running down one arm. He’d feel murmurs in his temple and suffer horrible headaches. He had an irritable bowel, and he was taken to hospital in agony with a kidney stone. Then his wife Donna, who used to sell shoes and bring new pairs home for him, noticed that his feet had grown. ”No, they haven’t,” Harvey insisted.
He had no idea what was going on. Were these random symptoms somehow connected? Was there something badly wrong with him? Or was he losing his mind?
”It was one thing after another. It kept moving. It lasted over such a long time and it was playing on my mind all the time,” Harvey told The Sunday Age. ”I’d think, is this really happening or am I making it up? It was doing my head in. I was sure that I was losing it.”
Each time a new problem arose Harvey would be on the phone to Essendon doctor Bruce Reid, the man who had helped him through three broken legs, several knee, ankle and calf surgeries, countless bouts of concussion and even a four-year battle with the eating disorder bulimia. ”Reidy, tell me what’s going on,” he’d implore him.
Dr Reid knew something was up, not only because of the hard-to-connect physical symptoms but because the normally unflappable Harvey – so tough, so resilient, so able to handle stress – was anxious, all the time. ”He was an intense bugger, but he was never a stress-head,” said the doctor. ”With this, he was getting so anxious he couldn’t sleep. Something was affecting his body, something was affecting his psyche, and we couldn’t put it all together.”
Eventually, Dr Reid sent Harvey to see Ross Elliott, a gastroenterologist. Harvey walked into his office, sat down and placed both hands on the desk in front of him. As soon as he did, the specialist knew what was up.
”Have your hands gotten bigger?” Dr Elliott asked and, looking at them, Harvey could see that they had. His nose and jaw were thicker, too, as were his cheekbones. His whole body was wider than it had been; it was weird. He was sent for full blood tests, plus a brain scan and the tumour was discovered, sitting right at the front of his brain.
Harvey was told he had acromegalia, a condition caused by the excessive amount of hormones in his body. A normal person’s level is between three and five, and his was more than eight times that. Had the AFL conducted blood testing for drug use in his final year, and had he been tested, Harvey would have been wrongly sprung as a drug cheat. When a person is born with the condition, or develops a tumour as a child, they can grow to seven feet tall, but because he was an adult, Harvey was instead growing outwards, placing extra stress on his internal organs and the excessive hormones messing with his head.
Two weeks later he was at Royal Melbourne Hospital being prepared for major brain surgery, placing his faith in neurosurgeon Andrew Kaye, who had told him the tumour needed to be removed before it gained a greater hold of him. He knew there was a chance he might not survive the operation.
Watching her husband being prepped, and hearing Professor Kaye explain to his team of a dozen doctors and students what he was going to do, Donna Harvey understood how serious the situation was.
”They took him in, it was an eight or 10-hour operation and I sat there waiting, trying to read a book,” she said. ”I was thinking, we’ve got two young kids, and they’re in there, inside his brain,” she said. ”I tried not to show him it was scary, because you don’t want to scare the fleas off them before you send them in. But it was, it was incredibly scary. I didn’t know if he would come back out.”
Before and after the operation, Harvey experienced a raft of emotions, too. Looking up at Professor Kaye, as he prepared to go into surgery, everything hit home, yet he knew he needed to trust him.
”That was the moment when I thought, this is really serious,” he said, ”but I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t go on, feeling like I was feeling.”
After the operation, during his stay in hospital, he relied on Dr Reid. ”He never let me get into a rut. He has a way of making you feel like things will be all right.”
Harvey looked forward to the surgeon’s visits, to finding out his thoughts on the surgery.
Although Harvey had known Professor Kaye only briefly before his surgery, the surgeon later returned to play a second part in his life. In 2003, when former Essendon wingman Adam Ramanauskas was diagnosed at 22 with a soft tissue cancer in his neck, Harvey called Professor Kaye and asked if he would see his young coaching charge.
Professor Kaye went on to twice save the player’s life and Ramanauskas, after undergoing radiotherapy and chemotheraphy, made three inspiring AFL comebacks. After each of his operations, Harvey was one of the first people to see him.
In Harvey, Ramanauskas found someone who understood what it was like to be told your life was under threat, what it was like to be wheeled into an operation you might not come out of, what it was like to wait for the results of tests and scans.
”It helped that, with him, I didn’t have to explain anything,” said Ramanauskas. ”He just knew.”
All Harvey wanted, though, was to help. ”It was a difficult time for everyone when Adam got sick, but Adam was the one who had to deal with the fact that his life might be cut short and he was so strong-minded,” Harvey says. ”Not at any stage did he show any sign of wanting sympathy. He made up his mind that he was going to beat it, and that was that.”
Both men also understood the highly personal relationship they developed with Professor Kaye after placing their lives in his hands. ”In those first few days you find yourself waiting for him, waiting for him to come and see you, to tell you how the operation went, to tell you how your body is coping, what you need to do next,” Harvey said. ”You hang on to those moments. You spend all day waiting for him to come into your room. And you’re always trying to read him before he starts speaking, to know whether he’s going to say something positive or negative.”
At home, he did more thinking. He did it mostly on his own, having decided to tell only a few people of what he had gone through. His family knew and, at Essendon, so did Dr Reid, coach Kevin Sheedy and recruiting manager Adrian Dodoro, a close friend. Others have found out since as he became more relaxed about it, but at the time he wanted to keep it from everyone else at the club.
Harvey didn’t know if he was back to normal or if he ever would be. He didn’t want people to wonder if he was mentally all there, doubting his capacity to do what he’d done, and what he aspired to do: coach. And he had always been a person who dealt with adversity on his own.
”Men don’t cry. That’s his motto,” said Donna. ”We had really close friends we didn’t tell; that’s how quiet we kept it. We were pretending nothing had happened, that everything was just like it always had been.”
For Harvey, who went back to work after two weeks with his nose plastered, telling everyone he’d had a sinus operation, seeking sympathy wasn’t an option.
”It’s funny. When you think you’ve got something that perhaps is life threatening, I think that’s the biggest debate you have with yourself. Do you want sympathy or do you want to handle everything on your own?” he said. ”I never wanted any sympathy. That was how I looked at it and I was probably never a guy who liked to show any sign of weakness.
”I was told to have six weeks off after the operation because if I overdid things it was going to affect my nervous system, and things like that. I had maybe 10 days off and then I couldn’t help myself; I went back to work and there were a couple of times where I didn’t collapse but I half fainted because I was putting myself under too much pressure.
”In the end, Reidy said, ‘That’s it, you’re going home for two more weeks’, and that’s when I knew I actually had to toe the line and rest up, that everything wouldn’t go back to normal straight away.
”A lot of things cross your mind in that time. The obvious thing I suppose you ask yourself, straight afterwards, is how long have I got to live? What will the results say? And then after that, it’s, OK, is it ever going to come back? Will I get my faculties back? I wondered if I’d be the person I was, if I’d be able to go back to coaching, if I’d be able to think clearly. That’s what I spent my time thinking.”
It took a while. For the first couple of years after his operation, Harvey needed to have his hormone levels checked every six months, and after each blood test he tended to think very negatively. ”Those three or four days where you’re waiting on the results, it’s mind boggling,” he said. ”You’d look for signs, pick up on things that maybe weren’t there, worry if it might be coming back. I had a few months in those first few years I’d just find myself slumped in a chair, not able to do anything for an hour, not really able to move. Then I’d get up and get on with things again.”
Slowly, he started to feel like himself again. After those first two years Harvey felt fine, ready to pursue the next phase in his career, determined to become the senior AFL coach that, at Fremantle, he now is. He still has his blood tested once a year, just to be sure, but he feels well and truly better and he no longer feels paranoid or stressed while waiting for the next all-clear.
”It could come back. There’s obviously a possibility there that it could still happen, but I don’t think it will,” he says.
”It’s more than 10 years now. They say once you’re through those first few years you should be fine. It took me those two years and once that had passed by, I started to feel like it wouldn’t come back and I felt like the person I was before it happened. I was able to move on. That’s when I felt ready to coach.”