Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Jack in The Daily Mirror Raising awareness 21st June 2011

Meet Jack Marshall: the five year-old with cancer whose bravery has United all football fans

Little Jack Marshall is lying in his bed in the front room of his parents' house.

His head is resting on a Manchester United pillow case. He is wearing his Manchester United shirt.

A giant United flag covers the wall behind him. His mum and dad put it up for the Champions League final last month and they have not been able to bring themselves to take it down.

Jack is five years old but because of the severity of the treatment he has endured for the cancer that is killing him, he can only speak in a whisper.

So when I ask him who his favourite player is, I can see his eyes sparkle but I have to kneel beside him to hear his answer.

"Rooney," he says. "When I met him, I told him he was the best player in the world. And I asked if I could give him a kiss."

Rooney bowed his head low that day a few weeks ago at United's Carrington training ground so that the brave little boy's wish could be granted.

But then football has brought Jack joy throughout his short life. It fills many of his family's happiest memories of him.

He learned to walk by kicking a football. His mum, Tracey, held him by his hands as he staggered round the house as a toddler, swinging his foot at a ball then tottering after it and kicking it again.

Then there was the time his parents took him and his older brother, Josh, to Old Trafford to watch his first game against Blackburn Rovers when he was three.

Jack rode down Sir Matt Busby Way on the shoulders of his dad, Craig, and even though it was a cold December night, he refused point blank to wear a jumper over his United shirt.

Craig and Tracey worried that people were looking at the shivering little lad and thinking they were bad parents but Jack was so proud of that shirt, he wouldn't let it be covered up.

At home in Scunthorpe, he lived for football even then. He went to the local Footy Monsters kids' group every week without fail.

The coaches there said they had never seen a little boy who loved the game so much.

Even after all their lives changed in October 2009, somehow it was football that brought them the most comfort.

Jack kept waking in the night, being sick. The doctors thought it was a virus. It kept happening. They still thought it was a virus. Then, one day, Jack lost the use of his legs.

So he had a scan and they discovered he had a brain tumour and an aggressive form of cancer that had already spread to his spine.

He survived a 10-hour operation to remove the primary tumour. Then he had to endure drastic chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment to try to stop the disease raging.

While he was recovering from the trauma of the operation, the doctors made special arrangements for him and his family to watch a United-Chelsea game on the television.

"It meant we could just sit as a family and watch something Jack loved," Craig said. "It brought some normality to the most extreme of abnormal situations."

When Jack was finally allowed to go back home to Scunthorpe, still desperately ill and unable to walk, there was a surprise waiting for him.

His mum and dad had met Sir Alex Ferguson at the Tankersley Manor Hotel in South Yorkshire while they were having a couple of hours away from the hospital.

United were there preparing for a Carling Cup tie against Barnsley and Sir Alex had spoken to Tracey about Jack and asked for her address.

When Jack was wheeled back into the house, there was a box of United paraphernalia sent by Sir Alex. Amongst it, there was a football with the club crest emblazoned on it.

So Jack learned to walk all over again, using the same method he had used as a toddler.

This time, he had a walker, a kind of mini Zimmer frame, and he chased that United football all over the house until he could stand unaided again.

"He used that football every single day in his rehab," Tracey said, "because it had the United crest on it. His physios used to joke with him about it all the time."

By March this year, Jack had been brought so low by the cancer that doctors told Tracey and Craig he only had a couple of days left to live.

He came home again to the bed in the front room and the television and the football. And the couple of days turned into weeks and now the weeks have turned into months.

And as Jack lay there, surrounded by the love of his family, football began to give something back to the little boy who had given so much to it.

United have acted with great class, helping to organise the training ground visit in mid-April. Ryan Giggs, in particular, went out of his way to be kind to Jack.

Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and many others have helped to grow him an army of nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter and publicise the fact that brain tumours kill more children than any other form of cancer.

Jack Wilshere has shown a maturity and a concern beyond his years, staying in touch with Jack and his family and wearing a wristband to draw attention to fund-raising efforts on little Jack's behalf. Rooney wore the wristband, too.

Wolves fans took a huge banner with Jack's name on it to games so that Jack could see it as he lay in front of the television. The banner was signed by Mick McCarthy and the Wolves side and given to Jack as a gift.

And then there have been the messages on Twitter, from United fans, from Liverpool fans, from Manchester City fans, from fans of every team.

"People have written to us," Tracey says, "saying that they would never have believed it but they had found themselves wanting United to win because they knew it would make Jack happy."

The end of the season was hard for the family. It showed that time was passing and sometimes all Craig and Tracey want is for time to stand still.

They have poured as much energy as they can spare into raising awareness, highlighting the fact that 1 in every 2500 children will develop a brain tumour and that the UK has only a 14% five-year survival rate.

Now that the Premier League season is over, Jack watches MUTV and recordings of old matches, the England U21s, whatever snippets of football he can catch.

He is a beautiful child, still sweet-tempered and loving despite all the agonies he has been through, still blowing kisses to his mum's helper when she pops her head round the door to say goodbye.

Sometimes he wears an expression of heart-breaking solemnity as though he cannot quite believe his life has been stolen from him like this.

Sometimes, if you talk when he is trying to watch Peppa Pig, for instance, it is replaced by a flash of indignation. Sometimes, there are glimpses of the dashing, carefree kid he used to be.

When I have to go, I kneel by his bed again and confess to him that I once went to watch City regularly as well as United.

Jack's eyes widen. "I don't like Manchester City," he whispers. And then he smiles.

To learn more about brain tumour awareness go to www.jacksfund.co.uk or follow Jack on Twitter @Jack_Marshall_

Written by Oliver Holt Mirror 21/06/2011

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