“I have too much to fight for”: Pat Shovelin opens up on his battle with rare liver cancer


By right, Pat Shovelin shouldn’t even know that he has cancer yet.

By chance, or perhaps even by fate, his liver cancer was detected in February.

The 40-year-old Ardara man, who now lives in Doneyloop with his young family, has been diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer that his body is still hiding.

Employed in the medical records section of Letterkenny University Hospital, he asked Dr Charlie McManus – a close friend through their association with Donegal GAA teams – to request a CT scan, rather than a colonoscopy or a gastroscopy that would have been common for men with his symptoms.

“My bloods are still showing normal, even to this day,” says the popular GAA goalkeeping coach.

“I have cancer in my body and it’s infected, but my bloods are masking it.

“I was vain about it and asked for a CT and not a colon or gastro – even when they were done, they showed normal.

“My bloods were showing normal and my tumor levels were showing normal. Nothing was showing that I was sick to the level that I am.

“The scary thing is I shouldn’t even have been discovered.

“I shouldn’t be presenting for six or seven months time when I’d be jaundiced and asking what was wrong with me.

“A good thing is I might have a jump on it now that it’s been got early, but it shows the importance of getting regular checks.

“Women are better at going to get themselves checked out, but my plea to guys is to go and get checked out. Young guys should mention any small thing to their club physio or someone because you just never know what’s around the corner.”

His symptoms weren’t worrying at the outset.

He’d been the goalkeeping coach for the Donegal senior football team under Jim McGuinness’s famous reign as manager.

Last autumn, with Gary Walsh leaving the set-up, Donegal Under-21 manager Declan Bonner recruited his services.

Pat Shovelin Ulster final
Pat Shovelin helps Donegal U21 joint captains Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Tony McClenaghan to lift the Ulster U21 title

Football has been a release through what he calls his ‘journey’ and actually aided in getting him to alert medics to a problem he never thought was as severe as it has turned out to be.

One December evening, he returned home from training with a sharp pain in his left side.

He put it down, he says now with an affable smile, to old age.

“It just felt like a pulled muscle,” he says.

In 2014, he had his gallbladder removed and it was felt that an inflammation from that surgery might’ve appeared.

After a course of antibiotics, the pain persisted and he was sent for a CT scan.

“That’s when they discovered the liver cancer,” he says.

“Liver isn’t usually a secondary source, but with mine it’s primary.

“Before I knew it, I was sitting in front of Gerry McEntee, who is a liver specialist, in the Mater Private in Dublin.”

McEntee is a former All-Ireland winner with Meath and he pencilled Shovelin in for a 7am appointment one Monday morning in February.

Shovelin travelled with his brother, Gavin, the night before and as he was scurrying across Eccles Street, at around five to seven his phone buzzed and a familiar number flashed up.

It was McGuinness. ‘Ringing to say good luck,’ Shovelin thought.

‘Where are you?’ demanded McGuinness.

“I’m just walking across to Gerry McEntee’s office.”

“That’s grand. I’m inside waiting on you.”

McGuinness flew from Glasgow – where he works with Celtic FC – to be with Shovelin in his hour of need.

“That showed the loyalty he had to me,” Shovelin says now.

“He made the trip to Belfast the night before and stayed with JD McGrenra, who worked with us in the Donegal set-up. That meant a lot. Jim would have known Gerry and he made a good introduction.”

 Donegal Donegal's selectors, Damien Diver, Donal Reid, Pat Shovelin, coach Jim McGuinness, selector Paul McGonigle and Dr Charlie McManus Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Surgery was an option that morning, although Shovelin needed to undergo a few more tests, including a PET scan in Blackrock.

The following Monday, McEntee called. He wanted to see Shovelin on the Wednesday.

He feared the worst.

“Unfortunately things had changed drastically,” Shovelin says.

“The scan showed that the cancer had gone to my lymph nodes and surgery was off the table. The meeting that day was completely different.”

Liver cancer has its connotations and associated assumptions.

After leaving the Mater Private, he jumped into a nearby taxi.

The Dubliner at the wheel assumed, with the accent, that his passenger was on holiday in the capital.

Pat is open about his battle and told the stranger driving him through Dublin’s streets that he’d been diagnosed with liver cancer.

The quick thinking Dubliner jumped the gun as he glanced in the rear-view mirror.

‘You must have been a heavy drinker’, he ventured.

The comment stung the grey 40-year-old in the back seat,

“The reality is completely different,” the battling, yet bubbly Shovelin says.

“I started drinking at 21 and I stopped at 22 – I was a cheap date with a couple of bottles of Bulmers!

“I certainly didn’t have a George Best lifestyle. It was a shock to the system to hear I had liver cancer.”

It wasn’t just any old liver cancer, though.

Cholangiocarcinoma is cancer of the bile duct detected usually in people over the age of 70 and certainly not common for a sporty man just entering his fourth decade.

He’s now under the care of Dr Karen Duffy in Letterkenny and undergoing intensive treatment.

Eight tablets a day on top of regular chemotherapy take a toll.

Shovelin is married to Chrissie and they have two young boys: Ethan (4) and Tom (16 months).

He says: “I have to get up every day to leave Ethan to playschool. I try and do bits and pieces around the house. My energy levels aren’t the same as they were, but I just keep going.

Pat Shovelin with Michael Boyle, Shay Given and Paul Durcan at a training session in 2014.
Pat Shovelin with Michael Boyle, Shay Given and Paul Durcan at a training session in 2014.

“It’s a busy house. I fatigue early in the day and I’m not able to do the things I want to do with my boys. That’s hard at 40 years of age.

“There are a lot of side effects. I’m on quite severe drugs that are sore on the system. When the door closes at night, the illness is still in the house.”

At the end of May, he has another scan and there is an almost matter-of-fact tone when he says ‘that’ll determine where I’m at’,

“It’ll pick up whether or not the chemo is working,” he says.

“If it is, them surgery may become available again. Gerry hasn’t closed the door just yet.

“The flip side is if it doesn’t, I’m down another road. I’m trusting in God now. I just have to keep fighting and trusting the man above.”

A man of deep faith and strong belief, he’s ready for the fight.

“I have a big battle on my hands,” he says.

“You need to be positive. It would weigh you down. I have to believe that I’m going to fight it and get better.

“I have too much to fight for.”


See tomorrow for part two of Chris McNulty’s interview with Pat Shovelin




Sports writer from St Johnston, now based in Letterkenny, with ten years' experience covering sport in Donegal. Was a nominee for NUJ Sports Journalist of the Year in 2010. Honoured by the Donegal Boxing Board in 2016 for his coverage on the sport.

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