NI-born footballing prodigy Paul Ferris publishes book on his prostate cancer journey

Lisburn-born footballer-turned-author, Paul Ferris writes deftly and candidly on the topic of cancer in his latest book, The Magic Tin. He talks to HELEN MCGURK about his fears, his family and ‘problems down below’

By Helen McGurk
Friday, 6th May 2022, 3:13 pm
Author Paul Ferris, who is originally from Lisburn, writes about his prostate cancer journey in The Magic Tin
Author Paul Ferris, who is originally from Lisburn, writes about his prostate cancer journey in The Magic Tin

Prostate cancer is no laughing matter, and yet it is sometimes hard not to laugh out loud reading Paul Ferris’ new book, The Magic in the Tin, such as when he writes: ‘Tena For Men incontinence pads were my new best friends. I was losing all my others, so I suppose we take our friends wherever we can get them’.

Lisburn-born Paul Ferris was a teenage prodigy, becoming Newcastle United’s youngest ever player in 1982, only for injury to cut short his footballing career. Then when he was only 48, he had a heart attack. Lying in a hospital bed wired up to various medical contraptions, he decided to write a book.

That book, The Boy on the Shed, which he wrote in a swift six months, typing clunkily with two fingers, is a poignant portrayal of his childhood in Troubles-stricken Northern Ireland; it is about his deep love for his mother Bernadette, whose life was cut short, also by a heart attack; it is about his enduring love for his wife Geraldine and it is about his rise to fame as Newcastle United’s youngest ever player and the heart-crushing loneliness of the journey to get there.

Newcastle United winger Paul Ferris pictured at the pre season photo call ahead of the 1984/85 season at St James' Park in 1984 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Danny Brannigan/Hulton Archive)

Ironically, four years after making that decision in hospital to write the book, he was once again back in a hospital when he learned he had secured a publishing deal. This time he was being treated for anaemia and sepsis after being diagnosed with prostate cancer aged 51.

“Two of the biggest causes of death in the western world and I would be a sufferer of both. Pretty good going for an ex-professional footballer who’d exercised all my life,” he writes.

The Magic in the Tin is a continuation of Paul’s story from harrowing surgery, humiliating procedures and excruciating consultations. He opens up about his fight against cancer and, having survived, the life-changing consequences as he strives to become the man he used to be once again. Courageous, life-affirming and beautifully written, it is a memoir that is both deeply moving and rich in humour.

More education needed about prostate cancer

Paul, who lives in Northumberland, and is a father-of-three grown up boys and doting grandad to Isla, said: “In many ways the journey with prostate cancer has been a much more difficult one for me to deal with as the side effects of treatment have been, and continue to be, a physical and mental challenge.

“I think I wrote The Magic in the Tin to try and make sense of the bewilderment I feel about how my life has changed so quickly and so permanently.

“I found some of it really sad to write. I think my intention was to write away the pain, but I don’t really think I managed to.”

At the time of his diagnosis, Paul admits he didn’t have much of an idea of what the prostate, “a stupid little gland”, “a walnut”, was actually for.

He writes: “I had friends who called it ‘prostrate’ cancer. If only. If I had ‘prostrate’ cancer, then I could just stand up and that would make it all miraculously disappear. I’d never lie down again.”

Paul hopes the book will be useful to other men and believes more education is needed about the disease.

“I hope for others it will be enlightening. I don’t think prostate cancer is very well understood. I think it is a very cruel cancer for anyone to get but for younger men the side effects of treatments are particularly cruel and hard to live with.

“I’m luckier than some men in that I have a chance of beating it but the side effects of treatment have completely transformed me as a man.”

The book takes the reader on a gripping and emotional journey, often conveying some of the more unpalatable, but truthful aspects of cancer. Did he feel embarrassed writing about some of these more sensitive aspects? “I was concerned at several points that perhaps I was revealing too much. I asked my wife Geraldine and my boys if they were OK with what I was writing. If any of them had said they were uncomfortable then I would have backed off. They all said they felt I should write as honestly as I could about what I was experiencing and how I was feeling.”

The low points

He recalls the low-points since his diagnosis: “The day I was told I had a significant cancer that if left untreated would impact on my life expectancy. The other low point came after my surgery to remove the cancer.

“Three months after choosing the nuclear option of surgery (and all the possible side effects that came with it - penile shrinkage, erectile disfunction, impotency, incontinence) I was told some cancer cells were left in the margin and my PSA was rising again. That was devastating and led to some radiotherapy and hormone treatment that while they look like they have done the job they have also ensured the above side effects got worse.”

While Paul’s feelings in the book vacillate between hope and despair, his gloriously witty turns of phrase, such as his ‘George Best dribbling’, and dark humour shines through.

“I have used humour to get me through difficult situations all of my life-to overcome shyness, hide embarrassment, help me communicate with people I’ve just met- to help break down barriers. I used it in the book to deliver some of the sadder, darker moments.”

Devoted family man

The most important aspect of Paul’s life is his family, his wife Geraldine, his three sons, Conor, Owen and Ciaran and his five-year-old daughter Isla “a beacon of hope”, sent just when he needed it most.

“It (family) is really the only thing that matters I feel.

“I am very blessed (especially now) to have had the love and support of Geraldine for over four decades now. It would be unbearable for me to be dealing with some of the side effects of this if I were a single man.

“I’m immensely proud of the maturity and understanding my three adult sons have shown around me writing this book. Isla, my five-year-old granddaughter provides the inspiration for the book and has quickly become the centre of our family universe.”

One of seven children, he regularly returns home to visit his siblings in Northern Ireland, a place he still calls ‘home’, despite not having lived here since he was 16.

Paul is the ceo of Speedflex, a health and fitness company, which he acknowledges is ”slightly embarrassing now that I have heart disease and cancer.”

“We have come out of the lockdowns very well and have several studios across the country UK including one in Bannatynes Health Club in Belfast.

“We have another 20-plus confirmed for this year with more to follow that I hope.”

And in terms of his health, he’s doing well. He exercises and his diet is about 80 per cent plant-based,

“My health is good apart from ongoing muscle and joint pain from my medications.

“I still haven’t found a solution but I’m having some injection therapy next month which hopefully sorts it.

“I got COVID as soon as Geraldine went back to teaching after the first lockdown. We all got it. It was unavoidable and very unpleasant but we are all well.

First lockdown was bearable. Then like most people, I couldn’t wait for the world to come back to normal…then Russia invaded Ukraine!”

I first met Paul Ferris in 2018 when he came to Belfast to discuss his first book, The Book in the Shed.

He had just finished weeks of radiotherapy and was probably exhausted, but he was engaging company, witty and very likeable.

To have suffered a heart attack and then cancer all before the age of 51 didn’t seem fair. It wasn’t fair.

But in The Magic in the Tin, he doesn’t seek sympathy, he’s just telling his tale - brutal as it is at times.

It is a magnificent book and I encourage you to read it.

*The Magic in the Tin: One Man’s Journey Through Prostate Cancer by Paul Ferris is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99. Available in Hardback, eBook and Audiobook now