How former footballer PJ Roberts kicked testicular cancer into touch.
Anyone who’s ever played team sports will understand that dressing room banter is an integral part of the bonding process. Sometimes it’s clever, sometimes childish. Sometimes the banter transcends everyday boundaries of common decency; basically, there’s very little that’s off limits – as long as what is said is funny and delivered without real malice, then all well and good.
But what about cancer? Is the “Big C” banter material? Can we really laugh in the face of incredible adversity when one of our dressing room buddies is struck down by the cruellest of illnesses? Of course we can.
On a seemingly ordinary Saturday afternoon in May of 2013, Australian-born TV pundit and ex-professional footballer PJ Roberts is lounging around on his sofa in Lorong Chuan when he feels a dull ache in his nether regions. It gets progressively worse over the course of the day; much worse in fact. Four hours after that initial twinge, he’s curled up on the floor of his apartment in excruciating pain.
He calls a cab, hobbles downstairs and heads to Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Novena. Within minutes of arriving it becomes obvious that there’s a major problem; less than an hour-and-a-half later he’s diagnosed with testicular cancer, and the tumours that are eating him up like Pac-Man need removing. Sharpish. He’s rushed into theatre. Just a few hours earlier he barely had a care in the world, now his whole life had been turned upside down.
“It was a massive shock as you can imagine,” he tells me during our front-cover photoshoot for EX magazine at Victor York Tailors on Boat Quay.
“I was lying in the hospital bed, quite dazed from the painkillers that they’d given me, when the oncologist told me that I had testicular cancer and they had to operate. I was in severe pain and just wanted to get on with it. I quickly called Mum and Dad who live back in Australia – Dad jumped on a plane and was in Singapore the next day.
“They had to remove one of my testicles, which had actually been slightly damaged during my football career. They then had to identify how far the cancer had spread throughout my body. This involved the tumour being analysed and I had to undergo CT scans, chest x-rays and blood tests. I had to wait about a week before I knew how bad it was. It was a scary feeling – the feeling of the unknown.
“I was diagnosed with a mixed germ cell tumour. I was at stage 1B, which meant that the cancer had spread to the blood vessels and lymph nodes, so I needed six weeks of chemotherapy.
“The prognosis was pretty encouraging though. The rate of success for that type of cancer caught relatively early is quite good. I was actually pretty lucky.”
It was at this stage that PJ told his mates the horror of what he was going through. There was genuine sympathy all round as you would expect, but boys will be boys…
“If you’ve played a team sport then you can appreciate how brutal the banter can be. I was very open about the whole experience and I actually initiated the banter to make people feel more comfortable, but once I told them that I’d had a testicle removed, my mates took it to another level. And then up another level when all my hair fell out during the chemotherapy! It was all genuinely amusing, and I’m now the proud owner of a few new nicknames: ‘One-nutted Warrior’ or ‘One-nutted Wonder’ and ‘The Streamlined Dolphin’. All good fun.”
Despite the good-natured joshing and the relatively positive prognosis, it was by no means certain that PJ would make it through to the other side. He still faced a long, hard, sometimes deeply demoralising battle.
At the time, his personal life had hit the skids after splitting from his long-term girlfriend, but he found an ally in his fellow Mio TV pundit and ex-Singapore football international Adrian Dhanaraj, who was fighting his own battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Tragically, Adrian died in September 2013 at the ridiculously tender age of 29.
“Adrian dying was quite confronting. It clearly illustrated that cancer is completely indiscriminate. We used to chat regularly and he was such a positive and charming young man; a very talented footballer also. I thought about his family and how hard the entire experience must be for them. In many ways, it’s actually harder for your family because they feel very helpless.”
PJ resolved to stay as physically fit as possible throughout the course of his treatment, which was overseen by his oncologist, Dr Patricia Kho of Parkway Cancer Centre, who he speaks about in glowing terms.
“When I was diagnosed, I just wanted to get on with the treatment and face it head on. Dad found that funny; it reminded him of how I was on the morning of a big game of football. I just wanted the game to start and to get stuck in to the opponents.
“I exercised every morning during the chemotherapy, apart from a couple of days when I was curled up in a world of hurt following the treatment. I would pop down to the condo gym, pool, or go for a light run. It depended on what stage of the treatment I was at as your immune system cops a bit of a hammering and you need to be careful.
“But even when I felt a little rough I would force myself to head down for at least a light walk. I found it relaxing and therapeutic, particularly mentally and emotionally. I would then feel more positive when I headed to the hospital where they would set up the drip to pump the chemicals through my system, plus regular injections. I was actually quite relaxed about the whole experience as you can’t really control the outcome. You can only control your own state of mind and overall perspective. I’m a pretty positive person and I tried to embrace the whole challenge in this way.
“The worst I felt was following the white-blood-cell booster injections. It feels like someone beating you up with a baseball bat as it gets absorbed through your bone marrow. Plenty of gentle head-patting by my Mum helped a lot!”
Three months after finishing his chemotherapy, PJ was given the all clear. Anyone who knows him will testify that he’s not shy of a big night out, so surely there were big celebrations in the Roberts household?
“Not really, I actually felt quite solemn. It was a strange feeling, just very relieved. The operation and treatment seemed like a distant memory in a way, a little surreal. ‘Did I really just go through all that?’ I still go for tests every three months, but basically I’m free to get on with life.”
Getting on with life in PJ’s world means being busy. Crazy busy. Not only does he work all week (until recently as a wealth planner at ANZ Bank, before switching to a sports marketing and consulting role in July 2014), but he pops up as a football pundit on just about every network in Singapore, and he’s also involved in a wide variety of clubs, societies and organisations. On top of that, he’s also launched a social media app targeting football fans.
“Being so busy keeps me out of trouble at the weekends, so it’s no bad thing at all!
“The app (PiP Sports) is really exciting. It brings together your social and sporting experience by allowing you to capture and share your moments through photos embedded with real-time sports data. We’ve got over 250,000 users, which is incredible when you think that our CEO Steven Rogers only came up with the idea last March.
“It’s pretty simple. We acquire data feeds from worldwide sporting events and then allow the user to capture that data as they take a picture, which then automatically embeds onto their image in the form of data skins. Let’s say Wayne Rooney scores in the 83rd minute against Liverpool at Old Trafford, and you happen to be lucky enough to be there taking a picture of the actual goal or you’re with mates watching the game in Clarke Quay and taking a selfie celebrating that moment . For both scenarios as long as you’re following Manchester United in the app you can then capture Rooney’s goal data, time and game score and embed it to your picture. It’s real-time.
As soon as the feed data is released by the data provider then the user has it in five to ten seconds.”
PJ, Steven and the PiP Sports team are looking to develop the app further by incorporating video, and there are plenty of other plans on the horizon. One of their investors is none other than former Premier League player and Australia captain Lucas Neill, who sees real promise with what the lads are working on.
PJ may not have reached the same exalted heights as Neill during his own football career, but he had his moments. Despite playing rugby at his all-boys private school and winning several swimming championships, it was his love of the beautiful game that always shone brightest.
“My Dad was a very good player. I used to go with him to his games when I was little. I’d even get changed into kit with him in the dressing shed and warm up with him. I loved the whole experience. I basically wanted to be like my Dad.
“I also looked up to Craig Johnston, an Aussie playing for Liverpool, and players like Michel Platini and the AC Milan team of the late 80s.
“I was selected in all the various representative sides from a young age, often captaining the team. But education was also important so I accepted a scholarship to play in the USA at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That was an unbelievable journey of self-discovery as you can imagine.
“After graduating I went back to Australia where I played futsal for the national team. At the age of 21, I was captain of Australia in the FIFA Futsal World Cup Finals in Spain (1996).
“I was a combative, ball-winning, box-to-box player with a good engine, and I was versatile as well, which helped. I loved a battle – I was playing with men from the age of 15, so you had to be up for the fight.
“Football was amazing for me. I travelled the world, I toured Brazil and Argentina at the age of 15. It gave me so much, including my current career in the media.”
PJ also played professionally for Canberra Cosmos and Perth Glory in the Australian National League, Sarawak in the M League (Malaysia) and Geylang United in the S League (Singapore) – a move that brought him to Singapore in 2003.
However, the day after losing the Singapore Cup Final in his very first season at the club, he was forced to retire due to a chronic back injury at just 29 years of age. It was a condition he’d been struggling to cope with for the previous five years.
“I was having injections in my lower back every six months, but the joints continued to deteriorate. The hard pitches in Singapore were hammering me, and basically the spinal surgeon said that the lower region of my back was like that of a 50-year-old. If I’d continued to play I would have needed surgery within the following six months to fuse the joints.
“My Mum was actually there for that 2003 cup final when we lost to Home United, and I could see the tears welling up in her eyes because she knew how much damage I was doing to myself by playing. At that point I retired.”
Unlike many footballers who have no idea what to do when they hang up their boots, PJ had the benefit of a solid education behind him so the transition was a little smoother.
“I had always planned for the future. There’s a lot of downtime as a footballer, and after a few years of playing professionally I started my Master of Business Administration (MBA), and I was also doing a lot of reading about investments.
“By the time I retired I already had two undergraduate degrees and just a few subjects remaining on my MBA. Even so, it was very difficult coming to terms with the fact that I was never going to play again. I had been defined as a footballer from since before I could remember and then all of a sudden I was an ex-footballer.
“I was fortunate to quickly be offered a contract as a football pundit with ESPN Star Sports by Andy Tait, who I’m now working for at Mio TV. I’m hugely grateful to him. I was pretty comfortable with the job from the start; I loved still being involved in football and live TV always has a nice edge to it. It’s like game time.
“I also coached football for a year, and myself and Owen Monaghan own the license for Coerver Coaching in Singapore – it’s a global football coaching programme that focuses on skill development and acquisition. I was also a secondary teacher at the Australian International School for two years before stepping into banking and finance with ANZ in 2007.
“Despite my education I still found the corporate world massively challenging as you don’t really know how a specific industry or role functions. I would see a name card and their title and say, ‘So what does that actually mean?’ It took some getting used to.”
As well as getting to grips with his new role in sports marketing, his regular punditry work, development of social media apps, coaching, and his position as President of the Australian and New Zealand Association (ANZA), the One-nutted Wonder has also gained a reputation among his pals as being Singapore’s most eligible bachelor.
“I definitely want marriage and kids one day. I already have my SUV sorted – I just need the wife and kids now! I was thinking of buying some baby seats just to get used to the idea.”