A Belfast American football team will host an emotional final home game of the season for their star player who was forced into retirement after surviving a brain tumour.
The Belfast Trojans, defending champions of Ireland’s Premier League, will dedicate the game to 30-year-old Neil Graham who suffered from an oligodendroglioma brain tumor in September 2020.
Neil is considered one of the best linebackers in Irish American football history and won five national championships with the Trojans, representing Ireland in three international matches.
He first realized something was wrong in 2018 when he had a recurrence of ADHD, which he had when he was younger.
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Neil said: “I was driving and my mind was suddenly flooded with thoughts. I went to see psychiatrists and psychologists to get out of it. They said I had very high anxiety and depression.
“I was prescribed ADHD medication which worked for a while, but it wasn’t as effective. I then started having absentee spells. I would talk and suddenly stop, then 40 seconds later I continued like nothing happened, it was like I was paused.
In August 2020, Neil had a “full blown” seizure. He was taken to Ulster Hospital, where he was told he had epilepsy, but was unconvinced by the diagnosis and sought private medical help – an MRI found a growth on his brain.
He continued: “When I was told I had a brain tumor everything became a blur and I had a panic attack. It was heartbreaking. A 29-year-old man shouldn’t have to think about his mortality.”
In September 2020, Neil had the entire tumor removed at Ulster Hospital and then underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
“As soon as it was removed, the ADHD and all the intrusive thoughts disappeared. It was amazing to have peace of mind after so many years,” he added.
The Trojans have chosen Brain Tumor Research as their charity for the year and donate 10% of ticket sales from all their home games to the charity. After having to retire from the sport he loves, Neil is now assistant linebackers coach for the team that will face local rivals the Belfast Knights on July 2 in their final home game of the season at Deramore Park.
Hassan Jaafar, 34, played alongside Neil for the Trojans and is now the club’s treasurer.
He said: “Neil was part of the most feared defensive unit in the country. He was always one of the best, so the news was devastating for the whole team.
“We felt so bad when we found out Neil wasn’t going to play anymore. We must fund research to help others facing this devastating disease.
Brain tumors kill more children and adults under 40 than any other cancer, yet historically only 1% of national cancer research spending has been allocated to it.
Brain Tumor Research is the only national charity in the UK solely focused on finding a cure for brain tumors by campaigning for increased national investment in research.
Neil added: “The support from the team is absolutely amazing. Brain tumors are so poorly funded and treatments haven’t changed in years. More needs to be done to improve people’s life expectancies and ultimately find a cure.
Matthew Price, Community Development Manager at Brain Tumor Research, said: “We are so grateful to Neil, Hassan and all the Belfast Trojans, because it is only with the support of people like them that we we can advance our brain tumor research and improve outcomes for patients like Neil who are forced to battle this terrible disease.
“Unlike many other cancers, brain tumors are indiscriminate. They can affect anyone at any time. Too little is known about the causes and therefore increased investment in research is vital.”
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