MARK Hughes punched above his weight throughout a nine-year National Rugby League career for the Newcastle Knights.
That career included two premierships, 161 first-grade games, and three State of Origin appearances for NSW.
That determination and drive has steeled the ‘‘Kid from Kurri Kurri’’, now a 36-year-old father of three, for the fight of his life.
Hughes had an ‘‘avocado-size’’ malignant brain tumour removed two weeks ago and will begin radiotherapy on Monday.
Amid mounting speculation among the Hunter sporting community, and with the staunch support of his wife Kirralee and their children Zac, 9, Dane, 6, and Bonnie, 2, Hughes chose to speak to the Newcastle Herald to set the record straight about his state of health.
‘‘I have got cancer, so I’ve got to start treatment next week to deal with that. There’s some tough times ahead, but I’ve always had to work hard for whatever I’ve got,’’ Hughes said.
‘‘There’s still some hard work to be done, and the prospects are good, but there’s a bit of water to go under the bridge yet.
‘‘Lots of people go through cancer and come out the other end, so I’m not the first person to go through this, and I’m going to tackle it with everything I’ve got and I’m sure I’ll come out the other side.’’
Hughes, who runs his own cleaning company, explained he experienced several days of intense headaches about two months ago.
‘‘I’ve never been one to get headaches, so I went and saw my doctor and he sent me off for a head scan as a precaution,’’ he said.
‘‘That showed something in my brain, but the specialist wasn’t exactly sure at that stage. It was like an avocado-sized darker colour in there,’’ he said.
Follow-up scans three weeks ago confirmed a tumour, which was removed during a four-hour surgical procedure at John Hunter Hospital on August 2.
‘‘I tried to be as positive as possible, and the indications were that it was in a good position and they could get it out pretty well,’’ he said.
‘‘I went in on the Thursday and I ended up getting done about 5 o’clock on the Friday.
‘‘That was the night that the Knights played the Broncos, because my first memory when I woke up was one of the nurses telling me the Knights were getting beat 18-10, and I vaguely remember thinking that’s not going to help my recovery.’’
(The Knights went on to draw 18-18 in extra time).
Hughes could not speak highly enough about his surgeon Dr John Christie, neurologist and Conjoint Professor Chris Levi, long-time Knights medical officer and friend Dr Neil Halpin, and the hospital nursing staff for helping him through his ordeal.
‘‘They’ve all been amazing,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s easy to drive past John Hunter Hospital and not realise what goes on behind those walls. At 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, most people are going home or going to the pub or going to the football, and I had my surgeon and his team going in to do surgery on me for the next four hours.
‘‘You put it into perspective, and there were 16,000 or so people watching the Knights and the Broncos that night, and with all due respects to the players, the real heroes are the people that are saving lives. It’s amazing what these guys do, day in and day out. They’re wonderful.’’
For the next few days, Hughes felt better than he thought he would, except for some double-vision and hallucination issues.
‘‘When I was closing my eyes, I was seeing these cartoon figures and 3D illusions, which was pretty weird,’’ he recalled.
‘‘I was talking to Kirralee and it looked like a big clump of her hair floated away into the next room in front of my eyes, but that’s quickly improved.’’
He left hospital late last week and has been overwhelmed by the level of support he has received from his family, friends and former team-mates including Danny Buderus, Andrew Johns, Ben Kennedy and brothers Matt and Kurt Gidley.
‘‘The support I’ve had from my wife, Kirralee, both our families, the Kurri community, all my mates out there, the staff and parents from Holy Family Primary School at Merewether, they’ve all been outstanding,’’ he said.
‘‘Joey’s made five trips up from Sydney to see me, BK and his family have been bringing food around, and everyone’s really rallied around us.
‘‘I always knew with football, probably the best thing about it was the mateship, and that’s been confirmed through all of this, with the people who’ve called and texted to find out how I’m going ... The support I’ve had and am still getting has been phenomenal.
‘‘Neil Halpin has known me since I was 20, so it hasn’t surprised me how good he’s been through all this, but he told me and Kirralee that his phone’s on 24 hours a day and I can ring him any time of the day or night – and I know he meant it.’’
Dr Halpin spoke to the Herald with Hughes’s permission, and at his request, to explain the prognosis.
‘‘The situation is that Mark had a posterior cerebral tumour, which was picked up after he was having headaches and some vague funny turns about a month or two ago,’’ Dr Halpin said.
‘‘Initially it was unclear whether it was a tumour, and there was some suggestion it was a stroke, and the rumour got out that he’d had a stroke, but I think it was always going to be a tumour, and he had surgery done two weeks ago.
‘‘He had world-class treatment at John Hunter Hospital. They were magnificent, and he was up and about the following day, after hours and hours of brain surgery.
‘‘He has had histology done, and it’s not a benign tumour, and the grading is not entirely clear yet because we don’t have the final results of the histology and hormone tests on it, but he will be starting radiotherapy on Monday morning.’’
Dr Halpin said the slightly built Hughes, who former team-mates described as ‘‘skinnier than a minute to six, with the shoulders of a brown snake’’, was showing the same courage and character that he demonstrated during his career.
‘‘I think Mark is one of the loveliest guys who ever played for this club,’’ Dr Halpin said.
‘‘He’s a gentle, wonderful person, and he is having the fight of his life, there’s no doubt about that. I think he’s one of the most loved people in the Newcastle community, and in many ways he was such an unlikely footballer – certainly not the stereotype of your average footballer.
‘‘Let me make the point that he’s shown extraordinary bravery through this. His attitude has been so positive – get in there and get it done – which is truly remarkable.
‘‘He’s such an inspiration to everyone else, and he’s been a tower of strength to his wife and his family. You can’t admire the guy enough.’’
From the moment he knew what he was dealing with, Hughes said he was determined to tackle it with a positive attitude.
‘‘It definitely doesn’t scare me to really take this thing on,’’ Hughes said.
‘‘You look at my footy career, I would never have thought I’d have played 160-odd games for the Knights, won two premierships and played for NSW.
‘‘I did all these things that I had to work really hard for during my footy career, and I think some of those traits and skills that I learnt in footy I’m going to be using vigorously over the next couple of months.
‘‘It’s in a good spot, and things are looking good. There’s certainly going to be some hard work ahead and some tough times, but I will get on top of it.
‘‘It’s going to be something I’ll have to monitor for rest of my life.
‘‘I’ve got three kids and a beautiful wife and they’re my motivation to make sure I look after them and get myself fit and get on top of it,’’ he said.