As David Brooks returned to the pitch at Aston Villa, he completed a journey that had been 535 days in the making.
Both sets of supporters rose to their feet to applaud the Wales winger as he replaced Adam Smith as a second-half substitute.
It was a fitting moment for Brooks, who’d suffered from and then recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma as well as overcoming a serious hamstring injury.
Sitting down for an in-depth interview for the first time since his diagnosis, Brooks discusses the symptoms that created alarm, the reality of chemotherapy and the unwavering support from his family and loved one.
It was October 2021 when Brooks got the news. He’d arrived for international duty with Wales ahead of World Cup qualifiers with Czech Republic and Estonia.
He recalls how a request for Paracetamol led to his diagnosis: “They do the medical checks at the start of camp, and I just asked for paracetamol, because I was struggling to sleep.
“I had the conversation with the doctor, I’d been having night sweats and I’d just lost about six or seven kilograms in a week. I went back to my room like nothing had happened.
“I got a knock on the door around 20 minutes later and the doctor obviously didn’t want to do it in front of the lads but every side effect I’d told him, he’d highlighted as a cancer symptom!”
Within just 24 hours, Brooks was undergoing blood tests and having a biopsy, with doctors warning him to expect a cancer diagnosis.
He continued: “Without being given the full diagnosis, the doctor had said it appeared to be what they thought it was and you need to prepare yourself for that news, if and when it comes.
“My dad and my girlfriend, Flora, came to the meeting and I’d already seen my dad cry prior to that, Flora was very upset at the time. It’s very difficult to stay composed in that situation but I didn’t really let it out until I was alone.
“The first conversation we had, it was all positive but at the end of the day, they’re medical professionals and have a duty to tell me about the risks and the possible outcomes.
“With Hodgkin’s lymphoma, over half of people have six months of chemotherapy and it’s done but there’s a percentage that don’t get the good news at the end and you have to be prepared if that news comes.”
The Cherries star underwent a course of chemotherapy as treatment began to get underway, with his family in support throughout.
He described: “I’d go in once every two weeks. It usually takes three to four hours via a drip, which pumps in the drugs that kills all the cells in your body really.
“There were all sorts of complications, I had to get two peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) lines so I had two tubes dangling out of my arm for six months, which is a bit of an inconvenience. I was always positive but it was a tough experience.
“Chemo was a bit misleading to start with. With the first session, it wasn’t terrible. It hits harder for the second and third and got more progressive from there.
“The difficult thing was that in the two-week period between sessions, you’d only start to feel better a few days before the next treatment. I’d have the chemotherapy on the Monday, I’d feel horrendous and be unable to get out of bed the next week, slowly start to move but not feel great for the next few days and then just when you start to feel alright, you have to go back in to do it all over again. It was different type of life than what I’m used to.
“Flora used to come with me to every single chemo and she’d be sat there just having to watch it. I’d try to fall asleep just so I wouldn’t be sick in the hospital, I didn’t want to be ill. She was amazing, it’s a difficult situation and no-one wants to be involved in something like that. She drove me wherever I needed to go, she looked after me, she saw the worst part of me.”
The good news finally came in May 2022, receiving the all-clear by doctors. He announced the positive outcome publicly on the same day that the Cherries won promotion to the Premier League, joining celebrations at Vitality Stadium.
“It was a bit of a weird day [when I was given the all-clear]. I woke up and I was supposed to go to a meeting in the afternoon to find out what the results were.
“They called me and just said we can do it on the phone, so it was out of the blue when I found out! It was very nice, a few tears in the house from the parents and the missus. I was just over the moon that it had worked.
“My parents used to come down for every single chemo, they were a lot more worried than I think I was. It was pure relief for them when they were given the news!
“I used to go watch the games, but I didn’t feel that great. For the Nottingham Forest game, it was six weeks since my last treatment, so I felt better.
“I remember celebrating for 10 to 15 minutes and then had to sit down because I was completely out of breath! It was so good for the fans to do what they did [by singing my name], it was a great night.”
The journey wasn’t over for Brooks though with extensive work needed to get him back to fitness and he was hit with a blow, suffering a serious hamstring injury in a development squad fixture with Brentford.
He said: “I had six months of doing absolutely nothing – I could barely walk going up and down the stairs, I was absolutely knackered. I was basically sleeping and doing nothing.
“I had lost six or seven kilos to go down to 65kg, which is ridiculously low, and after treatment, I think I was 86kg. With all the steroids and all the food I’d been eating, I needed to shift all that weight and add muscle before I could even think about being back on the football pitch again.
“I’d done three months of hard work and got to a situation where I’d been close to a matchday squad. I played in a development squad game and my hamstring just popped.
“I’d never had a muscle injury before. Every expert was telling me to take it slow and there were still going to be effects from the chemo.
“It dawned on me that my body might not be the same and I might not be able to do what I’ve dreamt all my life to do, which was a difficult thought. However, I never stopped trying and thankfully my body pulled itself together.”
His return to action finally came in March 2023 with the fixture at Villa Park. Brooks continued his comeback with a starring performance for the development squad, scoring three goals in 12 minutes in a 5-2 win over Portsmouth.
The winger added more minutes in the home game with Brighton & Hove Albion and is now ready to play his part for the rest of the season.