For Olympic long-jump medallist Greg Rutherford, the joy of qualifying for the Beijing Games in 2008 was over-shadowed by the news that his beloved grandfather was dying.
“I was prepping for my first Olympic Games, and to be perfectly honest it was just about the least important thing in the world for me at that time. Grandad was diagnosed with stomach cancer in January, and by July we knew he wasn’t going to make it. I’d told myself that I probably wasn’t going to the Olympics –I wasn’t training as much as usual because I’d been seeing Grandad more.
“So it was such a weird, emotional thing, when I went to the National Championships at Birmingham, won the competition and jumped the qualifier. I took the medal straight back down to Hemel Hempstead where my grandad was spending his last few days. It would have been lovely if he could have held on to see me actually at an Olympic Games, but he was very proud.”
Rutherford, now 29, went on to win gold in the 2012 Olympics and bronze in Rio (currently he’s strutting his exceptionally buff stuff on Strictly Come Dancing). He still swallows hard at the memory of his grandfather’s last days, and is passionate about using his profile to promote early detection of cancer symptoms.
“Grandad died at 72. His father died at exactly the same age, from the same type of cancer. Even so, Grandad was suffering with what he thought was digestive trouble for about six weeks before he went to the doctor. So the males in my family, including me and my brother, are now very alert to the signs.
Cancer, Rutherford knows, can strike at any age. His friend and fellow athlete Leo Barker was 31 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. “Thankfully they caught it early enough and now he’s fine,” says Rutherford.
“I think that people, and especially men, get either scared or embarrassed about going to the doctor, particularly when it’s to do with a part of your body that’s considered taboo. Nobody wants a camera up their bum. But I’m not being funny – it’s either the camera up the bum or you die. If you leave cancer alone it will kill you. But if you get treatment at the right time you can go on and live a normal life.
“Even in very serious cases, we all hear stories of people who ‘beat the odds’ and survive. Now we need to capitalise on the fact that it can be done. Supporting Stand Up to Cancer, getting behind the research and the education about cancer, could save millions of people over the years to come. Or it could keep one family together for longer. It’s something that genuinely makes a huge difference. Because there’s never enough time with someone you love.”
Stand Up to Cancer is on tonight at 7:00pm on Channel 4