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'Mum was showing signs, she was getting sick... They couldn't diagnose her and tell her it was cancer'

Limerick MMA fighter Catherine Costigan speaks to The42 about her mother’s battle with pancreatic cancer and her return to the Octagon.

AT ALMOST 40 years of age, Limerick MMA fighter Catherine Costigan doesn’t know how much time she has left in the professional fight game.

catherine-costigan Catherine Costigan fighting against Wendy McKenna at Cage Warriors in 2017. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

A bout in Wembley’s SSE Arena this weekend will be her first venture into the Octagon in two years. Atomweight is Costigan’s natural fight grade, but Saturday’s bout was offered at the heavier class of strawweight.  

That represents a jump of about 4kg. Her Polish opponent, Aleksandra Rola, is naturally bigger. But given the painful journey that Costigan’s family has come through over the last 16 months, going into a fight at a weight disadvantage is small beer really.

As is the case with many fighters, Costigan’s career never followed a straight line. Her first dip into top-level fighting brought plenty of success for her. A 5-0 record over the course of four years was the ideal introduction. But then the slide kicked in.

Two consecutive defeats, coupled with some career-threatening injuries and time spent on the surgery table, almost derailed her. Almost.

Things got back on track in 2017 with a split-decision win at a Cage Warriors event to give Costigan some much-needed oxygen. She quickly went on the hunt for more fights to keep her winning momentum going.

But then her family was rocked by some news that forced Costigan to put her fighting ambitions on ice. The early signs in her mother Geraldine were minor, and seemed easily treatable. But her daughter had an uneasy feeling from the outset.

After initially getting diagnosed with gall stones, pancreatic cancer was later detected.

“Mum was showing signs, she was getting sick,” Costigan tells The42. ”I just had a feeling something was up, when you have that gut feeling.

“I was doing my bits and pieces in the gym. She got called down to the specialist in Limerick. She was actually at work and he called her and said, ‘Look, Geraldine, it’s a tumour.’”

Geraldine called her daughter to deliver the news before marching straight back to work in the local butchers. That set the tone for how the Costigans would combat Geraldine’s illness. Normality would still have a place in their lives, no matter how difficult the treatment would be.

catherine-costigan-makes-her-entrance Costigan's mother Geraldine was first diagnosed with gall stones before pancreatic cancer was detected. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

And this rare case of pancreatic cancer certainly took a big swing at Geraldine. There was a round of chemotherapy followed by an infection and another blast of chemo and radiation therapy as part of a gruelling treatment process. “Only four Irish people have had it in the last 10 or 15 years like the way she had it on her artery,” Costigan explains. 

They couldn’t diagnose her 100% and tell her it was cancer. They hit her with everything [chemo and radiation treatment].

“She got the hardest and toughest treatment and she did incredible. I guess we’re just one of the lucky ones. Mum was lucky in the sense that they could get the tumour and get it out.

They did find it in her lymph nodes as well so they removed 33 of those in the nine-hour surgery.”

Costigan received several fight offers throughout her mother’s punishing battle with the disease, including one which clashed with the day of Geraldine’s surgery. The Limerick brawler was happy to reject all the invitations to fight. She kept up her training, and even took part in a local boxing match. But a competitive MMA fight was never an option for Costigan while her mother and her father Noel needed her.

My mum changed her whole body, she lost so much weight. She was down to five stone at one point where I could put my whole hand around her knee. There were some days I used to literally carry her up the stairs to bed because she was in pain.

“Dad was trying to take it all on board and stay strong for Mum but I think he had his moments when he broke down. He’s great and I know men are good but I just think women are made of different stuff.”

catherine-costigan There were plenty of ups and downs for Costigan and her family during the treatment. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

There were several car journeys to medical appointments for Costigan and her mother. They had plenty of laughs about the foods that Geraldine should be eating to keep up her strength, and general chats about everything going on in Costigan’s life to give them a distraction. There were lots of rows about staying on top of the medication too. “It’s very funny, it’s like I’ve become the mother and she’s the bold teenager,” Costigan laughs.

I was trying to get her to take her medication, she was sick of it at one point. And I was like, ‘You have to take this medication.’ She was looking me like she was a bould teenager.”

Those were the moments of light relief that sustained them through a relentless fight. Even the chemo room could sometimes be a place of serenity where patients, family members, and the staff would rally together to support one another.

But there were dark times as well. Costigan recalls the long waits they endured for an appointment, and the worry on people’s faces when their name was called to go into the doctor for an update on their treatment or a final prognosis. The day her mother was told she was in remission will live long in Costigan’s memory.

“Some people are barely getting up off the seat to go into the doctor. “God I remember the last visit. Two women came out, I’d say they were two sisters, and they were roaring crying. And I heard one say, ‘Well I better go spend all my money because I’m not leaving it to you, ya bitch.’ “They broke out laughing. I think she was given just a few months to live. We saw that a lot.

It was scary the amount of people coming out getting bad news and crying in front of us. And being surrounded by kids and adults. It really puts your life in perspective.

“And I would say to anybody now [who is] moaning about their lives, go and sit in a chemo ward for two hours [with people] who are suffering.”

Source: Joseph Blake/YouTube

Three months on from getting that news, Geraldine is already returning to work this week. There’s still traces of radiation in her body which will continue to sit there for the first year of her recovery. 

Her pancreas has been removed and she must take a special tablet with every meal to protect her from getting sick. In short, cancer has sent a tremor through her body and she’s not in the fullest of health. But just as she did when she first got the diagnosis, normality is where Geraldine wants to be right now. So when Costigan was contacted by one of the biggest MMA organisations in Europe recently, she took inspiration from her mother’s spirit and decided to accept the fight.

She was given just three weeks’ notice for the clash with Rola [2-0-0] at KSW 50 in London, and Rola is almost 12 years younger than the Limerick woman. That being said, Costigan has really been preparing for a fight like for the past two years.

“They might think I was sitting around eating doughnuts,” she begins, dispelling any notions that she’s under-prepared. “I know it’s stacked against me. I know why they’re calling me the underdog.

I’m sure there’s still plenty who think ‘retire now, you’ve done enough.’ I’m getting close to 40 now in November and I’m sure my opponent thinks I’m going to be coming out with a zimmer frame.

“There’s no stress on my body because I’m not cutting. I’m at a very healthy weight. It’s going to be very interesting without my body being dehydrated. “She will be bigger but all the atomweights I’ve fought over the past few years have been quite big. I’ve always fought bigger opponents since I was a kid. “And I am training with some stronger opponents so I’m testing where I’m good and what I need to do to win the fight.”

catherine-costigan-makes-her-entrance Costigan has suffered hugely from injuries throughout her career. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

And the long list of injury woes are well behind her too. Costigan has endured everything from hip procedures to neck fusion surgery and a herniated disc, which was only discovered two days before a big fight. She also tore ligaments in both of her ankles while doing hill sprints.

“I still have to do a routine of physio every day and see a physio every month to keep my body in tip-top shape,” says Cositgan. “I watch what I eat and how I train.   

“You learn a lot about yourself as you go further into the professional game and how to train properly. So, we’re all great and ready to rock.”

Whatever juice Costigan has left in the tank, she’ll squeeze it all out. She has plenty to be proud about her career to date. She’s fought in world renowned competitions like Cage Warriors and Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-female promotion with strong ties to the UFC.

If this fight on Saturday is to be one of the last ones for her, she’ll pour everything into it. But considering what the last 16 months has brought to her family, the result this weekend will be secondary.

“World titles are nice to hang up but if you’ve no-one to come home to that gives you a hug and tell you they love you, all the belts in the world aren’t going to replace your mother’s love. “If I can come home to my mum in one piece and happy. Once I’m home and safe, she’s at ease again. She loves me whether I win or lose.

Even if I lose, what’s the worst thing that’s gonna happen? I’ll still go back on Monday morning. I’ll still have my life, my job, my mother is healthy and happy. There’s not much that will ever throw me off the path and make me stress.

“I think it’s made me a better person, my mother and father are stronger too.”

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