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Dublin: 10°C Sunday 16 May 2021

'You're never faced with the possibility of dying when you're so young. You don't think about it'

Three years after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, former Ireland U19 captain Chloe Mustaki is preparing to return to the Aviva Stadium tomorrow for the FAI Cup final. It promises to be an emotional day.

Chloe Mustaki with Sylvia Gee UCD Waves defender Chloe Mustaki. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IT’S HARD TO imagine what will be going through Chloe Mustaki’s head tomorrow morning, simply because it’s hard to ever imagine going through what she has gone through.

It’s impossible to put yourself in those shoes, simply because you never want to.

It’s impossible to comprehend it all from the outside, simply because it’s not worth comprehending.

It’s impossible to imagine how you’d react in that situation, simply because it’s one of life’s unimaginables.

And that’s the thing, it’s not simple.

When life deals you a cruel hand, it’s not as simple as carrying on or burying your head. It’s not as simple as turning a blind eye, and getting on with life. Because when you’re diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a type of blood cancer — at the age of 19, your life is turned upside down. It changes everything overnight, and throws you off course.

“When I got diagnosed, it was a case of being strong but it was a case of not having a choice and I always say that when people ask me about it,” Mustaki tells The42.

“People don’t know how strong they are until they’re faced with something like that. I think most people would have been able to get through it like I did, they just don’t know it.”

On Sunday, Mustaki will complete something of a full circle. It’s not the completion of her life-changing journey by any means but a return to the Aviva Stadium for the Women’s FAI Cup final is a poignant and emotive full stop to this particular chapter for the 22-year-old.

Three years ago, she watched from the stands as UCD Waves suffered final hurdle heartbreak to an all-conquering Raheny United side. Her memories of the occasion are tinged somewhat by the result, but it was a day that will always stick in her mind.

Mustaki witnessed first hand her former Ireland underage team-mate, and close friend, Katie McCabe set the final alight with a moment of individual brilliance. She remembers that stunning free-kick vividly. And so too Aine O’Gorman’s equaliser just before half-time, when the UCD captain wheeled away in a pre-meditated celebration.

Mustaki had been in the dressing room, deep in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium, before kick off when manager Eileen Gleeson had handed out specially designed t-shirts to each of the players with the number 17 — her squad number — printed on the front.

And when O’Gorman scored, she lifted her jersey in a show of support for Mustaki. At the time, not many people outside that dressing room understood the significance of it, but it carried weight.

It meant a lot to Mustaki and her family.

UCD Waves lost 2-1 that day, but there was more to it than football.

“Those kind of things I’ll never forget, it just shows you people care and they’re there to support you,” she says.

“That day was hugely emotional for me.”

Aine O'Gorman celebrates scoring her side's first goal Aine O'Gorman celebrates her goal in the 2014 FAI Cup final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Three months previous, Mustaki had visited her GP for a routine visit to renew a subscription and get bloods taken. The doctor asked her to come back in for a second set of tests and when he sent her for a chest x-ray, it was clear something wasn’t quite right.

And, in retrospect, the warning signs had been there.

A supremely talented young footballer, Mustaki had been an ever-present through the Ireland underage teams and progressed through the ranks alongside the likes of McCabe — the current senior national team captain — as well as Sarah Rowe, the Mayo footballer, and Claire Shine. They grew up together, they played together.

It was a golden generation, and a special team.

Dave Connell’s side would go onto become the first-ever Ireland team to qualify for the U19 European Championships in 2014. Not content with the achievement of getting there, Ireland, led by Mustaki, disrupted the established order as they embarked on a remarkable adventure.

In seeing off all three top seeds in Spain, England and Sweden, Ireland advanced to the last four of the tournament and defied all expectations. It was one of the best moments of Mustaki’s decorated underage career, but at the same time one of the hardest periods of her life.

“I’ve very mixed emotions looking back,” she explains. “It makes me happy but also makes me upset too because when I got back from that tournament I was diagnosed.

“When I was over there I felt I hadn’t given it my all and I hadn’t performed to the best of my ability. As captain I found that hard to deal with it as I was supposed to lead from the front. I was very upset but didn’t want to show it.

“I’m quite strong mentally but when I was over there [in Norway] there were nights and afternoons when I was quite upset over performances. Not that I played shockingly bad or anything but I knew something was holding me back and I didn’t know what.”

Mustaki, even to this day, feels she let her team-mates down.

Unable to reach the standard of performance she expected from herself, the alarm bells started to ring louder during the second group game against England. Mustaki’s energy levels were at rock bottom and it was inhibiting her ability to perform.

Nobody said anything at the time, but those on the trip must have wondered what was going on with their ever-reliable captain.

“My overwhelming thought was, why is this happening to me at this tournament?”

“I remember talking a lot with Katie, Sarah and Claire, as we were close friends. We did have discussions, I vividly remember saying after games that I didn’t understand why I wasn’t performing the way I should be. But they were my friends and obviously weren’t going to comment that much.”

2126501_w2 Katie McCabe (far left) and Mustaki (second from right) during the 2014 U19 European Championships. Source: Sportsfile

A magical year ended in bitter disappointment and bewilderment.

Ireland’s ambitions to go all the way perished at the semi-final hurdle as a classy Netherlands outfit proved to be a hurdle too far for Connell’s ‘History Girls’ after three memorable victories.

And in her final game at U19 level, Mustaki was hauled off after 60 minutes. The dream was over, and the captain left to wonder what the hell was going on.

“I didn’t have any answers, there was a lot of confusion.”

A couple of weeks later, on 19 August 2014 to be exact, those scans came back and Mustaki was told she had a six centimetre tumor on her chest.

More questions than answers.

Suddenly the triviality of football and performances and results was put in perspective.

Suddenly, at the age of 19 ahead of a second year in college, there were questions over mortality.

“I was terrified, so, so scared.

“You’re never faced with the possibility of dying when you’re so young or at least you never think about it. Obviously the better the support system you have, the easier the process is going to be and luckily I had an unbelievable support system.

“There’s a lot of doctors in my family and it really sped up the process of having chemo. It was a huge help. All I wanted to do when I found out was start treatment straight away. The sooner it starts, the sooner it’s over.”

But where do you go from receiving that news? What happens with college? What happens with football? What happens with everyday life?

You can go two ways, and Mustaki was determined from the off not to let it get the better of her. Her mindset was clear: there was nothing she could do about an illness which had intruded on her life, so the only option was to get on with it. To stay strong and get better.

“I thought straight away there’s no way I am going to try and fight this battle as well as keeping up my studies,” she continues.

“On the other hand, family members were telling me don’t defer the year, you’re going to have too much time on your hands and you’re going to be depressed. But I knew I wasn’t going to be able to perform well academically and I wanted to fight it without any other stress or added pressure.

“I made the decision to defer the year against everybody else’s wishes but looking back now it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Everyone around me realised pretty quickly after I started chemo, it was the right decision.”

The chemotherapy sessions were, in her own words, like torture. There were 12 of them in total, and by the seventh, things got really tough. Not only did Mustaki lose her hair, but she was house-bound for a week every fortnight with extreme nausea and general fatigue.

It’s impossible to even imagine being in that situation, simply because you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

The treatment lasted six months but eight weeks in she received the news she was cancer free. Unimaginable relief, unimaginable reassurance.

Chloe Mustaki Mustaki played youth football for Park Celtic and St Joseph's. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

But the hardest part for Mustaki was still to come. That post-treatment, post-chemo phase proved to be the toughest mentally as she attempted to return to everyday life; to college, lectures, exams, night outs and training. The stuff we take for granted.

Physically and mentally, Mustaki was exhausted.

“When I was going through it [treatment], I didn’t have time to think. I completely understand how people can suffer mentally, but I didn’t have time. Straight away I got going on chemo and within six months I was done. Bloods one day, chemo the next. It was one day after another and I just didn’t get time to think.

“The time I struggled was post-treatment and I pretty much crumbled after everything was over. Having to get back to normal life was really difficult for me. Obviously my body was tired and I had to pick up the demands of everyday life. There were a lot of tears, I remember when I went back to college the first semester was really tough. Having to go back and face it all again after my life had changed. To get good grades and get back into some sort of routine. That was the time I found most difficult.”

But throughout it all, football remained a constant.

It had always been a huge part of her life and even when everything else was on hold, football was going to remain.

Remarkably, Mustaki maintained a small bit of training during her treatment and within five weeks of being given the all clear, she was back on the pitch with UCD Waves.

It was as much for her own sanity as anything else because sport, as it so often does, had that ability to occupy the mind. It was an outlet, away from everything else that was going on and training with her team-mates maintained some sort of normality for her.

“I knew if I didn’t keep up the activity in some way I don’t think I would have been able to come back to the level I’m playing at now.

“It took me a while to get back but if I didn’t do anything during the treatment then it would have been so much longer. I just wanted to get that period over as quickly as possible and return to my everyday life. Keeping up some form of training during the treatment was necessary for that to happen.”

On 4 February 2015, Mustaki completed the final stage of her treatment and the following month, she was coming off the bench in the Women’s National League fixture against Raheny at Morton Stadium on 16 March.

It was her first appearance since that defeat to Netherlands in July 2014.

“It was really nice, I was clapped onto the pitch my everyone.”

It would be erroneous to say at this juncture that Mustaki’s life was back on track. It wasn’t, and it took time.

“Post-chemo fatigue for a year or two is normal and I found it difficult as I said. There’s also the fear of it recurring and I started to talk to someone to help with that but when you experience something like that, it will always be with you.”

Chloe Mustaki The 22-year-old in action for Ireland during the University Games in August. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That September, Mustaki resumed her studies for a degree in Commerce International with French from UCD and after achieving the necessary grades, last year took up the option to go on Erasmus to Bordeaux.

She combined college life abroad with football and spent a season playing with French Division 1 side Girondins de Bordeaux, where operating at a higher level sharpened her technical skills and built up her fitness again.

“It has been a long season,” Mustaki laughs.

“I came back from France in June or something and was straight back into it with UCD. We’ve had a great season, winning the WNL Shield, and Sunday would be the perfect end to it.”

Tomorrow’s return to the Aviva Stadium for the showpiece event in the domestic football calendar will evoke a range of emotions for Mustaki. The excitement and nerves associated with an occasion of this magnitude, but also the raw, undiluted sentiments forever affixed with the day.

“It will be hugely emotional for me again on Sunday. I’m going to be happy and will mostly just be concentrating on performing, that’s the most important aspect for me.

“Having come back from being ill I want to prove to myself and to the likes of Colin Bell [Ireland WNT manager] that I am able to get back to the player I was and to an even  higher level. It will be an emotional day for me, especially if we win it.

“I have school friends from St Andrew’s who have never seen me play coming, which is crazy to think but it will be really nice to have all that support.”

And the support, from family, team-mates and friends, has helped Mustaki through the toughest of times. The last three years have been life-changing — ‘after something like that you’re never the same’ — but it is now part of who she is.

“I guess you could say this is a second career for me,” she adds. “I’ve no idea what’s to come but I’ll be doing everything I can to play at the highest level.”

And that has always been the goal.

Had illness not rudely interrupted, there is no doubt Mustaki would be sitting alongside Katie McCabe or Claire Shine as senior internationals.

It didn’t work out that way, but there’s no reason why she can’t fulfil that ambition now.

“I found it hard to see players I played alongside at U19 level now playing seniors and for me not to be there. Up until a year ago I was happy with where I was because I was just happy to be back but as time goes on, I’m feeling better and performing to my ability.

“Playing senior international football is a goal of mine and at the moment what I’ve done hasn’t been enough in Colin’s eyes to get a call up but all I can do is perform consistently on days like Sunday.

“To be honest, I don’t know what it will bring. I’ve had a tough few weeks in college as it’s my final year but I’m less obsessive about these things now. I don’t get hung up over things as much.

“Previously I might have got really upset over things to do with football, now I just look at life differently. There’s a lot of other things that can make you happy in life and I’ll take my wins and take my losses when it comes to football.

“I will absolutely cherish every moment on Sunday but no matter what the result is I’ll look forward to other things in my life.”

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