Chloe Mustaki: ‘People think you’re back to normal, but you never are’

Former U-19 Ireland captain is slowly getting her life back following her serious illness

Former U-19 Ireland captain Chloe Mustkai is slowly getting her life back following a serious illness Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Former U-19 Ireland captain Chloe Mustkai is slowly getting her life back following a serious illness Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

‘What the hell is wrong with you, Chloe?”

It was a few minutes into the second half against England when she asked herself the question.

“I even remember where I was standing on the pitch.”

It should have been the best of times for Chloe Mustaki as she captained the Irish under-19 football team through their magical journey in 2014, but, on a personal level, it was beginning to feel like the worst.

The team had qualified for the European Championships for the first time, unbeaten through their six games, but were then drawn in what looked like an impossible group, alongside previous winners England and Sweden, and runners-up from two years before, Spain.

“I just remember seeing the draw and thinking ‘for God’s sake’,” she laughs.

When they got to Norway?

Republic of Ireland 1 Spain 0.

Republic of Ireland 2 England 1.

Republic of Ireland 2 Sweden 1.

“A special year, a special team,” Mustaki smiles. “And some of those players, like Katie McCabe, Clare Shine, Sarah Rowe, Ciara O’Connell, would be among my best friends, we played together since we were 13, 14, grew up together. So, to get to the finals with them and do so well was something very special, and will always be to me.”

The Netherlands ended the dream, beating Ireland in the semi-finals before going on to win the tournament, but Dave Connell’s side had reached dizzy heights.

Mustaki, though, felt she had let her team-mates down.

“I was really upset after the games, I just wasn’t giving my fair share for the team, I wasn’t performing to my top ability. I just knew it deep down. But I couldn’t give an answer as to why. I knew that people around me could see it, I knew they were confused as to why I wasn’t performing, but there was nothing said.

Extreme tiredness

Elation, then, over the team’s performances, dismay – and bewilderment – over her own. And since being the only girl on the team in her earliest days at Park Celtic Football Club in Cabinteely, she demanded the maximum from herself, as she did when she moved on to St Joseph’s (aka Joey’s). She received her first international call-up when she was just 13, and had been involved with Ireland ever since. Committed? Just a bit. “I mean, I missed my Debs for a tournament,” she laughs. “I was captain of the under-19s, so I suppose I had to lead by example.”

She came home from Norway, then, at a loss to understand why she hadn’t performed to the levels she knew she was capable of reaching. Two weeks later she went to her doctor to have a subscription renewed. “At that point in my life I would rarely be at the GP. Maybe that’s why he asked if he could take my bloods, because he wouldn’t see me often, maybe he just wanted to get records for me.

“He rang me the next day and told me that something was up. He said he’d like to take another set. At worst I thought I might be anaemic or something. I went in for a consultation with my Mom. He explained what he thought was going on. I remember getting quite upset because I could sense something was serious. Then he sent me for a chest X-ray. There was a six centimetre tumour in my chest.”

The diagnosis?

“Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

There started a life-changing journey.

“I had never even heard of it. My brother’s a doctor, I remember ringing him that night in the kitchen with my Mom and I was like, ‘is it a form of cancer?’ I felt he didn’t want to say yes, but he was like, ‘look Chlo, it is – but it’s not a form of cancer like you think it is’. I was hysterical that night. Hysterical. I was so scared.”

The chemotherapy began in September and carried on every two weeks through to February. She put off college for a year.

For the 19-year-old, the cruellest emotional blow was losing her hair.

“It was after the second session of chemo, I was in the shower, so much of my hair was coming out. Strands of it. And then when I was brushing it. It was the thing I cherished most about myself. Ask any of my friends, they’ll laugh. It was the hardest aspect to cope with.”

“People said ‘you should just shave it before you start to really lose it,’ but I couldn’t. I did not want to give up my hair. But come the end of November, I had to. And then I got a wig.

“Sitting in front of the mirror and just seeing your head being shaved, you’ll never get over that.”

The nausea after her chemotherapy sessions was, she says, brutal too.

“Just sitting in a chair waiting for that feeling to come over you. I hated it. The more toxins I had in my body, the bigger the effect it was having on me. I was sick one week out of two, more or less house ridden.”

Her only comfort in that period was a furry bundle by the name of Bella.

“One of the best things I did was get a puppy,” she says. “I always wanted one, but my Mom said ‘not a chance!’ But then the diagnosis came and I was going to be home a lot on my own, so she agreed to get me one. She’s a cross between a Shih Tzu and a Pomeranian, an absolute brat, but she’ll always represent something very sentimental to me. She kept me company, she was something to look forward to every time I came home. And even though I wasn’t up for exercising a lot of that time, just taking her for a walk helped.”

She kept football in her life too. She needed to. “If I’d let that go, it would have felt like I was losing everything, so for my own sanity I stayed involved,” she says.

She went to UCD Waves’ training sessions when she felt up to it. She was at the Aviva when her team-mates played Raheny in the FAI Cup final.

“They wouldn’t allow anyone wear my number 17 that season, and when Áine [O’Gorman] scored in the final she lifted up her jersey and there was the number 17. They were great. They did loads of things for me throughout the year, they were definitely a support.”

Crosshead

“They told me I was cancer free, that my chances were very high that it was non-recurrent,” she says. “I still had to wait for the all-clear, so there’s always that doubt in your mind, but it was just a huge relief.

“When I got the all-clear, I was just high on life. The feeling of not being sick was the best, no more days of going in and spending hours in the chemo chair. It felt like I was being tortured at times, my body was getting such a bad hit every two weeks. The feeling of not having that, of not feeling sick, being able to go out with my friends . . . it was amazing.”

And come March of last year, the same month she got the all-clear, she was running on to the pitch at Morton Stadium, a substitute for UCD Waves against Raheny.

It was her first match since captaining Ireland against the Dutch in the European Championship semi-finals in July 2014. It felt good. “Eileen [Gleeson], our manager, had videoed the game so she sent me the clip of me coming on. It was lovely. And all the Raheny players came up to me and said it was great to see me back. It was nice. Really nice.”

She even made the squad for the World University Games in South Korea last July, but after the MERS outbreak there she was advised not to travel. “My oncologist said my system wasn’t strong enough, so I had to pull out. I just couldn’t take the chance after everything I had been through. But it was devastating.”

A battle

“I had never felt so tired in my whole life towards the end of the last semester, it hit me like a bus. I was doing fine post-chemo for a couple of months, I was living the life, I was coming back in to the routine after being out for a year. But you can have post-chemo fatigue for a year or two after, it’s just normal, but I found it very difficult.”

“And it has affected me emotionally. It really has. I’m still dealing with it. I’m doing fine, I’m happy, but I think about it a lot. It’s still massively a part of my life. I struggle very much with the fear of it recurring, I’ve started seeing someone for that, and that’s something I have no problem sharing. People think you’re back to normal, but you never are. I think year by year it will get easier, but I’m still nowhere out of it.

“You’re never faced with the possibility of dying when you’re so young, that’s what changes your outlook on things, when you come close to an experience like that you’re just never the same.”

Her parents – her mother is Irish, her father French with Greek roots – are proud of her, she says, and she’s proud of herself for coming through it, “it will stand to me for the rest of my life”.

She’ll be 21 in July and soon afterwards will set sail for Bordeaux where she will spend the year as part of her course. First thing she did was check to see if there was a local first division side. No joy. But she hopes to play second division football while she’s there.

“And football is definitely a huge part of my life, it always has been and I don’t think it’ll ever not be,” she says, her ambition is to play for the senior Irish side one day.

Old life

When you’re able to get rid of them? “That’ll be the best. That’ll be the real end of the physical journey for me.”

It’s bucketing down outside and the wind is bitter, but she’s still looking forward to training with UCD Waves that evening.

She’s getting her old life back again, day by day.

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