‘He believed he was going to make it – and so did we’

Graham Irving, 26, who died of Cancer Unknown Primary (CUP).
Graham Irving, 26, who died of Cancer Unknown Primary (CUP).
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A mum whose football mad son’s life was tragically cut short after he was struck by an unknown cancer speaks for the first time about the family’s grief and how they are keeping his memory alive. She met Sarah Fielden.

Graham Irving was a witty, loving and hard-working man.

Graham Irving, 26, who died of Cancer Unknown Primary (CUP)'Graham with his mum ?? and sister Katrina taken at Christmas 2011. Graham's last Christmas and exactly six months before he died.

Graham Irving, 26, who died of Cancer Unknown Primary (CUP)'Graham with his mum ?? and sister Katrina taken at Christmas 2011. Graham's last Christmas and exactly six months before he died.

The 26-year old was enjoying a new job, planning his next international adventure and looking forward to walking his sister Katrina down the aisle at her wedding.

But, tragically, the Preston man never saw his sister get married.

The avid Preston North End fan had shownno signs of illness other than a pain in his back, but just weeks after developing the sore shoulder, he died.

Graham had Cancer Unknown Primary (CUP), and had passed away before doctors could find the cause of the spread.

Graham Irving, 26, who died of Cancer Unknown Primary (CUP).

Graham Irving, 26, who died of Cancer Unknown Primary (CUP).

Now his parents have been left with a “sense of emptiness” following his sudden death, two years ago this week, but are determined to keep his memory alive and fund research into the cause.

“There were just no signs whatsoever,” recalls his mum Susan.

“There was no sudden weight loss – he was tall and slim anyway – and there was no loss of appetite or loss of energy.

“The first real sign was a bad back which was mid-June. He had a sore shoulder, which was put down to having started a new gym.

“Then he had a bit of a fever and a bit of a shortness of breath.

“But he had started his new job in March and he was getting on the bus rather than the car, so the theory was he had just picked up a bug.

“He gave me a phone call and said ‘I’ve been given antibiotics, I’ll stay off work tomorrow’.”

Graham took one day off work from his job with the British Medical Council in Manchester, but when he returned the next day his boss noticed he was slightly out of breath, and suggested he went back to the doctor.

Susan, 56, explains: “The doctor sent him to A&E at Manchester Royal Infirmary, about four days after he had his antibiotics.

“He passed away three weeks and five days later.

“During his time at Manchester Royal Infirmary they carried out the tests and the scans. But nobody expected him to die, not even the specialists.”

The former Archbishop Temple and Preston College student had blood tests, scans and biopsies and, after about eight days, cancer was detected.

But, because the primary was unknown, further tests were required to give experts an idea of what type of treatment was needed.

However, Graham died just weeks later.

Susan says: “He was fully compos mentis right up to the last minute and he was so willing to get better.

“He totally believed he was going to make it and that he had a tough time ahead but he would get there, and that’s what we thought.

“We knew it was aggressive but he had a really good fighting chance.

“On the Saturday night we were watching TV talking about the news, and then he had some tea and a piece of toast.

“On Sunday morning I made him toast and tea, he was sitting up in his chair and at about 11am his two close friends came to visit him and he was sitting chatting to them and eating sweets.

“They went and Katrina arrived, and we went back to the room for a shower.

“We were going to go into Manchester city centre for a walk and just as we were outside the doors we got a phone call from Katrina, who said the nurse says you need to come now.”

Susan says: “We ran through the corridors, up the stairs and into his ward. The nurse took us and said ‘it’s going to be now’.

“We walked into Graham and he said to me ‘What’s happening, mum?’

“Then, at 2.30pm, just before kick-off time, he died. He was very peaceful, he just slowed right down.”

His parents, Susan and Eddie, were then left with a sense of confusion about what had happened to their son, who they believe had been destined to be a football pundit.

“He was just a friendly, loving son”, says Susan, who is a retired head teacher. “He was hard working and he was really witty.”

Graham, who grew up in Fulwood, studied at the University of Salford and achieved a 2:1 degree in business information technology, before travelling to Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. He then returned to the UK and worked in Manchester. Susan says: “Football was his main love. He was a stats man and really should have been a football pundit.

“He used to talk and breathe football statistics.

“He had a season ticket for North End from about the age of six or seven, and he was PNE through and through.”

Graham would post regularly on the PNE forum, with his user name gdi442. He even managed to secure a work experience placement with his beloved team when he was in year 10, while David Moyes was manager at the club, and he worked there as a volunteer until he started university.

Susan says: “He was absolutely in his element, and PNE have been very, very supportive helping us with fund-raising.”

Graham won a competition through the Lancashire Evening Post to go to the World Cup in 1996, and he was buried wearing a Preston North End kit – following his funeral at St Anthony’s Church, where everybody wore football shirts.

Susan describes her son as “just a normal lad”, with a healthy, active lifestyle.

“He led a really normal, sensible life”, she says, “He was more interested in going out and seeing and doing than going out drinking.”

Graham died on July 22 2012 – two years ago tomorrow – aged 26. He was due to celebrate his birthday in the September, and his sister got married the following March.

Susan says: “He was going to walk her down the aisle, he was so excited. They were very close – they were best friends.”

Susan adds: “The message really is the fact that we are left with this feeling of emptiness and not knowing what the primary cancer was – a label of Cancer Unknown Primary.

“We want to try to make sense of the speed of it all and how a young, healthy man can be sitting up chatting one minute eating toast, and then by 2.30pm they are no longer here, they have passed away.

“They haven’t got the answers and it’s down to research. It’s down to cancer research and diagnostic testing moving forward and being able to target it to specific areas of cancer.”

The family now works to fund-raise through a scheme called My Projects, through Cancer Research. Graham has his own fund-raising page, which has been set up to raise donations directly in Graham’s memory and for his dedicated fund-raising causes.

Susan says: “It’s about awareness that young people like Graham one minute can be healthy and happy and loved and highly respected in the world, and the next minute they are taken, and you are left with confusion as to what actually was the cause of it.

“We are left with unanswered questions, and it is down to more money and more fund-raising.

“We were absolutely delighted to find that My Projects on the Cancer Research web site does have lists of research projects that you can help with, so your fundraising is targeted to the needs of your family to support the experience you’ve had.”

After Graham died, his friends suggested an annual event to raise money for Graham’s cause, and his family organised a football tournament.

The special event, held at Preston’s Play Football, was organised again this year and friends and family travelled from around the world to remember Graham and 
support his fund-raiser. A total of 90 players over 14 teams battled it out to win either the Europa League or the Champions League, and the tournament raised £1,487.83.

Susan says: “It’s important to us that these fund-raising occasions are a time for family and friends to come together to celebrate Graham’s life alongside raising money.” She says she wants to thank everybody who has supported the cause, including local schools and businesses that have supported Graham’s fund-raising.

“Everybody, family, friends, friends of friends and people he has met in his life have just been a rock to us”, she says.

“They have been there through the support, their friendship, and just down to the fund-raising. Just down to being incredible and helping us keep Graham’s precious memory alive, and helping celebrate what a precious son and person he was.”

To donate, visit http://myprojects.cancerresearchuk.org/fundraise/fundraising-pages/graham-david-irving-gdi442.