I've got cancer and can't beat it

Written By Unknown on Sabtu, 02 Maret 2013 | 12.50

Former Essendon Football Club chairman Graeme McMahon, who has pancreatic cancer. Picture: Andrew Tauber. Source: Herald Sun

GRAEME McMahon is dying of cancer.

That may sound abrupt, but if you've ever met the former Essendon Football Club chairman and former boss of Ansett worldwide, he's the kind of bloke to accept such a forthright approach.

That was his life motto: Don't mess about, just say it. Or do it. Be strong with your convictions.

In his prime, when he was taking on unions in the pilots' strike, or taking on the AFL Commission, he was a bear of a man with conviction and confidence and a booming voice.

He is all those things today, except for the big frame - which has been ravaged - and the voice is more boom than booming.

Today, the 73-year-old sits on his throne, his well-worn leather chair in the office at his Essendon home.

He thought we were going to talk about Essendon and the drugs scandal, but it was always going to be more than that.

Because of it, he cries occasionally, smiles occasionally and remembers a lot.

"I had a boss once, just a fantastic bloke, Peter Abeles," he said.

Former Essendon Football Club chairman Graeme McMahon, who has pancreatic cancer, at Point Lonsdale Beach with wife Gleneys. Picture: Andrew Tauber.

"And I remember him saying to me, if you have an opinion on something in life, then you've got to have the courage to state it publicly. And if you don't, you might as well go grow flowers.

"I've never forgotten that and I admired him just enormously ... "

With that, McMahon choked up. Sir Peter Abeles was a dear friend and a mentor who died of pancreatic cancer in June, 1999.

"If you make up your mind you just have to follow it through, and whether people disagree or agree with you is beside the point.

"Take all the advice in the world, accept some, discard some, but when you make your mind up, you have to get on with it."

For those safe and illness-free, you can't imagine what happens to the mind when death beckons.

Safe to say, the culmination of everyone you have loved and everything you have achieved - the everything of you as a person - is manifested into memories.

McMahon still lives for every day, but finds memories are becoming dear friends.

Graeme McMahon, who has pancreatic cancer, is most concerned about leaving wife Gleneys alone. Picture: Andrew Tauber.

With some of them he smiles and tells a story, such as he did about the photograph on the office wall of him and Queen Elizabeth II. And the photograph next to it, of a beaming brute of man standing beside a black marlin he caught off the Queensland coast.

Or the photograph from the America's Cup signed by John Bertrand - the one of the boat that sank off San Diego on which McMahon had been a guest three days earlier.

With others, there is sadness.

"There are times between 1am and 4am when you might not be asleep and you find yourself lying there and looking at the roof," he said.

"And you remember lots of things. Good things and bad things. I'm not lying in bed crying, but you just have these thoughts.

"Things that have happened to you, things you have done, things you would do differently if you had the chance again.

"And it sounds egotistical and vain, I suppose, but there aren't too many things I would do differently.

"I've made mistakes like everyone does, but I've got to tell you, at the time I thought they were right, so bugger the world as far as I'm concerned."


THIS is McMahon's third bout of cancer. The first, at the end of 1999, was discovered in his kidney and removed. In 2011, he had surgery and radiotherapy for prostate cancer and he was cleared in September last year.

But two months later cancer attacked him again - in the pancreas - and this time it was take no prisoners.

"The hardest thing about it is you have to confront it and wonder what's going to happen. Am I going to live? Am I going to die? What's the prognosis?

"The first one, the kidney, was so quick they found it on the Friday and they operated on the Monday, which really didn't give me a chance to think about it. I was lucky.

They still haven't told me if I've got six months or a year or two years. They won't put an estimate on it

"The second one, the prostate, the first guy who found it actually said to me, 'This won't kill you Graeme, you're 70-something years of age and you will die of something else'.

"So, I really didn't have to confront it at that point. I decided to get the treatment through surgery and radiotherapy but it was done against a background that it wasn't a death sentence in its own right.

"But this one came along and it was quite different. It came out of the blue."

The tipping point came when his son wondered why the old man had turned yellow.

Bile had built up in his body, causing jaundice. Exploratory surgery found a blockage, and the reason for the blockage was a tumour.

"I know from Peter Abeles' time, if you're going to get cancer, pancreatic cancer is the one you don't want to get because it's not curable and it's not operable. You're literally buggered," he said.

"I'm on chemo now and we're hoping it will slow it down. And if they slow it down I'll get a bit more time, but sooner or later this one will kill you.

"So, this is the first one I've had to confront and the hardest part was getting my head around it. They still haven't told me if I've got six months or a year or two years. They won't put an estimate on it.

"I said you have to give me some guidance, and he said it will be between six months and two years unless the chemo does a real fantastic job.

"Getting your head around it all is difficult. And doing the things you have to do.

"I had to bring both sons in and talk through family finances and those sorts of things, and what's going to happen, and to look after your mother ... "

He chokes up again.

"Just all that s---. I found it hard. I'm sure there are stronger people than me."

In the few months since diagnosis, McMahon has grown stronger. Initially, he made a list of who he had to ring and tell the news and retired to the office.

He had a dozen names of family and friends, but could make only three calls, such was the grief from whom he told which amplified his grief in the telling.

"It was too upsetting," he said.

"But as time has gone on, I've got better. I can sit here now and talk to you about it and I know what's going to happen. You have your moments, like talking about Abeles a minute ago. That's because, really, I was remembering a bloke I admired enormously."


McMAHON was chairman of Essendon for seven years from 1997 to 2003 - which, of course, included the 2000 premiership.

"I look back on it with great affection," he said.

"It happened at a time when it fitted my life perfectly."

He retired from Ansett in 1996 after 40 years. He started in the mail room in '56 and retired as managing director/chief executive of Ansett, five years before the collapse of the airline and after Air New Zeland took it over.

As a young man, he played in Essendon's under-19 Grand Final team in 1958 - they were beaten by Richmond at Punt Rd - and had a love for the club ever since.

Largely unknown to the Dons faithful, he was approached to join the board by chairman David Shaw and director Don McKenzie, and at about the same time was asked if he would be chairman.

"I remember going to the first official function, the season-launch dinner at the Showgrounds, and I put the suit and tie on and over we went," he said.

"I didn't know anybody and nobody knew me. I remember thinking, what am I going to say? I was regarded as an outsider, and I said something like, 'I was born and raised in Essendon, I went to school in Essendon, I got married in Essendon, my kids go to school in Essendon, I live in Essendon, I work in Essendon, I'm more Essendon than the rest of you and top of that, I played at Essendon.' Suddenly I was accepted."

They were tough times for Essendon.

The salary cap cheating had gutted the club, there was board downsizing to complete, Peter Jackson would run the club as chief executive, and, in 1998, there was a significant push from some board directors to sack Kevin Sheedy as coach.

Then, not many people knew that McMahon had played with Sheedy at Prahran and in the then-VFA and in fact McMahon was chosen in Prahran's team of the century - ahead of Sheedy.

"I had heard all these stories about what was going on before I got there but it was a blank piece of paper for me in regards to Kevin. He had done nothing wrong since I was there. Not many realised we had played in a premiership at Prahran and there was a bit of loyalty there, too," he said.

At home, in an off-shoot room on the way from the kitchen to the office, there is what you would call the Essendon room.

A TV sits large in front of two leather chairs and the walls are adorned with Bombers memorabilia: Jumpers, framed photos and plaques. They are more memories, but these are the memories he smiles about it.

"Football is Essendon to me," he said.

As for the current drugs fall, the current drugs investigation at the club McMahon is disappointed but maintains faith in the heirarchy.

"The one strong comment I would make is my respect for the people like David Evans (chairman), Bruce Reid (doctor) and James Hird (coach) is such that I cannot believe they would knowingly allow illegal practices"

McMahon sits in a room at the Freemason's Hospital. It's where he is treated with chemotherapy.

With each sitting he is becoming more pragmatic about the journey ahead.

"I've taken the view that I will fight it with chemo, but when chemo starts to make me so ill that life is not worth going on ... I've already told the doctors then that's the end. I'll just stop it and try to get some quality of life before you end up kicking on.

"At that point in time, there's no guarantees I won't get as emotional as buggery. But at this point in time I've reconciled with the fact I've got it, and I'm trying to make it as easy on my friends and relatives for them not to get upset about it.

"You know, I've had a good life."

He describes the room at the Freemasons. There's about 24 chairs, usually the big recyliners, filled with mostly 50, 60 and 70-year olds, all hooked up to whatever they have been prescribed. It is a souless place filled with people who don't want to be there.

"All of a sudden," McMahon said, "the door will open and in will walk an 18-year-old.

"It brings home to you that you're not bad off. I've had a good life. I've done a lot of things, seen a lot of things, met a lot of people, had a good family, so I've had a good go. And to see an 18-year-old."

He chokes up again.

"That's what upsets me the most at the moment, seeing these other poor buggers who haven't had a chance yet to do whatever they want to do in life," he said.

"And to the people who look after us ... dealing with people who are getting ready to die ... they are terrific, friendly and lovely people."


GLENEYS McMahon walks into the office with cups of tea and biscuits. They have been married 46 years.

She's an enthusiastic soul. She's ridden the highs and lows with her husband, from when the family received death threats through the pilots' strike in the late 1980s to the current plight.

Still, she's all chatter and natter and does she love the Bombers. "You finished yet?" she asked.

Her ears would've been burning five minutes previous.

"She's a good woman, a strong woman," McMahon said.

"She's been a great support through this time and has stood up really well.

"It must be tough on her. I couldn't have done what I did at Ansett or what I did at Essendon without her if she wasn't prepared to be the backstop and look after everything.

"She mostly raised the kids. In one year at Ansett, and she used to have a calendar on the wall, she used to cross off on the calendar which days I wouldn't be in Melbourne and we added them up one year and I was gone for seven months of the year."

It's just two of them at home now - their sons have long moved out - and part of the predicament is discussing what happens with the house when he's gone, whether Gleneys stays or goes, and all the finances.

"I don't know how to address the fact that instead of being here with me, she's going to be on her own," he said.

"That's going to be very difficult for her."

This moment, however, Gleneys is thinking none of that.

She's worried only that the cuppa's getting cold.

"Come on, let's go outside," she says.

"Now tell me, what's going on with our Bombers and all this drugs stuff?"

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