Angus MacDonald signed for Hull City from Barnsley in January 2018
“I switched off completely. My whole body went numb. I don’t remember anything after the word ‘cancer’.”
In August 2019, Hull City defender Angus MacDonald was preparing to resume his career after recovering from a dislocated shoulder and deep vein thrombosis just months apart.
But he was about to face a very different “nightmare”.
The centre-back had not long been back in training and was “not far off being involved with the team”, but his progress was being hampered by an inflamed bowel.
Within a few days of testing, the phone rang and everything changed.
‘I don’t remember how I drove home’
“I had been dealing with colitis and the specialists were investigating because my fitness levels wouldn’t improve until the inflammation calmed down,” the 27-year-old told BBC Sport.
A scan showed abnormal cell growth, and a biopsy was taken from his large bowel.
“I got the call three or four days after, and the doctor said he needed to see me urgently,” he said.
“I knew something was not right.”
MacDonald was diagnosed with bowel cancer on Friday, 23 August.
“It was a real shock,” he said.
“I was 26 and coming to the peak of my career. You never expect it to happen to you, especially being so young and otherwise fit and healthy.
“I don’t remember how I drove the car back home. It was like a daydream, and not a very nice one – more of a nightmare.”
He had been planning a birthday surprise for his partner, The X Factor winner and musical theatre star Alexandra Burke, that evening. Sticking to his original plan, he initially decided to keep his diagnosis private.
“Alex was touring in Plymouth so I packed a bag, picked up the dog and jumped in the car,” he said.
“She called me on the journey to say she hadn’t heard from me much, and I just said I was fine because I didn’t want to ruin her weekend.
“The first person I told was one of my best friends. It was a very emotional phone call – I don’t think I’ve ever cried to my friends before. I couldn’t get my words out.
“I had the weekend with Alex and she knew something wasn’t right. On the Saturday night, I broke down and told her the news.
“I would rather have just dealt with it alone and I didn’t want to upset anyone but she was reassuring. I don’t know what I would have done without her support.”
Angus MacDonald pictured with girlfriend Alexandra Burke at the Pride of Britain Awards
‘I used to ask myself, why me?’
MacDonald underwent a seven-and-a-half-hour surgery to remove his entire large bowel, where the cancer had been detected, and to have a colostomy bag fitted.
He then had to wait several weeks before doctors could give the go-ahead for a second operation.
“It was just a waiting game, but there weren’t too many down days because I filled my time by seeing family and friends,” added the Winchester-born defender.
“I didn’t want to be anywhere near football so I moved back south to stay with my family.
“It brought everyone closer together and it was something I hadn’t had for so many years because of football, which can make you distant from your loved ones.”
The second operation to implement a new bowel was approved on MacDonald’s 27th birthday in October, but the “best present” came just days before Christmas.
“To be healthy and get the all-clear after the second operation made my year,” he said.
“I didn’t need to do anything for Christmas, and I didn’t need a party or any gifts.
“There were times when I had my doubts and I wasn’t sure if I was going to live.
“I used to ask myself, why me? First the shoulder, then the DVT and then the cancer – what next?
“I just took the dog out for a walk and thought about what I had overcome.”
‘I felt like a complete amateur… but I didn’t care’
The defender returned to training in January, but the former Reading academy graduate was initially off the pace.
“I felt like a complete amateur,” he said.
“I didn’t know how to run, my legs were like jelly and when I got back to ball work it was like I’d never seen a football before.
“But it was one of the best feelings and I didn’t mind if I tripped up or a ball bobbled over my foot. I had been through so much that I had such a buzz about it.”
It had been 556 days since he last pulled on the Tigers’ shirt when MacDonald ran out to play 60 minutes for the under-23s against Birmingham City on 6 March.
“I would always have pasta and salmon the night before a game, and I stuck to that, but I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said.
“Where do I put my wash bag? Where are my shin pads?
“The time went so quickly. One minute I was in the changing room and the next I was out there playing. I could have played 90 minutes but I felt it in the legs over the next few days.”
While domestic football is on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, MacDonald could make his return to the first team if the season resumes later in the year, with Hull just two points above the Championship relegation zone.
Could he be one of the few English footballers benefiting from the current break?
“Probably,” he replied.
“I’m relishing that I’ve got some time to get my fitness back and maybe even get ahead of some people.
“I have been in a few dogfights myself so I can definitely use those experiences to help the team stay up.”