Each morning around 9am, Dylan Tombides crawls out of bed, walks to the bathroom and looks into the mirror.
Staring back at the young West Ham striker is a thick, 12-inch scar running from the centre of his chest to his navel.
That’s when the flashbacks begin, taking this 18-year-old Australian back to the moment his life fell apart.
Already a regular goalscorer in the reserves, Tombides was looking forward to pre-season training with the Hammers’ first team after playing for the Joeys in the Under 17 World Cup in Mexico last summer.
He was in Cancun for a few days “chilling out with the old man” when he took the telephone call that ripped his life apart.
A random drugs test, taken after his team was beaten 4-0 by Uzbekistan, uncovered a tumour on one of his testicles.
Tombides was 17, tipped for the top and had already made the first-team bench for a Premier League game.
Trembling with fear, he turned to his father, Jimmy: “Dad, could this kill me?” His face went white.
“I was 17, a young man and I had never come across cancer,” he admitted at the family home a short walk from West Ham’s training ground. “All I was thinking about was getting in the West Ham team and taking my driving test.
“I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time,” he said. “All I ever wanted to be was a top professional footballer with West Ham.
“It was only when I took the phone call in Cancun that I realised just how serious the condition was. I had the blood tests and CT scans when I got back to England and they told me I needed to have a testicle removed immediately.”
All he could think about was getting back on to the football field, joining the Hammers in their promotion push and putting the ball in the back of the net again.
He had a 45-minute procedure, but that was just the start. Tombides spent weeks at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, falling in and out of consciousness while his mum Tracylee, dad and younger brother Taylor, who is also at West Ham, sat by his bedside.
Some days Tombides would be in hospital, hooked up to the chemotherapy lines for seven hours, with tubes connected to him so that he could barely move.
“I’d wake up for 15 minutes and I would be exhausted. They would give me anti-sickness tablets and I would think I’d only been sick a couple of times in the night.
“Then Mum would look at me and put me right – it was more like seven or eight.
“There were times when I would just look at Mum and tell her, ‘I don’t want the chemo anymore, I will live with the cancer’. That’s how I felt at times.”
Then he had to have another operation after doctors discovered a blood clot on his abdomen and cancer cells on his lymph nodes.
“I spent 11 days in hospital after that and it wasn’t pleasant. I woke up to a huge scar and couldn’t use my core muscles for weeks.
“I just wanted to play football again, but there was so much scar tissue I had to be careful. I spent a lot of time on the exercise bike or in the swimming pool.”
He is full of enthusiasm now, enjoying his freedom and his football after returning to training this week. He will have another nine monthly blood tests before he can be given the all-clear, a date circled in the family diary as he focuses on the future and a squad number under Sam Allardyce next season.
He added: “It has been a long process, but all I ever wanted to do was play football again.”
by Buford Balony