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‘It made me a better person’: Cove Rangers club doctor on his terminal blood cancer

Former Kincorth and Cove GP Dave Fowler says he's more relaxed than ever after a terminal blood cancer diagnosis made him slow down and enjoy life.

Dave Fowler at home in Auchlunies. The retired GP will take part in Brave 2024 in May. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson
Dave Fowler at home in Auchlunies. The retired GP will take part in Brave 2024 in May. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

As a GP and club doctor for Cove Rangers, Dave Fowler knows all about side-effects.

But still, the repercussions of his blood cancer diagnosis just over ten years ago at the age of 55 have been unexpected.

Yes, the physical effects have been tough — his condition means he’s anaemic and his muscles are slowly wasting away.

And there was the difficult news in 2019 that the blood cancer had transformed into something called myelofibrosis, a terminal blood cancer.

But mentally… well, he’s rarely felt better.

“That’s funny thing about the blood cancer,” he says sitting in the living room of his home in Auchlunies, Aberdeenshire. “I think it made me a better doctor; maybe even a better person.”

Dave says his diagnosis has improved him as a person and a doctor. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

He knows it sounds strange for a man with terminal cancer, but he’s far less stressed since the diagnosis.

He’s got more time for people, and listens more.

When he was a GP — he retired in 2020 — he already had a reputation for running late because he liked to spend time with patients.

After the diagnosis, he ran even later.

Ask him why and the crofter’s son from Drumoak who studied medicine at Aberdeen University says his terminal cancer has given him a different perspective on life.

As someone who became used to giving out bad news, he has accepted his own with equanimity.

Part of that is his profession and part his Christian faith. But it also seems to just be who he is.

Dave counts each day as a blessing. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

“When somebody told me my life was more limited, well, I just accepted that,” Dave says. “That’s the way it is.

“It made all the other problems seem less worth bothering about. You’ve got one thing now, and it’s a problem. The rest… it just doesn’t matter.”

A trip down the catwalk for Brave 2024

In May, Dave, who is now 65, will be one of 24 models taking part in Friends of Anchor’s Brave fashion show, a charity event to fight cancer and blood disease.

All of the models have their own history with cancer or blood disease, and while the focus of the May 16 and 17 shows at the P&J Live is to raise money it is also a celebration of those taking part.

For Dave — one of a few set to walk the catwalk with a terminal diagnosis — it should be especially memorable, though he’s far from ready to call quits on life just yet.

He admits he might not manage the motorhome trip around the US with wife Hazel, but as a licensed pilot he’s looking forward to a flight in a small plane with son Calum in April.

Dave is still living life to the full. Image: Supplied by Dave Fowler

And there’s a reunion with his old Aberdeen University medical school classmates later this year.

Along the way, there will be time for reflection on the life he has lived.

And the audit is — largely — positive.

“I wish maybe I’d worked less hard and spent more time with Hazel and Calum,” he says. “But I can’t say I have any regrets.”

How crofter’s son and medicine ‘nut’ became a GP

Dave may have grown up on a croft in Drumoak, but all he wanted to do was be a doctor.

“I was a nut on medicine,” he says. At Cults Academy he’d pester teachers to let him do a talk for the class on the history of medicine, his pet subject.

He even had favourite historical physicians — Andreas Vesalius, the 16th-centrury anatomist and Roman polymath Galen.

“What a prat, I know,” Dave says, laughing at the memory.

Dave is one of two official club doctors at Cove Rangers. Image: Supplied by Dave Fowler

He was a determined student, and in his first year at Aberdeen absorbed everything. He read textbooks all night, reveling in the hard work of study. At the end of the year, he won a distinction in anatomy.

After university, he worked in ward 50 at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, but quickly realised hospitals weren’t for him.

“My background was crofting, so general practice was obvious for me,” he says. “So, I applied for Kincorth and Cove and got a job.”

The text message that took Dave down the aisle

There were five GPs at the practice when Dave joined in 1985 and he quickly settled in.

“My initial thought was that they were not my people; I was more of a country bumpkin and these people were Toonsers. But no, they had good hearts and they were nice people.”

Dave got to know a woman at the practice who was a community psychiatric nurse with the substance misuse service.

The Evening Express covers Dave’s retirement in August 2020. Image: DC Thomson

One week, Dave’s dad decided to walk across Scotland – a 170-mile jaunt from Loch Duich to Montrose.

Dave went too and just as they were about to set off, texted the woman to ask if she’d like to go out.

“‘With me’, I had to quickly add.”

The woman was Hazel, and she said yes. In 2002 the couple got married.

Dave’s blood cancer diagnosis

Their son Calum had been born the year before, and life sailed on.

Then in 2013, when Dave was 55, he was diagnosed with polycythaemia vera, a type of blood cancer. The condition damaged his liver, and he was told he could expect to live for another five to seven years.

Dave and Hazel at their wedding, with son Calum. Image: Supplied by Dave Fowler
Dave was diagnosed with myelofibrosis in 2019. Image: Supplied by Dave Fowler

In 2019, the polycythaemia vera turned into myelofibrosis, which has an even worse life expectancy.

The diagnosis eventually led Dave to step down as a GP in August 2020 after 35 years at the Cove Bay Health Centre.

How Cove Rangers gave Dave his mojo back

A major passion remains Cove Rangers, the local football club he was doctor for from 1991 to 1995.

When he retired from general practice, the club asked him back, though these days he only manages away games.

He says his return has been a god send, especially for Hazel who Dave admits was going a bit crazy at him moping around the house.

Dave and Hazel. Image: Supplied by Dave Fowler

“It really gives you a buzz.

“Hazel says I was dour all the time, but then I went back to Cove and I’d be coming home with all these stories.”

Dave still thrives off the energy of the players, though a lot changed while he was away.

For example, on the way back to Cove the team bus no longer stops for fish suppers at Fochabers.

And nor do the players sink a couple of pints in the pub next door while they wait for their orders.

Broken ankles and wayward balls

The players may be fitter today, but it’s the stories from the past that really make Dave’s face light up — the ones from the wild days of Allan Park when Cove was still in the Highland League.

During a memorable Scottish Cup tie against Dunfermline in 1993, Dave treated a player who’d broken AND dislocated his ankle after slamming into the barriers beside the pitch.

Dave is back at Cove Rangers as team doctor. Image: Supplied by Dave Fowler

At another match, an elderly fan in glasses took a ball to the face.

Dave rushed over to check if he was ok to find the man was weaving from side to side. Dave, who was standing right in front of the man, wondered what was wrong with him.

“The guy then says, ‘Can you just move, doctor, I cannae see the match.”

Why Dave is happy to defy the odds

Dave hopes his walk down the Brave catwalk in May will help him collect a few more stories.

After all, his condition may be terminal, but he’s hardly counting down the days.

It’s now been more than two years since a consultant gave him two years to live, and apart from mobility issues and the occasional heavy nosebleed, he’s doing ok.

Dave is looking forward to his upcoming appearance on the Brave catwalk. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

In the meantime, he’s happy to continue defying the odds.

“The prognosis thing is funny,” he says, laughing. “They say, you should be ok for another six months. Then you go back six months later and they say you could be ok for another six months.

He laughs again, shaking his head.

“You just have to take it one day at a time. As Hazel says, every day’s a blessing.”

Dave will take part in Brave 2024 at P&J Live on May 16 and 17. Buy tickets for the event here.