Whenever Matt Duke celebrates the birthday of his young son Harry, he will always remember overcoming the biggest battle of his life.
Wife Caroline gave birth to the couple’s second child on January 3, 2011 – a date that had stood out for the family for all the wrong reasons.
Because exactly three years earlier to the day, her husband had been diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“I always go for check-ups around January time,” said the City keeper. “But now you concentrate on it being Harry’s birthday, so it’s a nice way to put all the worry to one side.”
At 35, Duke will realise a dream when he appears in the Capital One Cup final on Sunday. It will also provide more proof – and inspiration – that there is plenty of life after the disease.
Duke was at Hull when he first became aware there was a problem. The team were going well and would eventually finish the season with Dean Windass clinching promotion to the Premier League with a stunning Wembley winner.
Duke was on the victorious bench that day – something he could never have contemplated four months earlier.
He recalled: “I just found a lump which I didn’t think was quite right. I mentioned it to the club doctor and we agreed it could be something of nothing but it should be checked out.
“It wasn’t on my mind until the night before I went for the scan. Then I had to go back the day after for another one.
“At that point they mentioned I needed to fill in some insurance details and that’s when I started to worry. Then I was told it was a tumour.”
The news was numbing. Duke was a professional footballer at the peak of his career.
He said: “I kept thinking ‘this can’t happen to me’. I tried to ring the physio, who was the only one at the club who really knew what was going on, but I just couldn’t speak to him on the phone.
“The words wouldn’t come out. I was that upset and in shock. As soon as the word ‘cancer’ is mentioned, you fear it’s going to take your life. It was a horrible feeling.”
The operation took place within two days. Thankfully it was a complete success and tests confirmed that the tumour had not spread.
Duke underwent one session of chemotherapy, “which completely wiped me out”, and had to stay indoors for ten days to avoid the risk of infection.
He said: “It wasn’t a nice time but I knew that by the end of it life would start returning to some kind of normality. That was what I focused on.
“I wasn’t thinking about football but daft stuff like teaching my eldest son Charlie, my only son at the time, to ride a bike.
“He was only about 18 months but I was just hoping to have the strength to be able to do things with him as he grew up. It wasn’t about achieving anything in football.
“I started going back to training just to build myself up. I’d go in a couple of days a week at first and the club would let me do my own thing.
“But Hull were going well for the play-offs and that pushed me along. I was soon training properly again and when the keeper they had on loan got injured, I found myself back on the bench.
“By March I was back in the squad again – people are out a lot longer than that with injury.”
Football dressing-rooms can be unforgiving places when the banter flies. But for Duke, the joking showed that he had come out the other side.
“The lads were great and there was no pussy-footing around me. We had a good laugh about it and that’s just what I needed. I just wanted to get back to playing football and feeling normal again.”
Duke had his sperm frozen in case he was unable to father any more children because of the effects of the chemotherapy. But Harry arrived two years ago to convert a difficult anniversary into a joyful one.
The City keeper still works with the Everyman charity to raise awareness of male cancer, although he does not see himself as a role model in any way.
Duke said: “I certainly wouldn’t say that but I’m a success story which I hope will help people who are in that position. It will give them some inspiration.
“Neil Harris and Alan Stubbs (two footballers who fought off the same cancer) spoke to me and I know that helped talking to others who’d been through it and come out the other side.
“For me personally, I’ve gone on to greater things by having another child. Work-wise, I went on to play in the Premier League and now there’s a cup final to look forward to.
“It’s tough physically and especially mentally but I’m proof that you’ll get back to normality and then there’s nothing stopping you.
“The statistics say that it is 99 per cent curable if caught early. That’s testament to the awareness campaign.
“Guys talk about football and women; they don’t go to the pub and have a pint to discuss health issues. But don’t be embarrassed, it’s important you see a doctor if you feel anything wrong.”
Evidence that testicular cancer can be conquered does not come any bigger than the 6ft 4in goalkeeper who will be standing between the Wembley posts five days from now.