Football boss on ‘warrior’ wife’s brain tumor diagnosis and drug trial hope


A football team have the chance to make history this weekend as they take on a Premier League club for a place in the FA Cup’s fifth round.

Hartlepool United boss Graeme Lee and his squad will be supported by 5,000 supporters on their journey to compete against Crystal Palace.

More importantly, Lee will be backed by his wife Gemma, Teesside Live reports.

It is a weekend that Gemma never thought she’d see after being diagnosed with a brain tumor back in 2019 – and was given only 12 months to live.

In an interview with BBC Sport, Graeme explained that he was in ‘total disbelief’ when he learned of his partner’s diagnosis, but Gemma has refused to give up hope.

Despite her diagnosis, the mother-of-two is alive thanks to a £5,000-a-month trial drug from abroad.

As Hartlepool get ready to travel to Selhurst Park to meet their Premier League opponents, Lee has opened up about his wife’s strength and determination.

He said: “She’s an absolute warrior.”

Back in 2018, Gemma ran a half marathon in Doncaster to help a friend who was recovering from an accident.

She began to feel hazy and constantly tired, concerns escalated after seeing an eye doctor for a scan, where she was referred for a brain biopsy.

Her tumor could not be operated on, intensive rounds of radiotherapy and chemotherapy both failed to shrink the tumor.

In 2019, Lee was given permanent leave by Middlesbrough when he was an Under 23s coach as he and his wife planned to create memory boxes for their children, nine-year-old son Grayson and six-year-old daughter Hadley.

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Hartlepool United's manager Graeme Lee
Hartlepool United’s manager Graeme Lee

A Macmillan nurse arrived at the family home to arrange hospice visits and palliative care for Gemma, but the couple didn’t give up hope.

Lee researched alternative treatments and learned about a new drug called ONC201 available in Germany, which was in a trial phase.

He said: “We phoned what felt like every hospital around the world regarding trials and alternative treatments, one kept popping up.”

The couple believe that ONC201 has worked, with Gemma’s most recent scans showing the brain tumor as ‘stable’, which means the cancer has not gotten any worse.

Gemma’s treatment costs £5,000 a month, with her husband’s former clubs such as Notts County and Bradford City stepping in to help raise funds for ONC201.

Lee added: “At times you are trying to add up where you are with it and how much you have got.

“We’ve had some amazing people – not just close family – who have heard about Gemma’s story and donated.

“We have all gone through hell but there have been incredible gestures from people we have never met.

“These people have helped keep Gemma alive.”

Gemma’s brain tumor remains at grade four, which means it isn’t going anywhere and she remains terminally ill, but she is trying to stay positive and embrace life with her husband and their two children.

She has thrown herself into raising awareness and funds. Gemma writes a 365 blog (in recognition of how many days she was given to live), detailing her life with a terminal illness.

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On the day of their interview with BBC Sport, the couple had just been on a three mile hike around the Cleveland Hills.

Graeme and son Grayson celebrate on the pitch after Hartlepool's FA cup win against Blackpool
Graeme and son Grayson celebrate on the pitch after Hartlepool’s FA cup win against Blackpool

Gemma will be one of the 4,700 Pools fans making the trip from the North East to the capital for the match against Crystal Palace – some avid supporters even queued from 6am on the day tickets went on sale.

Graeme Lee was appointed Hartlepool manager back in December, 26 years after he made his debut as a 17 year old against Arsenal at Highbury.

Since December, Pools have found themselves in the fourth round of the FA cup and the semi finals of the Papa John’s Trophy – where they are 90 minutes away from a Wembley final.

Although Gemma will be able to attend the match at Crystal Palace, Graeme’s 74-year-old dad Tony will unfortunately not be there.

As Graeme guides Pools into the FA Cup fourth round, he follows his dad’s managerial footsteps.

A well known figure in the Northern League world, Tony guided Whitby Town to the second round of the FA Cup and Billingham Synthonia to the first round proper.

Lee said: “Unfortunately he’s had dementia for a few years, it’s quite advanced.

“It’s sad because he questions why I’m not playing.

“As a kid, I went with him to watch his teams and there were some fantastic FA Cup runs…I know how proud dad would be to know the role I’m in now.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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