A rugby hero and former Alnwick landlord has vowed to tackle his toughest challenge yet, after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
Ex-Newcastle Falcons star Paul Van-Zandvliet is currently recovering after major surgery on a brain tumour last week at the city’s Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) hospital.
The 49-year-old, who used to run the Falcon’s Rest in Alnwick, will now learn how doctors can best deal with his other cancers, in his liver and his kidneys.
Nicknamed Tank in his playing days, the dad-of-five from North Shields is determined to fight the disease.
He said: “This is my biggest fight and I don’t intend to go down with a limp because I have never been a quitter in my life and I am not going to start now.
“Yes, I am not in good shape, but I am a scrapper – I always have been – and I will fight.
“I feel quite exhilarated after my surgery last week and I have been spending time with my family, which is a God-send.”
For Paul, one of the things that is giving him strength is the support which has flooded in for him since news broke last month of his diagnosis. He has thanked everyone for their messages of encouragement and well-wishes.
He said: “It’s been a very humbling experience. It’s been so long since I have been retired, you pull yourself out of the public eye.
“But to see how many people are looking out for you is fantastic. The support has been an experience in itself.
“I have got 2,000 emails that I haven’t even opened yet and I am trying to reply to every single person.”
The family first knew something was wrong when Paul’s right side started to go numb and he displayed confused behaviour, including putting the phone in the fridge.
After a string of tests, the rugby champion, who was a key member of the Newcastle Falcons Premiership-winning team of 1998, was told the bad news.
He said: “I went in for two slipped discs and they found a brain tumour. I then had other tests and found I had inoperable cancer in my kidneys and it had spread to my liver.
“I thought the brain tumour was bad enough, but when they told me that I had cancer in my kidneys and liver – well, it was a triple whammy. But on a positive note, it skipped my lungs and heart.”
Paul is dad to Ryan, 25, Lloyd, 23, Leon, 18, Paul Jnr, 15 and eight-year-old daughter Hope Elle. He is married to Helen, 40.
Paul retired early from the game of rugby at the age of 32, after injuries caused by being hit by a car transporter on the Tyne Bridge.
He now passes on his experience to youngsters and coaches at North Shields and Whitley Bay Rockliff under 15s. He said: “The Rugby Players Association has been very kind in looking after me. The clubs I coached have been very good.
“I would like to thank everyone for their support. I can only do this with positive thoughts and loved ones around me.”
For many people in Alnwick and surrounding areas, they will know Paul for running the Falcon’s Rest on Clayport Street.
Reflecting on his time in Alnwick, he said: “I made a lot of friends in Alnwick and met some very nice people. I had some very good times there.”
Paul is inspired to help others
Inspired by his ordeal, brave Paul wants to raise money for charity.
He intends to collect funds for Cancer Research UK. He also wants to raise cash for Newcastle RVI and Freeman hospitals.
He said: “My treatment has been first class. You couldn’t get better treatment anywhere in the world.”
He also wants to raise money for Restart Rugby, which provides financial, practical and emotional support to ill and injured players, during and after their professional rugby career.
It is clearly a sport he is still passionate about and he added: “It was an absolute pleasure to play for the Newcastle Falcons. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
As part of his fund-raising mission, Paul intends to set up a namesake foundation after his young daughter, Hope Elle.
He said: “I would like to leave a legacy and to help raise awareness in her name, as well as mine. She doesn’t know much about what is going on, so it will be a nice legacy to leave behind.”