'He told me it was terminal, inoperable, and I should get my affairs in order'
Tom Peacock talks to breeze-up consignor Johnny Hassett on his cancer recovery
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Johnny Hassett readily admits to being something of an armchair philosopher; his ability to tell a good story is one of the reasons he has become such an endearing figure on the breeze-up circuit.
In the last few months he has not so much contemplated his own mortality but had a one-on-one conversation with it. Hassett will never have better material for a tale, and the reasons he is around to recount it have left him a profoundly changed man.
Borrowing, and slightly spicing up a quote from Confucius, he offers: "A man has two lives, and the second one starts when he realises he only f***ing has one".
That knowledge began to awaken with a persistent cough last winter, which he initially thought might be Covid. After antibiotics failed to work, Hassett, whose mother and various members of his extended family are doctors, asked for an x-ray. It revealed he had a 1cm lump in his chest, around the lung, while a CT scan proved inconclusive. Just after the Tattersalls Guineas Sale in late April, he had a biopsy.
"They put a pipe into your mouth, you can’t close your mouth," he explains. "I’m generally a very good patient, but I lose it, I have the doctor by the neck, push the nurse away. They held me down and finished it, but I’m roaring like a bull calf after, it’s like an animal sound. They said I’d be fine, an hour later they take me for an x-ray and my lung has collapsed."
Ich bin ein Berliner pic.twitter.com/40qx6hpkNN— The Bloodstock Connection (@TheBloodstockC) October 31, 2021
He assumed, after speaking to an oncologist cousin, that no news would be good news. Two weeks passed, and he returned to find out his results.
"When you’re in those situations you’re kind of like on death row, 'What are you in for?'," Hassett recalls vividly. "I’m talking to a guy, he goes in, comes out, goes home. I’m there four hours. The doctor calls me in, I was thinking to myself, 'I won’t kick off'. He tells me, 'Terminal, inoperable, how many kids have you got, go home and get your affairs in order.'
"I’m like, 'F***ing Beadle’s About is going to jump out of here somewhere'."
What Hassett did next was make probably the most important call of his life.
"I’m not so good at making my bed, paying my taxes, but I’m good in those sort of disastrous situations," he recalls. "I’ve a friend who has horses with me, a very wealthy guy, and he invests in medical companies.
"We’d had a conversation about a year previous about this guy in Germany whose stats were off the charts, he was better than anybody else. A compounding factor was that most of the people he got were f***ed, given their diagnosis, they had tried everything else first.
"They weren’t stage one [of the four grades of cancer] people, and the stats were still better than anybody else in the world. We’d been thinking of my dad, maybe, or someone else, we weren’t thinking it was going to be me.
"My head lad picked me up, I told him, and we call yer man, he calls the guy in Germany, he was on his holidays but he gets hold of him that day, it was a Tuesday. I was going to France to sell horses in the July Sale on the Thursday. And I was taking my daughter, who’s 18, with me.
"I was still going to go. I wanted to go on a trip with her, this could have been my last trip. Mick Murphy [of Longways Stables] was busy on his own farm but he just took days out and came over, sold the horse when I’d left. He was crucial, he really supported me there."
They scheduled a video call the following Monday. By the end of that week he was undergoing scans in Germany. By the next Monday the 49-year-old had started treatment.
While able to think with laudable clarity given such a petrifying piece of news, he was not operating entirely on autopilot. "It’s funny, you don’t know how you’re going to be until you’re in these situations, but there was never a fear of dying," he says.
"And I wasn’t afraid of the treatment. What I was afraid of was who’s going to rear my four kids. I was lining up people who I respected and asked them, if something was to happen, I want you to look out for Mikey, or John Connor, Aishling or Sarah, or whatever.
"And I was trying to round up 50 grand a head for college – in Ireland that gets you through college, you might not be travelling first class but it’ll get you a degree if you were able. That was really bothering me, it was upsetting me, I was crying going to bed at night over that."
He soon stifles a chuckle. "Then someone, I won’t say who it was, says to me, 'What if they get on just fine without you?' I was still reeling, then they said, 'What if they get on better without you?' When that happened, I did think, they’ll be grand, I don’t need to worry about them, the best thing I can do for them is not die."
Both Hassett’s parents had been suffering with ill health and he did not want to add to their problems. He confined his own difficulties to a small circle and flew out to a village near Hanover alone.
Professor Joachim Drevs’ service, he explains, revolved around three tenets: chemotherapy, the administering of three drugs including aspirin, and having samples of his blood sent to a laboratory to be equipped with a designer vaccine to tackle the specific cancer, which is then reintroduced to the body at intervals.
Neither of the last two methods are currently approved in Europe, so required the signing of major waiver forms.
"In the very first meeting, I was in distress mentally," says Hassett. "The guy went through the treatments and the scans, he said, 'It is inoperable, you can’t use radiation, it’s in both lungs, you’re going to need both lungs', and we decided on the treatment."
Hassett still had uncertainty, recalling: "I said, 'I’m a fighter but I don’t even feel like that’s the thing to do here, what’s the mental aim of this game?'
"He said, in his strong German accent, 'The people who come in and say, just do whatever you have to do, just fix me, they’re not the success group. The people who take control of their own recovery, they’re the success group’.
"Then at the second meeting, and bear in mind I knew how many people he’d had through the treatment, I said, 'Doc, am I a live-er or am a die-er?' He said, 'Oh, you’re a live-er'.
"Phew. So then I said, 'Are you f***ing sure?' He said, 'No!'
"I asked, 'What’s the numbers?' He said, 'You’re 80-20 - 80 per cent you’ll recover, 20 per cent you’ll die'. I said, 'That’s great, that’s 80 per cent better than what it was, I can work with that'. That was a pivotal moment in the whole thing."
To reach this point, Hassett has had the fortune to find his way into the hands of a world authority, the considerable cost of which will be discussed later. But the bloody-minded ardour with which he embraced the challenge laid down so starkly by his specialist is entirely to his own credit.
He began to do his own research, explaining: "I’m sitting there with a needle in my arm for four hours a day, I’ve got nothing else to do apart from go on Youtube!"
First he discovered the ketogenic diet, a high fat, low carbohydrate plan that began with the caveman and is now used by the ironman.
"Cancer cannot adapt to ketogens," he explains. "Every other cell in your body is improved, stamina wise, immune wise, resistance wise, and cancer is distresed and weakened.
"The chemo works somewhere between five and 15 times better."
At the same time, he adopted autophagy, or short-term fasting.
"Somewhere between 24 and 36 hours, your body starts to eat the bit of fat around your organs, scar tissue, tumours, and it recycles them," he says.
"It’s therapeutic, it’s not a penance. The first day or two you’re hungry, the second day or two you’re not hungry at all, and the day you get hungry after that, you should eat. All the rest of your cells become resistant to chemotherapy, and the cancer becomes weakened to chemotherapy."
Hassett has described in unusually frank terms that a combination of actions were fundamental to his rehabilitation, although he checks back later, concerned that he might be suggesting to others that he has discovered a panacea.
He says: "I’m a bit like the woman that sat on the pincushion and I don’t know what pricked me. Was it the chemo, the vaccine, the autophagy, the diet?
"The chemo and the vaccine were massive factors and I wouldn’t want to put anyone wrong in their treatment, but I believe that the other things were really important too."
Some of his endeavours are described with a degree of nonchalance and ever-ready humour, but Hassett does not mask the challenge.
"The second week was a dark week," he says. "I thought I was going to die. When you change over from a regular diet to a keto diet, you get a thing called the keto flu. You just don’t feel good, plus the treatment was quite severe.
"There was a little bit of a haze all the time, I was on my own, in a little village in the middle of nowhere, and it was dark. Then, I started to feel much better by the end of the third week. There’s a thing called exercise oncology, it’s peer-reviewed, chemo and exercise, 150 minutes of 80 per cent intensity a week. It was tough going but I was feeling good, then I started the vaccines by week three."
While Hassett worried about recovering, others began to take charge of the cost. Aware of the potential size of the bills racking up, members of the Breeze-up Consignors Association arranged a fundraising page. Within days it had reached €277,180, with donations from hundreds of individuals.
Hassett says: "I was there on my own, I wasn’t really answering the phone, then Blarney [Brendan Holland] and Mick Murphy said about Go Fund Me. I said, 'Go F**k Me!' No way was I doing that.
"Then Richard O’Brien, the trainer, called me and said, ’You know this isn’t for you, you know this is for your kids if you die, you idiot’. I suddenly went, 'Oh'. That’s how it came about."
Hassett, like perhaps anyone would in that position, struggles to put his feeling into words. The son of a trainer, a rider, even a former assistant to Aidan O’Brien, he is a well-known character who has gained further popularity with his series of engaging and personal social media videos about his breezers. But for that esteem to be measured in monetary terms provoked what is really a combination of deep appreciation and embarrassment.
"I needed it, I was just too proud and ignorant to take it," he admits. "And what came out of it, other than a lot of money, was . . . it changed my perspective on the world. On the bloodstock industry, on lots of individual people, on myself. And those are big changes, it’s very much a life-changing experience."
That people cared?
"That they really cared," he answers. "Yeah, so many people cared, so many people, I don’t know . . . I have more friends than I ever had, and I feel more comfortable in myself than I ever did. It’ll sound a bit egotistical but, having stared death in the face, I’m fairly unflappable about a lot of things now."
The treatment lasted four weeks and Hassett stayed for one more to straighten himself out. He returned to Ireland weak but on the mend and sticking to his processes, which by now included 'non-sleep deep rest', a sort of power-napping technique used by the military. People saw him, still with hair, and assumed he was well on the right track.
He began to get fitter and was even back to a full day’s work before, one Thursday, he collapsed in the yard. The cough returned, as did a concerning gurgling sound in his chest.
"There’s a line between positive thinking and stupidity, and it was over-exertion that caused the collapse," Hassett warns. "You’ve still got to be on guard. While the mind-frame is crucial, what you need when you’ve got toothache is some antibiotics, not positive thinking."
He continues: "I was in bed for three days, just exhausted. That was the first glimmer, the first time it actually entered my head that I wasn’t locked in to win here. I could lose."
It set back his recovery by a month, before he began to prosper again.
While Hassett had been abroad, his protege Dean Cawley, along with Pat McLoughlin, Stephanie O’Donnell and Maddy Yuen, seamlessly took over the running of the business back in County Clare. Hassett’s Bloodstock Connection, which has unearthed the likes of dual Group winner Pretty Baby, was having a good year.
Two of his graduates, Gwan So and Leopold Bloom, both made it to the Listed Flying Scotsman Stakes and he went to the Leger meeting at Doncaster to see them.
It was time to get back in the thick of it and he attended the Orby to meet and greet, and Tattersalls Book 2 for business. Kindness, from agent Amanda Skiffington putting him up in her house and ferrying him to Newmarket, to Goffs finding him a room for his naps, abounded.
"I actually bought a few horses," he says. "We do some pre-training here and a couple of people that shouldn’t have given me their list [closely-guarded catalogue selections] gave me their list. Two people, Emma Chilcot, she’s key to the selection process, and JD Moore did all the work really.
"But honest to god, at the end of the week, I was feeling better having bought a few horses and been back in the game. Actually, you’d rust out quicker than you’d wear out. It was massive."
Already, he is planning for the future.
"I’ve 20 horses now," he says. "Our ethos is we’re not in competition with anybody, we’re in competition with what we did last year, and that has worked. We’ve upped the type of horse we buy. We’ve changed our process. With horses, the main thing is they should be able to win more, and these should."
A dread, as so many families touched by cancer will know, is the nagging feeling that the battle has not been permanently won. Late last month, an upbeat Hassett returned to Germany and was told that all of the small cancerous material had disappeared and the large lump had decreased by more than 50 per cent. His blood tests were encouraging and he could yet find out that the lump is now benign.
Initially, though, he could not take it as unequivocally positive news.
"I feel cancer free, so it didn’t go along with that feeling," he admits. "Although it’s only 120 days, I’d probably visualised that meeting 100 times, the specific room and with Mick Murphy in it, as he came with me to get the results. Getting an all-clear and it’s all high fives, me doing a Twitter video afterwards, blah blah.
"When that didn’t happen, I was disappointed. Expectation is the thief of experience; if I’d had no expectation I’d have been delighted with that result. But I had very specific expectations and they weren’t met. But a few days later, I’m back from the edge of the cliff. This is good, I can manage the rest of it now."
The 20-a-day habit is now consigned to history, so too the three Snickers a day, replaced by broccoli, pecans, olive oil and sunflower seeds. And Hassett himself feels different in spirit too. More loved, perhaps, in the least expected quarters, and duty-bound to help others.
He says: "The support I got was overwhelming, I found it hard to deal with, unsettling. Not only the fund but the phone calls, the text messages. I’m comfortable with it now, but it still resonates in a certain way.
"I just feel so grateful. To the breeze-up men, in particular, and the pinhooking men. The toughest, hardest guys came through the best. It’s like if we’re playing rugby, I can tackle you and if I can drive you out into the stands, even better, and we’ll go for a beer afterwards. If you beat me at tennis, I won’t like you for a week.
"I used to do a bit of boxing, you’re knocking a guy’s head off for three or four rounds, then you hug him after it’s done, whereas you don’t do that in soccer. There’s something about when you’re putting it all on the line on a regular basis, then the small stuff doesn’t matter."
Already there is a plan in motion to demonstrate his appreciation to all those who dug deep and saved his life. That one’s best saved as another tale for Johnny Hassett to tell in due course.
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