I first met Alistair Cohen when he was working as a bid spotter at the National Yearling Sales. While other folk with a regular TV slot who no longer need to state their last name for people to know who they are may have considered the job too junior, like most professionals dedicated to their job, Alistair was just happy to be there, learning the ropes, chatting to people on his breaks and generally soaking up the atmosphere.
I liked him immediately. In late December 2016, the popular young commentator was diagnosed with cancer. He finished chemotherapy last Monday and was back at work just 3 days later. We caught up with him to chat about the ups and downs of the last few months.
“It all started in early December,” explains Alistair. “I was having bad lower back pain – it wasn’t muscular or anything like that, it was almost some kind of knocking noise, like someone in there was trying to get out. I didn’t think much of it, thinking it was probably some kind of kidney or bladder infection.” The next sign that all was not well came after a regular Thursday game of action cricket. “I woke up the following morning with a sore groin and a bit of a lump and thought I’d pulled a muscle. I mentioned it to my mom who was visiting at the time and she said I should go to the doctor, which I’d been avoiding. After examining me, the doctor said it was either a hernia or bad news. He referred me to a surgeon, but being so close to Christmas, the surgeon was away and said I could either see another surgeon or wait till he got back.” Alistair chose to wait. However, on the morning of 20 December he couldn’t get out of bed. “My mom sent me to hospital. I showed them the lump in my groin, they did an ultrasound and told me I had cancer. Surgery was scheduled for the next day.”
What was going through his mind at that stage? “Not a helluva lot, if I’m honest. It took a long time to process. I wasn’t fully aware what I was in for. The only time it hit me was when friends and the racing fraternity started showing support and said ‘what you’re about to go through is pretty serious’. Everyone told me it would be worse. Obviously there were dark days, but I’m at the end of the tunnel.”
Being an only child, the news was particularly hard on his parents. “I was expecting them to handle the news terribly. Obviously my mom stayed up here a lot longer than initially planned. For the first few days, she just bawled her eyes out. When she got back to Durban, a lot of my friends’ parents went to see her and she put on a brave face. My father’s always been a soldier.”
The surgery results showed that Alistair had Stage 3 Testicular cancer. There is no easy way to hear news like that, neither is there an easy way to tell others, but in characteristic fashion, Alistair tackled it head on. With his usual single-minded determination, he announced on social media, ‘’Today I got the worst news of my life. Was diagnosed with cancer. I will be on the long list of survivors at the end of this.”
He maintained this relentlessly positive and determined attitude throughout and checking how he was doing in March I got the reply, “7 more days of chemo. Monday. Full week 20-24 March. Last day 27 March. Recovery for a few weeks. Back. Boom. Easy.” It is hard not to admire that level of conviction, but then Alistair knows there are no rewards without a bit of chutpah and a lot of hard work. After all, it’s what made him enter (and win) a commentating competition at the age of 12 and spend the next seven years making his mother drive him to various racecourses (and likely driving her crazy in return) to practice until he was good enough to take on the real thing.
“I’ve really got to thank my folks for the way they coped throughout the process. I heard from my mom and dad every day while I was indisposed. They really pushed me and motivated me and checked that everything was OK. Anything they could do for me they did. I think it was also pretty special that my mom was here with me when it all started and my dad was up with me for the last day of chemo and will be staying for a few weeks. I’m a lucky kid.”
While the disease doesn’t discriminate, twenty-six seems particularly young. Alistair says, “In November I was looking at my Medical Aid bills and wondering what I was paying all this money for every month. Well, now I’m glad I did.”
Chemotherapy started on 9 January 2017. “The Tellytrack bosses were understanding when I had to take a sabbatical,” says Alistair. “Rob Scott, Dieter Wohlberg and Wesley Lloyd supported me and offered me whatever I needed.”
Alistair received four cycles of treatment consisting of 5 days of chemotherapy from Monday to Friday, a rest over the weekend, a session the following Monday with a week off and another session the following Monday. “Overall it went pretty well, other than one small set-back. I was meant to start my second session on 3 February, just after the Met, but I had to postpone because my bloods were low. That’s fairly normal and turned out to be a blessing because it meant I could go to the golf day. That was the day that made me realise racing people are incredible people. The support was unbelievable.”
The chemotherapy ‘experience’ is different for each individual, but Alistair says, “I got really lucky. Everyone was so supportive. Whether it was the back room staff at Tellytrack, Neil Andrews, Nico Kritsiotis or Darryl Maree, everyone pitched in to take me to chemo. If there was no-one available, school mates came up, stayed over and dealt with me and all the shenanigans. I had it easy – all the other patients in chemo with me couldn’t believe the support I’ve had. They were pretty envious.”
With Alistair’s diagnosis, the ability to have children is an obvious concern. It’s not an easy question to ask, but he answers cheerfully. “Chances are it will be fine. There is an outside chance things won’t work, but Lance Armstrong was able to have two children naturally, so I have hope.”
“There are a helluva lot of people to thank, but a few that really deserve a mention are Neil Andrews and Dominic Zaki – they opened their houses to me when times were tough. Their families looked after me for weeks at a time, comforted me and nursed me when they had to. I also have to mention Justin Vermaak and Anthony Destombes for the golf day and Gary Lentin and Shuffle Up Poker for the poker evening on Monday. Phil Georgiou and his gang came up from Durban, I had breakfast with Vee Moodley and calls from Clyde Basel, but the phone calls, messages, lunches and support from so many people have really meant a lot.”
“One thing that really hit hard was when my school mates decided to shave their heads. I said it wasn’t necessary, but when they did it, I thought it was really cool. When the Cape Town jockeys rallied together and did it, I realised it’s not just the racing hierarchy that support me, but the guys that make things happen on the track, guys that I can sometimes be critical of, but really are my friends. All the guys from action cricket would ask every time there was a game, when I was coming back. It was all those things that made it quite easy for me.”
“Like Paul Lafferty said to me after the news broke, ‘you’ll realise a lot more people like you than you think’. And he’s another that’s always answered messages and calls when I needed to ask something.”
Back to work
Alistair surprised everyone by being back at work at the Vaal on Thursday, 6 April. Why so soon? “It’s actually an interesting story. Alston Naidoo was supposed to do it, but when the schedule came out, my name was down. I was so desperate to get back, I asked the guys not to change it. I was so proud, driving to the Vaal on Thursday, it felt like going to a Gr1 race day. It was probably the furthest thing from a Gr1 day, but I was so excited. It was maybe a bit of a blessing that the last 3 races got cancelled, I was getting a little weary after the 5th, but I was really happy to be back. I haven’t done on course presenting since September, so I may have been a bit green, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I was sitting at home the next day thinking I could probably commentate PE from the studio!”
Did he follow racing while he was off? “I took a break after the Met for about a month. I followed the results, but didn’t watch it on TV. Last month I was straight back into it and taking a few bets. I was really missing it and looking forward to getting back, so that was inevitable.”
Alistair particularly enjoys calling on Champions Day and he confirmed that he will be calling again this year. “Nico is calling Mauritius, so I’ll be doing all 12 races and I can’t wait. I am expecting Sean Tarry to have a number of winners. He is our champion trainer, so it would not be out of turn. Mike de Kock sent out a first timer called Mustaaqeem a few weeks ago that won by a steeplechase margin on debut and I’m looking forward to seeing him again.”
Has the experience changed his perspective on things? “It sounds clichéd, but you really appreciate every breath you take. To be told if I’d done nothing for 3 months, there’s every chance I wouldn’t be here now makes you realise we’re not going to be here forever and that you’ve got to embrace every day. I guess you learn who you are when staring in the face of adversity.”
To lighten the mood, I ask whether his hair will be back. “It should start coming back. I miss my hair!” he laughs. We discuss the fact that one’s hair often grows back differently after chemo and that he might be in for a surprise and Alistair answers, “I like surprises now, there are no more bad surprises.”
Where to now?
There is an 8 week wait while before he’ll know whether the meds have done their job and whether he is in remission, but what is he focussing on for the immediate future? “Obviously overseas is a place I want to end up, wherever ‘overseas’ may be – I think it’s a natural progression. But I’ve not thought a lot about it since the turn of last year, I’ve had a lot of other things on my mind,” he says carefully. “For now, I just want to focus on getting back into the game, doing as well as I can, getting back to full health and making punters and the racing fraternity happy. I’m just happy to be here.”
In a recent interview with Game On Magazine, Alistair was described as ‘a role model and an inspiration.’ I’d second that.