Regan Walker: Ex-Bury player on Ewing's Sarcoma recovery and becoming a fashion influencer

By Jay FreemanBBC Sport
Ex-Bury player Regan Walker talks about his cancer recovery

"I never smoked, never drank, I thought I was invincible. Then it happened and now I am so much more aware and appreciative of waking up everyday because cancer doesn't care, it can happen to anybody."

Regan Walker has quite a story to tell. He wanted to become a footballer and, at the age of 11, had earned a spot with Manchester City's youth setup before later joining Bury, where he turned professional.

And while it is not uncommon for many young players to see that dream ended before the age of 20, Walker's story is a bit different.

A pain in his leg, initially diagnosed as a muscle problem, turned out to be far more serious. The cancer he was suffering from ended his football career, but ultimately also set him off on a new path to becoming a successful fashion model and social media influencer.

The 25-year-old spoke to BBC Sport about his journey.

'I had a 30-centimetre tumour on my femur'

After making three senior appearances for the Shakers in 2013-14, Walker left the club. But, prior to his exit, he had been experiencing excruciating pain in his right thigh.

"I got the leg scanned and then that's how we found out what happened, by accident. I was originally scanned when I was at Bury 12 months prior to finding out and I was diagnosed wrong, which led to me being in pain for a lot longer than it should have been," he told BBC Sport.

"I had a tumour on my femur and it had grown to nearly 30cm long. I found out and it was slap bang into the tests and to chemo."

Walker underwent tests and a biopsy at a hospital in Oswestry where he was eventually diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects bones or the tissue around bones.

Ewing's Sarcoma makes up 14% of all bone sarcoma diagnoses, according to Sarcoma UK,external-link and mainly affects teenagers and young people.

Regan Walker made three appearances for Bury, with his last coming as a 78th-minute substitute against Morecambe on 3 May 2014
Regan Walker made three appearances for Bury, with his last coming as a 78th-minute substitute against Morecambe on 3 May 2014

What would follow would be 12 months of intense chemotherapy as well as operations to rebuild his leg.

He continued: "I was so confused for so long, and I was like 'what is this?', and I remember my mum actually saying that and asking how did I feel.

"I said despite everything, I'm kind of glad I know what's happening now, and we can aim to get it sorted and go down the right route.

"There are loads of pre-treatment tests that they do before you start chemo and before I knew it, within the space of a month, I was hooked up to a drip starting a treatment plan of getting over this horrible thing."

As well as six months of chemotherapy to kill the tumour as much as possible before having it removed, Walker went on to have surgery to remove and replace his femur as well as to remove a lot of the muscle in his leg.

He also underwent radiotherapy at the same time, leaving him exhausted.

"That was a tough six months, but it was just a mental battle, it was just getting through it each day at a time," he added.

"I was having chemo and radiotherapy at the same time, whilst on crutches, as my leg was locked up in a brace after my surgery.

"There were a few hiccups on the way. I found out I had a lump in my heart, which turned out to be a blood clot.

"Luckily it wasn't the cancer that had spread, although that was a worry. I say 'luckily'. I had a blood clot in my heart, but that was the best-case scenario."

'We need to put a new knee in as well'

A new knee and femur replacement were fitted during Regan Walker's cancer treatment
A new knee and femur replacement were fitted during Regan Walker's cancer treatment

Walker finished his treatment almost 12 months after he started, however there were complications from the effects of his surgeries.

"I got to the end of the year, all went well and I finished my treatment. They did all the end-of-treatment scans and I got the all-clear just before Christmas, so it was almost bang on 12 months of a treatment period," he continued.

"I went and started physio at that time, and that was when they realized my prosthesis hadn't set in correctly as, due to the radiotherapy, the screws had gone haywire.

"My knee was swollen so much so they basically said 'we need to put in a new knee as well'. So in the new year, I went straight in and they took my knee out and put a prosthetic one in so I had that as well as the metal femur replacement."

Confined to using crutches after being given a new prosthetic knee, Walker was then faced with the task of learning to walk again.

"To be honest, that did help because I was in so much pain because my knee was just not coping," he added. "I was learning to walk and for another six months or so, I was on crutches in the ward and then there was physio after that.

"I managed to ditch the crutches as best I could. I have good and bad days still, but I got on my two feet again, which was a big achievement to not have the crutches with me anymore."

Adapting to a new look

Regan Walker went through 12 months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy
Regan Walker went through 12 months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy

For a young man, there was a huge adjustment for Walker to make as he went through the process of undergoing chemotherapy.

But there was also an emotional impact of what he was going through and the knock-on effect on his loved ones.

"When it first happened, there was a shock period. It didn't fully sink in at first. When I went for my first chemo I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking 'this is the real deal now, we've got to go through this'," he said.

"My dad always said you can't go around it, you've got to go through it. I remember thinking that to myself. It took its toll as I have such a good family, which is probably the reason I got through it as well as I did."

The knock-on effect of how his diagnosis and treatment affected those around him gave a different perspective on his situation - particularly with the sacrifices his mother made.

He added: "It was a horrible thing to see, but it was how it was. Everything was consumed by me at that time and my mum was not thinking about anything else.

"My mum was my rock and she quit work for the year. She lost so much weight and she was prioritising me.

"I didn't have it the easiest. I don't understand it because I'm not a parent myself, but for my mum and dad to go through that, I always think that must have been so hard."

'I left work and it spiralled'

After being given the all-clear, Walker needed a new passion to immerse himself in with his football career coming to a premature end.

A period working in a warehouse and then later with his brother as an assistant site manager followed, before Walker pivoted to one of his other loves - fashion.

"I thought, with the way Instagram and social media was going, I'm just going to post on my Instagram my take on fashion and be consistent and post and post, because I'd seen people were doing it and it was their job," he added.

"I was out every weekend after work taking multiple outfits in my car shooting around Manchester, getting loads of different shots so I would have enough for the week.

"I had less than 1,000 followers at the time, but I was just consistent with it and then five or six months went by and I'd grown and grown."

Walker's following did indeed grow - to his current 93,000 followers on Instagram. And in the two years since he started posting, he has turned his hard work into a full-time job that has seen him work with some big brands in the fashion world.

From Gigg Lane to the fashion world - Regan Walker's career took a stylish turn
From Gigg Lane to the fashion world - Regan Walker's career took a stylish turn

He continued: "People were sharing my pictures on fashion pages and I gained more followers. I just stuck at it and the following kept shooting up.

"I was at around 25,000 followers within 10 months. I went to New York around two years ago and I was getting a lot of interest at the time. I was making enough money and, with my age, I didn't have a lot of commitments and I thought 'I can do this full time'.

"I said to my friend, 'Look, I don't like what I'm doing and I want to focus on this'. My best friend said the same and we both do this now. We have the same following pretty much and we get to do this together as our job.

"I left work and it just kind of spiralled and kept going from there. It's pretty crazy, but I'm very thankful for it."

'It still triggers me'

Walker is not alone in being diagnosed with a form of cancer whilst playing professionally.

Former Rochdale midfielder Joe Thompson twice recovered from Hodgkin lymphoma twice prior to his retirement, while former Wolves keeper Carl Ikeme was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in 2017.

Earlier this season, Bournemouth and Wales midfielder David Brooks was also diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma, while five days later, Norwich City keeper Dan Barden was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

When asked by BBC Sport whether hearing of other players' diagnoses was triggering, Walker said: "It is a little bit. I'm quite good friends with Joe Thompson and we get on well. He helped me in my time and I spoke with him.

"He relapsed after I had got the all-clear so I spoke with him when he was going through his second period. I have a lot of respect for him.

"Because I'm doing what I'm doing and it affecting my life so much, I don't really like hearing negative things about it because I don't want it be a trigger.

"Recently I found out someone I knew and went through treatment with at the same time had passed away last year.

"Little things like that are a trigger and it's a tough one. You might have a little sit in the bath and have a cry as it gets so overwhelming, but it's a part of my life everyday.

"I'll speak on my Instagram about it as well and I find because so many people are affected by it, I'll hear from someone who says 'Oh my friend is affected by this right now' or 'My mum is going through this right now', and it's just if you can help one person, that's my thing."

After his recovery and his blossoming new career, what is the one thing that Walker has learned from his experiences?

"That you are not invincible," he said. "We can all get dealt a bad hand at some point in our life and the way I see it now, I got mine out the way.

"I wouldn't wish it on anybody. If I could change things, I don't necessarily know if I would because it happened for a reason. The way I see it is, I could deal with it, I got through it. It's made me the person I am now who sees life in a very positive way."

If you have been affected by issues raised in this story, there is information and support available on BBC Action Line.

Top Stories

Elsewhere on the BBC