'I know cancer will eventually kill me. You're here for a good time, not a long time': Ex-Portsmouth, Fareham and Gosport coach Louis Bell on his brave battle to live

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The Grade II listed Dominion Theatre recently provided the distinctive setting for Louis Bell’s 10th trip to watch Dirty Dancing on the West End stage.

As one of local football’s most recognisable figures, amassing more than three decades of fine service as a non-league manager and coach, the show represents an unlikely passion fulfilled.

The 60-year-old is in a hurry, no time to waste. Blunt pragmatism dictates he must live for today, as there may be no tomorrow.

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It was October when Bell learnt he potentially had six months to live, having been diagnosed with cancer for the third time since 2019.

Necessitating the removal of his bladder and prostate to stand any chance of survival, the latest set-back was undertaken with customary tenacity and a positivity which inspires.

Encouragingly, Bell was handed the all-clear last month, nonetheless strengthening resolve to live for the moment amid a future which remains uncertain.

The dying words of late father Peter, who passed away with lung cancer, particularly resonate: ‘You’re here for a good time, not a long time’.

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‘I used to have a blase attitude, nothing can touch me, I’m invincible, nothing bad will happen, I can live until 100 – I’m Louis Bell,’ he told The News.

Louis Bell has spent almost four years battling cancer - and in October was given at least six months to live.Louis Bell has spent almost four years battling cancer - and in October was given at least six months to live.
Louis Bell has spent almost four years battling cancer - and in October was given at least six months to live.

‘Not any longer, I know cancer will eventually kill me. It’s just the way the disease is, it has a nasty, nasty habit of coming back – and stronger.

‘Whether it’s this year, in five years, 10 years, 20 years, hopefully it’s 25 years, it will get me in the end. I won’t be able to escape, it will catch up with me.

‘In October, I sat in Southampton General Hospital with Carina, a very good friend of mine, waiting to receive my test results. I hadn’t wanted to go on my own and didn’t like the idea of my kids having to hear it.

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‘I was told I had cancer for a third time. It was more aggressive than ever and, having previously undergone so much chemotherapy, I couldn’t get any more. I had between six months and a year to live.

Louis Bell spent time as manager of Baffins Milton Rovers, pictured here in 2016. Picture: Malcolm WellsLouis Bell spent time as manager of Baffins Milton Rovers, pictured here in 2016. Picture: Malcolm Wells
Louis Bell spent time as manager of Baffins Milton Rovers, pictured here in 2016. Picture: Malcolm Wells

‘The only option was an operation to remove my bladder and prostate, otherwise I’d be saying my goodbyes. Even then it’s no guarantee. It was a chance of survival, that’s it, a chance.

‘For me, it was a bolt out of the blue, like getting hit by a train. Carina was so strong, she grabbed my hand, squeezed it, and said “This isn’t going to beat you”.

‘You have to be positive, what’s the alternative? Be negative? Get down? Become depressed? I still have so much to enjoy. My attitude changed, it had to, I have to live for now.

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‘Last month, on a whim, I booked to see Dirty Dancing in the West End for the next day. I took my daughter and her friend Becci, what a show, it’s unbelievable. I always watch it when I’m feeling down.

Louis Bell as Gosport Borough coach in a pre-season friendly against the Hawks in July 2018. Picture: Neil Marshall (180704-013)Louis Bell as Gosport Borough coach in a pre-season friendly against the Hawks in July 2018. Picture: Neil Marshall (180704-013)
Louis Bell as Gosport Borough coach in a pre-season friendly against the Hawks in July 2018. Picture: Neil Marshall (180704-013)

‘I went to Tenerife with my son, Louis, last week, spending five days in the sun and playing golf. At the end of this month, I have a four-day cruise to Amsterdam from Southampton with one of the girls who has looked after me.

‘Why wait? Let’s go. I don't even think about it now, just do it. If I book these things at the end of the year, I might not be here. Next year may never come.

‘What I’m going through makes you appreciate every day. It’s time to live for now.’

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It took eight months before Bell finally relented, needless procrastination he regrets to this day.

There had been arguments, persistent disagreements with then-wife Tracey over his refusal to consult a doctor, despite an obvious decline in health.

After finally accepting he required help, Bell was diagnosed with bladder cancer in April 2019, consisting of three tumours, and requiring an operation.

Louis Bell pictured as coach at Horndean in 2012. Picture: Mick YoungLouis Bell pictured as coach at Horndean in 2012. Picture: Mick Young
Louis Bell pictured as coach at Horndean in 2012. Picture: Mick Young

Yet, four years later, the battle is still not over.

He added: ‘I was a coward. Typical man, I’m weeing blood, I can see it, but ignored my then-wife pleading with me to visit the doctor. I was all right, I didn’t need to.

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‘It got worse, severe stomach cramps, sweating, taking 10 minutes to pee, then, when I eventually did manage it, it was like weeing razors. I was in agony.

‘I was stupid. Maybe it was ignorance, maybe self-denial, I’ve not got cancer, how can I? I’m a working man, I’m tough, not a chance.

‘I can admit it now, Dad was at the back of my mind. He died of lung cancer at the age of 62 through smoking and dealing with asbestos from lagging pipes while working in the Dockyard. I didn’t want to hear the truth.

‘I don’t like doctors, I hate going to them, but that delay made things worse. They should have got my cancer earlier, it was down to me they didn’t.

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‘We think we’re big, hard, strong men but if you feel something’s wrong, make an appointment straight away. Early treatment can make a difference and I massively regret it.

‘I ask myself why on earth I left it eight months. It’s because I was a coward. Carrying on in your own little way, putting up with the pain – a proper coward.

‘Initially I had an operation, then three months later was given the all-clear, but it soon returned. Cancer’s clever, it hides and waits to come out somewhere else.’

In Bell’s ongoing fight, doctors next turned to chemotherapy, involving the drug mitomycin.

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Treatment involved weekly visits to Southampton General Hospital, spread over two different periods and totalling 14 sessions, with doses steadily increased in strength.

Although subjected to excruciating pain, Bell was grateful to receive the all-clear three months after the procedure had finished.

Bell said: ‘Chemotherapy is basically poison and, by the final two doses, it takes a week in bed to get over it.

‘I would be treated by a nurse wearing gauntlets up to her shoulder, a blue uniform, a big rubber apron, yellow wellies and this plastic space mask, everything covered.

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‘The first time was 80 per cent saline and 20 per cent mitomycin, fed into your body through a tube which goes underneath you. Then you lie there for an hour and let it do its worst, before they drain it.

‘The next dose was 70 per cent saline and 30 per cent mitomycin, then 60/40, changing each time.

‘For the last four or five treatments, it’s left inside you and you can go straight home. Eventually, after one or two days, it leaves your body, with your wee dark, like vinegar.

‘Every session would leave this metallic taste in your mouth, while I’d throw up three or four times for a day or so afterwards as your body rejects what they’ve put inside.

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‘At the point of the final two doses, it’s pure poison entering your body and you think “This is it, this is the end of me”. It’s that bad.’

In May 2021, a Portsmouth Senior Cup final victory at Fratton Park would signal the end of 30-years in coaching for Bell, with ongoing health issues rendering him unable to continue.

As joint-manager with Louis Savage, the duo steered Moneyfields to a 6-5 penalty shoot-out triumph over Baffins Milton Rovers, ironically the club Bell led to the same trophy five years earlier.

He also served Gosport, Fareham, Horndean and Portchester among 10 clubs, while worked in Pompey’s Centre of Excellence, scouted for West Ham, and helped guide Portsmouth Schools to the English Schools FA’s Under-15 Inter Association Trophy in 2004.

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His coaching career wasn’t the only casualty, though, with Bell also losing his job and seeing his marriage end. Worse was to come - cancer returned for a third time.

He added: ‘I left football on a winning note with Moneyfields, physically I could no longer do something I loved so much.

‘I had to stop, I was not very well, tired all the time, suffering from bad stomach cramps. I could just about walk, but forget about running. I had to give it up.

‘I don’t think I coped very well after leaving coaching, it sent me into a bit of depression. That’s not me, but I felt myself going down that dark path.

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‘If you aren’t a player, the next best thing is coaching. Now I can’t do that, so get my enjoyment from watching matches, but it will never be the same.

‘My marriage also broke up, my wife didn’t want to be my carer. That was it, after 15 years together, and I moved out of our Havant home.

‘I was also made redundant as I’d had so much time off work through my illness, missing around 18 months. I was contracts manager for a company in Christchurch and they were brilliant, but, after losing a contract, things changed.

‘Then last year, I went back to my doctor as I still wasn’t feeling quite right. It turned out my cancer had returned. Even worse, it was now in my prostate as well as the bladder.

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‘My body could no longer take chemo, I’d had so much of it. I was told I had 6-12 months to live.’

The potentially life-saving operation was initially booked at Southampton General Hospital for the end of October, yet a hospital Covid outbreak, a nurse’s strike, and then the Christmas period meant it was put back until mid-January.

Surgery took nine-and-a-half hours, with three days in intensive care and six weeks overall spent on a hospital ward. Then, two weeks following his release home, he suffered internal bleeding.

Now fitted with a stoma bag in his stomach, Bell’s recuperation totalled eight weeks confined to a bed in a rented bungalow, with family and friends rallying to nurse him back to health.

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The 60-year-old is now working again, employed at Cummins & Pope as a contracts manager, while in April was given the all-clear after his first three-month scan.

The next check-up is scheduled for the end of June, but, of course, he has been here before.

Bell added: ‘You don't get rid of cancer, you’re living with that thought of death all the time.

‘I don’t fear dying and can see why people commit suicide, I felt like it a few times, but again I’m a coward.

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‘There’s that feeling of nothing to live for. I’m lying in bed, in so much pain and can’t move. A load of pills and it’s over. I wouldn’t say I came close, but the thought to end the agony was there.

‘It’s my family who have got me through. I want to see my grandkids Jenson, Clarke and Clarence grow up, I want to play with them in the sunshine like I did last weekend.

‘When I was told in October that I may not see out the next 12 months, my first and only thought was making sure my will was updated to look after my family should the worst happen.

‘I now set aside money every month for my funeral. It’s going to happen one day and I don’t want that to be a burden to my kids Scarlett and Louis, they have enough on their plate.

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‘I’ve had dark times, you often think “Why me?” and I get tired very quickly. Still, I’ve never wanted people’s sympathy, there’s nothing anyone can do, if you've got cancer, you’ve got cancer.

‘But it has made me realise the amount of genuine people in life, family, friends and the football fraternity. The response has been humbling, they’ve been very kind.

‘I don’t know what the future holds, or if I even have a future. But what I am certain of is that I'm a lucky man.’