Tough to swallow: Boyce bounces back after horror run
Cameron Boyce opens up on his summer of woes that saw his physical and mental health spiral, and how a renewed outlook now has him eyeing a comeback in BBL|11
Dave Middleton is cricket.com.au's senior news editor and has been in sports journalism for more than 20 years. His first major cricket assignment was freelancing on the 2005 Ashes Tour
Cameron Boyce was driving home along the motorway after a day out on the Gold Coast with his daughter Bonnie, the two-year-old sitting happily in the back seat, when his chest pains struck.
Boyce suddenly felt horribly ill. Gripping pains in his chest were radiating down his arms, and a pins and needles sensation had reached his fingers, which were now wrapped white-knuckle tight around the steering wheel.
He broke out in a cold sweat, and memories of the heart attacks suffered by both his father and his grandfather – twice – battled with thoughts for his daughter's safety for prominence in his mind, a rising panic setting in.
It was just a few weeks out from the start of KFC BBL|10, in which the 31-year-old was eager to play a key role with the Melbourne Renegades as the senior slow bowler and handy lower-order bat. But right now cricket was the furthest thing from his mind. Sadly for the Boyce family, this would prove just the start of a rotten summer.
Boyce was able to safely pull off the motorway and phone his wife, Ashleigh, who was pregnant with their second child. Realising he was just around the corner from Princess Alexandra Hospital, he steeled himself as best he could, and drove straight to the Emergency department's front door. He fumbled to get little Bonnie out of her car seat, and carried his daughter into the hospital, handing her off to a nurse as staff rushed to hook him up to monitoring equipment.
Across the next four days in hospital, he went through a battery of tests, with his family history a key source of concern for doctors. But every test turned up clear. There had been no cardiac arrest. In fact, the ticker of the professional athlete who was still in his prime, and one who'd mastered his craft enough to play international cricket, was in perfect health.
Released from hospital with no clear indication of what had happened, he was racked with guilt as a series of 'what ifs' kept him up at night.
"The thing that really hurt me was I felt how at risk my daughter was in the car with me, on the highway. Even going into the hospital, I had to give her to a nurse. It just really hit me that if something did happen to me, it would've happened to my daughter as well," Boyce tells cricket.com.au.
Worse was to come. Boyce soon found himself back in hospital when those same symptoms returned just a few days later.
"I had all the tests that you could do," he says. "I had so many scans, I can't even imagine how many blood tests I've done in the past four months, had stress tests, an ultrasound, a CAT scan of my heart, x-rays, been on the ECG, everything that you can imagine."
But while the verdict from doctors continued to come back that his heart was healthy, what should have been good news gave rise to a new set of problems: anxiety, self-doubt and depression were creeping in.
"Every test I was getting was coming back saying I was 100 per cent fit. One test led to another test and it started really playing on me mentally, because I had obviously had all these tests and everything was coming back fine," Boyce says.
"I was starting to sit there and just thinking, 'What the hell is going on? Am I making this stuff up? Is there something else going on?' and all that sort of thing.
"There was a lot of anxiety around, obviously, knowing something was going on in there, just not what.
"I won't lie, there was some days early on where I really struggled."
All this with the BBL inching ever closer, and Boyce remained desperate to suit up for the Renegades. He'd kept the club informed of his issues, and they had made it clear his health was the priority, but the leggie's deep affinity towards the 'Gades had him determined to make an impact on the field.
Boyce managed to get in just enough net sessions to convince himself he could still contribute, and made arrangements to link up with the Renegades squad in Tasmania for the BBL|10's season-opening Hobart hub. Having kissed goodbye to Ashleigh and Bonnie, he headed to Brisbane Airport and checked in for the flight.
"I'd checked in my bags and went to go through security and I remember there was a massive line-up. And that's when I started feeling real crook again. I had to ring my wife and say, 'I'm in no state to go here, I've got to ring the Renegades'."
Again, Boyce was rushed to hospital. Again, he went through a battery of tests and checks. Again, the verdict was his heart was fine.
Having now developed increasingly bad reflux, doctors began to focus on Boyce's digestive system. An endoscopy was followed by an oesophageal manometry – a deeply uncomfortable procedure that involves a tube inserted through the nose and all the way down the throat right into the stomach. No anaesthetic is used and the patient sips water periodically while internal pressures are measured.
"It's horrible to even talk about it now," Boyce says.
But finally, doctors were looking in the right area and an answer to his medical issues began to take shape.
"They discovered there was some damage to my oesophagus and stomach. I was having what they call oesophageal spasms," he says.
"Once we had come to that realisation that I had a bit of stuff going on in my oesophagus, I guess it was a little bit reassuring because then I was like, 'Well, there is something now that has been giving me all this pain."
Relieved to get clarity his condition was, firstly, not a figment of his imagination and, secondly, not immediately life-threatening, Boyce hoped he had reached a turning point.
Instead, further frustrations arose and his mental health spiralled as he struggled to get his symptoms under control while the BBL show rolled on without him.
"There was a lot of doubt there, things like if I got my heart rate up, I'd feel shit again, so how could I train? It was all the unknowns, that period of being at home, stuck in a hole. You didn't want to go out because you don't want things to go wrong," he says.
"And I hated being away from the group and not being a part of the Big Bash for the first time in a long time. That was my identity, and had been me for the past eight seasons of Big Bash, plus 12 years of state cricket.
"Leading into the BBL, I was bowling really well through Grade cricket and I was just really comfortable with where I was at. For something like that to come along at that time, it just really kicked me in the guts, it really nailed me.
"To miss out and have to watch on the TV and not be part of it was a really, really hard thing for me to deal with.
"I felt like in the past two years I'd been a consistent performer for the team, my overs through the middle had been pretty rock solid. To watch our team struggle and be really inconsistent … it was just hard to watch and not feel bad I wasn't there.
"I feel like I could have genuinely made a bit of a difference, just a bit of experience and composure in those middle overs."
Amid this, Boyce reached out to the Renegades' last-minute replacement leg-spinner, Peter Hatzoglou, who had been plucked out of club cricket and thrust into the spotlight, to offer some advice and talk leg-spin bowling. With Hatzoglou performing superbly in his maiden season, it meant he was at least able to have a small impact, if from a distance.
Boyce initially tried to make plans to link up with the Renegades when the club came to the Gold Coast. But he had lost 7kg in just a few weeks, his match fitness had evaporated, and uncertainty over his health proved incompatible with the strict biosecurity protocols the BBL had in place for this season.
To compound his stress, his family moved into a new house. On their first night, two-year-old Bonnie took a terrible tumble, and Boyce found himself once again rushing to hospital.
"It was a really bad fall and she had to go into hospital for surgery and get teeth out and have surgical repair of her lip," he reflects. "It was pretty horrendous to see and shook us around a bit. One thing after another."
It was the final straw. Boyce shelved his wistful hopes of returning to the Big Bash, and admitted he wasn't where he needed to be mentally to support his pregnant wife, his recovering daughter, and himself.
"As much as there was something physical actually happening to me – and I was a bit crook – the mental side of things was at the forefront of it all," he adds.
"Trying to deal with that and admit 'I'm struggling a bit here' … I never thought I'd be in that position.
"I'd never experienced anything like this before.
"You know, I've always been a pretty healthy sort of guy and all of a sudden to get hit with this … It was all just really bad timing."
Boyce reached out to Moises Henriques, who has been a leading advocate in shining a light on the mental health challenges for Australia's professional cricketers, including his own battles.
"Moey was really good," he says. "He said the thing he found was just be as honest as you can and just lay it all out and tell who you want to tell, but also make sure you're getting the help you need.
"For me, it was a big step to pinpoint something was going on and go, 'Well, shit, I need to get this sorted'.
"I'm not embarrassed to say I struggled a bit mentally. Just realising I needed to put my hand up and say, 'I'm not right here' and get the support was massive."
Committing to changing his mindset – and his diet – and getting professional help, Boyce feels he's on the road to recovery, slowly returning to his old self.
The bike riding and golf with his twin brother, Chris, is starting again, and he's started a business course with an eye towards life after cricket. He ticked off a major personal milestone when he was given the all clear to resume playing cricket and turned out for Valley in their last two matches of the summer in Brisbane Premier Cricket.
Best of all, he has been making the most of his first summer home with Bonnie, who has recovered from her fall, and being a stay-at-home-dad. The family will grow to four with Bonnie's little brother or sister due to arrive in the next few weeks.
Boyce is living in the moment, a renewed appreciation for what he has, and with eyes forward to returning the 'Gades next summer for BBL|11, where he has another year to run on his contract.
"Missing this season and going through all that, I certainly feel like I owe a debt to them a little bit," he says. "They've been so great to me and my family and making sure we have everything we need, not just this year but the past couple of years since I came over from Hobart.
"I want to make it up to them and get back next year and help the young group we have get to a spot where we deserve to be, and that's competing every game.
"I did a lot of soul searching within the last few months. But hopefully now I'm on the right track and in line for next season."
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