Joe Thompson on how he battled back from cancer twice to live his dream
By Joe Thompson
Last Updated: 07/09/18 12:29pm
Joe Thompson has battled back from cancer twice to live his football dream and score a fairytale goal for Rochdale.
The 29-year-old has survived cancer twice and returned to score a winner for Rochdale that kept them in Sky Bet League One on the final day of last season.
Thompson was initially diagnosed with cancer in 2013 while playing for Tranmere, before it returned while he was playing again for Dale in 2017.
Here, he tells his story...
Finding out you had cancer
I was diagnosed in October 2013 and now I know that looking back I had been suffering for quite some time - probably 18 months to two years.
I was at Tranmere and I didn't feel like I'd done myself justice in the first season. They had signed me for a fee and I wanted to impress and improve, but I hadn't done myself justice in that first year, so I wanted to hit the ground running in my second year.
I didn't take any time off, I just continued to work and went into pre-season raring to go. I started the season really well and got a couple of goals and a few man-of-the-match awards, but then it just came out of nowhere.
"It was terrifying, I'm not going to lie to you."
I got very ill, I had a fever and I was being sick. I spoke to the club doctor and then some lumps popped up in the side of my neck, my lymph nodes, and that's when I was pretty much rushed to go and get scans and tests. A week later the doctor told me I had cancer.
It was terrifying, I'm not going to lie to you. Obviously your nearest and dearest know as well and everyone is asking if you're okay or if you've heard any news. You're literally just waiting to hear from the doctor, fearing the worst. Unfortunately for me, it was the worst.
You talk to the doctors and they tell you the facts and advise you about certain things. I then went and looked into everything, what I was doing with my life, what I was eating, the impact football had and stuff like that. They then said you've got to stop professional football. Your life comes to a halt and I found myself at home overthinking things, but it's part and parcel of life and thankfully I got over it.
Trying to get back into football
The gutting thing was seeing how ruthless the industry of football is. I had done six months of chemotherapy and got the all clear from the doctors. I was in remission and I was obviously looking to start building and trying to get back into it and then my P45 from Tranmere came through the post one morning. At that point I was like: 'right, where do we go from here?' Thankfully for me Bury were interested, so I went and signed for them for a year.
I was mindful of rejoining Rochdale because I had left on a good note after we had won promotion for the first time in years and I didn't want to tarnish anything I had done. I didn't feel physically ready to go back and try and keep up the standards that I had left on.
"The gutting thing was seeing how ruthless the industry of football is."
But then I had a good year at Carlisle under Keith Curle. I felt like he managed me really well and also instilled a bit more confidence in me to believe in myself, not just in my football but in my body as well. I had become a little bit insecure because I had thought for some time that everything was fine, but fundamentally it was really obvious I had a big problem.
So I spoke to the gaffer [Keith Hill] at Rochdale and he told me to come in so he could have a look at me, and I must have done enough to impress him because I signed a six-month contract about a week later. From there it was quite important for me to feel part of a team and to be able to contribute. I did well for the six months and got rewarded with an 18-month contract. Then not long after signing that I got a routine scan that I was due and the doctor told me that the cancer had come back.
The cancer returns
It was totally different to the first time. I was unwell and everything happened so quickly. I just went for a routine scan and they told me there were tumours on my chest, where I had quite a large mass the first time round.
So I was angry. I was really angry. And I was tearful. I have no shame in saying that. But it was gutting.
My daughter was one at the time, but we're three years on now and things have changed. She's grown up a lot and I've had a lot of questions to answer because she was obviously quite unsure about why I was going to have to spend so much time in hospital.
"So I was angry. I was really angry. And I was tearful. I have no shame in saying that. But it was gutting."
But one in three people get cancer, in fact it's nearly one in two now. So I looked at it: my mum, my brother, my daughter, my wife. All my nearest and dearest. If anyone's going to have to have it, I would rather it was me, and I'd have to take it on the chin and deal with it.
It was tough to deal with while also trying to remain the rock and the reliable one, which I pride myself on, while I'm crumbling inside.
I had spoken to people and the doctors and they were positive, it wasn't as bad as the first time. The reality was that I had been in that position before and I knew I was going to have to go through a lot more intense treatment and chemotherapy.
The road to recovery, again
I decided I was going to go vegan and really focus on a plant-based diet. I knew it can help your body and your immune system. I knew I had to remain disciplined, but it wasn't going to be easy because I knew I would have to go through hell. But if that's what you've got to do to reach the promised land in a way then so be it.
I had to go through two big bouts of chemotherapy, where I was on for six days, 24 hours. It was a lot to take initially. Then they gave me a breather to get home and try to take stock before I got put into isolation.
The stem cell transplant in a nutshell is reintroducing good cells into your body, but they basically strip you away to nothing. They take away your immune system so all your bloody cells are down to zero and then build you back up.
I was told I would probably do six to eight weeks in isolation, and that in itself is something that tests your sanity, because you've got to stay in that room and you can't come out until you're told. I just kept thinking to myself that I know what the other side is. I knew what motivated me and I knew there are things I wanted to achieve in life and memories I wanted to make with my family.
"I knew I had to remain disciplined, but it wasn't going to be easy because I knew I would have to go through hell. But if that's what you've got to do to reach the promised land in a way then so be it."
I kept that in the back of my mind and if I was going to stay in longer, then I was going to have to stay in longer. But I just knew I was going to come out of that door, maybe a bit worse for wear, but I was going to walk out on my own two feet. Not otherwise.
For the first seven days you have intense chemotherapy. For the first two or three days you can have visitors but then after that it's few and far between. Only your closest ones can visit and no one is allowed in with any kind of illness because you literally have nothing to fight off any infections.
It was tough. My wife was in, my mum was in and my brother came to see me. I wasn't able to see my little girl for quite some time but I brought her in on Father's Day against the doctors' wishes. Looking back that was a risk - a big risk - but it was a risk that panned out for me because she boosted my morale and reminded me what I was fighting for.
I tore my calf as soon as I got out onto the roads because I hadn't walked for so long. I had pretty much been bed-bound so it was nice to just literally get out of the doors. Everything in the room was regulated, the temperature doesn't change and the windows don't open, so just to get the breeze on my skin and a little bit of rain as I was walking out was nice, hand in hand with my little girl and my wife, propping me up in a way.
Playing again, again
Football is the only thing I've known since I was 16, it's what I've done every day and it's a big part of my life. You listen to the doctors and they tell you what should happen and ideally they would have liked me to phase into work over 12 months, maybe going in after three months once or twice a day.
"Getting back into football the second time around was miles harder but I had a lot of support."
But I don't sit at a desk in an office and I obviously had things I wanted to achieve and to prove myself. Getting back into football the second time around was miles harder but I had a lot of support. People around me here listened to me and I was honest with them. They allowed me to take my time and didn't rush me, which was obviously magnificent for me.
I had been diagnosed on Christmas Eve the year before so to be back in the squad 12 months later [against Walsall on December 23, 2017] was a full circle moment. I still had a lot of work to do but I was able to do 15-20 minutes and try to contribute for the lads and in games. It turned into a magical Christmas for us.
It still hurt me knowing that I couldn't really contribute as much as I wanted because we were struggling. I just tried to remain as upbeat as I could around the club when I was with them. I was doing a lot of sessions on my own, which was tough, but I tried to stay in contact with the lads as much as possible because I knew we were struggling in the league. But you've got to put things into perspective and see that things can be a lot, lot worse and life goes on. Thankfully, though, we got enough points on the board to stay in League One.
The crucial goal
"It just justified everything that I had sacrificed and all the pain I had gone through. It was a magic moment and my family were there to see it."
The final day of the season couldn't have played out any better for me. I spoke to the gaffer before I came on and he said: 'look, you're going on and we need a goal'. I told him to leave it with me.
I think it was my first two touches, right onto left, and yeah, it was just clarity in a way for me. It just justified everything that I had sacrificed and all the pain I had gone through. It was a magic moment and my family were there to see it. I know my mum was so proud. It was an emotional day but a good day, and I am just thankful I was able to make such an impact that had such a massive effect on everyone associated with the club.
I think everyone was proud of me and happy for me and the relief was a big thing for everyone. It's the magic of football that it is just a game but it's such a big part of people's lives. It's exactly the same for me.
I don't think enough cancer patients get the voice to talk about the fears and anxiety you might have afterwards. You've been bobbing along in life thinking everything is fine, and then you're told you've got this massive problem and all of a sudden you're vulnerable.
I know how much inspiration people take from my story because I've been flooded with thousands of messages from all over the world. I think the goal on the last day of the season was a big beacon of light for everyone that's struggling, it gives people hope and I think with hope and faith you can go far.
"I think the goal on the last day of the season was a big beacon of light for everyone that's struggling, it gives people hope and I think with hope and faith you can go far."
But you do need a support network around you and I had that as well. I didn't do it on my own and I still wake up every day grateful for life and everything that I've got around me and achieved.
No day ever goes to plan. You need resilience because you've got to learn to deal with setbacks. I've written a book and I've tried to be as honest and as clear as I can to make it simple for people to understand.
It's made me realise I've never had it easy. I was dragged up to a certain extent but that's given me certain tools to deal with the situations that have come my way in life. I was born in Bath and the only reason I came to Rochdale really was because my mum suffers from bipolar and she got put in a psychiatric ward down there, so my auntie - to stop me going into care - brought us up here. Then I found football because the whole of Greater Manchester was just obsessed with it.
Then is when I signed for Manchester United and I learned a lot along the way. Not just as a footballer but as a man. That's the story in a way. Dad has been in and out of prison so I've never had a male role model. But the likes of Keith Hill and other managers I've had have taught me things as a man, and obviously I will take those lessons forward as a parent.
"In the grand scheme of things there are things going on in the world that are horrendous. I just try to make the best out of every day."
People have had an easier life than me, that's no problem and I don't mind saying that, but I know there are also people who have had it a lot worse. In the grand scheme of things there are things going on in the world that are horrendous. I just try to make the best out of every day.
You've got to enjoy the good things as well and when those times do come around you've got to savour them, cherish them and bottle them up. For me, when I was going through the tough times, I only had memories to draw on and those memories got me through. I wanted to make more and do more with life, I've got an appetite for life and I will take that forward with me.
I've done talks and inspirational and motivational things and I will do more once football ends. I think I tick a lot of boxes! I know what people are talking about and what they've been through so I can empathise with them. I know people can take a lot from what I have achieved.
I do hope it's a fairytale and that life pans out perfectly but it never usually does. You need to deal with the setbacks and roll with the punches.