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Joe Thompson interview: Cancer survivor on why motivational work is more satisfying than football career

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Joe Thompson opens up about recovering from cancer twice, how it led to the most memorable moment of his football career, and why he is determined to raise awareness of the need for funding…

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Joe Thompson scored to keep Rochdale in League One just months after recovering from cancer for the second time

"That moment was amazing," Joe Thompson tells Sky Sports. "I am never going to get that again. If I could bottle that euphoria and share it with others I would."

He is describing the goal that he scored for Rochdale on the final day of the 2017/18 season. It was his first since making his comeback after being diagnosed with cancer for a second time. It was also the only goal that day against Charlton and kept Rochdale in League One.

It was named as one of the sporting moments of the year at the Laureus World Sports Awards but despite inspiring people all over the planet, it was personal for Thompson.

"It was a moment for me and my family," he adds. "It could have been in front of 50,000 and it would not have mattered. But the feedback after that. It was my mountain top. The absolute pinnacle. When I do a talk now, I can feel it, I can see it."

Now 32 and retired from football, Thompson continues to inspire. He is working in partnership with Cancer Research and Scottish Power to raise awareness about cancer and its symptoms, stressing the importance of funding and early detection. To date, they have raised more than £30 million - and they are not stopping there.

"I almost feel like I am flying the flag. There is a social responsibility because I am one of the fortunate ones. When you have experienced it, it changes your perspective on life. If I have the opportunity to make a difference then I will do. We must change the statistics."

Joe Thompson is working in partnership with Scottish Power and Cancer Research UK
Image: Joe Thompson is working in partnership with Scottish Power and Cancer Research UK

Thompson was playing for Tranmere in 2013 when tumours were found in his neck. "When I went to see the specialist, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, effectively a cancer of the immune system, and he said that I'd had it for two to three years," he explains.

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"I had put it down to tiredness. I had just had a little girl. You know what it is like, the sleepless nights. As well as playing elite football, I just thought that was what it was. I was shocked when he showed me my scans and I had watermelon-sized tumours on my chest.

"It was everywhere."

Thompson was 23.

The recovery was long and arduous, but there was a further setback in 2017.

"They flagged up a tumour close to my heart and it was growing. Thankfully, I did go for that check-up and caught the cancer earlier than I had done previously."

The return of cancer brought challenges mental as well as physical.

"The second time around, when you have been through all that, you know how scary it is and how dark it can be, and then they tell you that you have to go through more treatment. I was petrified, I was angry. There is no shame in saying there were a few tears.

"With my family, you do your best to reassure them but you have to be honest. If you are having a down day, you are having a down day. I have always taken that responsibility on as a leader but it was scary. I needed them. I needed all that support."

There has been lots of it from the world of football. "I was overwhelmed." Former England captain Bryan Robson, who has had throat cancer, picked up the phone. Stiliyan Petrov, the ex-Celtic and Aston Villa midfielder, reached out and the pair are still in touch.

Joe Thompson during the Sky Bet League One match between Rochdale and Northampton Town at Spotland Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Rochdale, England.
Image: Joe Thompson was overwhelmed by the support he received from the football community

Ever since, Thompson has been trying to pay it forward. When the Wolves goalkeeper Carl Ikeme was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in the summer of 2017, Thompson soon went to visit him while he was receiving treatment in hospital in Manchester.

"It was weird because he was coming out as I was going in. I was nine-and-a-half stone, bald, looked terrible, whereas Carl was a man-mountain, but inside he was obviously struggling and going on his own journey. We had an honest chat between two men."

Joe Thompson working in partnership with Scottish Power and Cancer Research UK

It is easy to see why he is so passionate about funding.

"There is a period between diagnosis and treatment where you feel like a sitting duck. You feel like you are being shot at, eaten from the inside out, and you are powerless. You are just waiting. I struggle to imagine how cancer sufferers are getting through it.

"There are things that need to change and funding is where it all starts because we need new treatments - the chemotherapy is so gruelling. I am humble enough to realise that I am one of many. I am still here and I am grateful. No funds, no research, no Joe."

Joe Thompson in action for Rochdale against Bolton

Thompson is now playing a bit of five-a-side football again. His routine includes a 5am wake-up call, yoga and meditation. He admits to being "a bit closed-minded and stubborn as a footballer" but his experiences with cancer have changed him, fundamentally.

"Chalk and cheese, I suppose," he says, when he reflects on the person he was and the person he is now. "I went in as a closed book. Now, I am quite open."

He wants others to share too.

"It is something I am passionate about, in terms of the mental health side, changing some of the stigma around football and footballers. We all have issues and setbacks. The more open we can be about that and remove the stigma, the more progress that we will make.

"When challenges do present themselves I now see adversity as growth. It is a chance for me to evolve and adapt. I have a knack of finding clarity in among all the adversity. Life does throw challenges. Adversity comes. It is inevitable. It is how you deal with it.

"For example, if you had told me when I was 15 or 16 that I would have written a book and been a published author I would have laughed you out of the room. It was that mindset, that limiting of beliefs. 'Who is going to read a book of mine? Who is going to listen to me?'"

Everyone is listening now.

Thompson will never have a moment quite like that goal for Rochdale against Charlton but he has something else. In his role as a motivational speaker, he is still inspiring people.

"It is more satisfying than football," he says.

Image: Joe Thompson says he gains more satisfaction from his talks than from playing football

"I love football, don't get me wrong. You are never going to beat that roar when you score a goal and your name is being chanted. But it is nice to have different things going on. If I can raise awareness, inspire and help people improve their lives, I find that enriching.

"It is very emotionally draining though. There is a lot of preparation beforehand. It is almost like a warm-up. I need to get myself in tune because I know that lots of messages will resonate but it is tiring and I am wiped out for the next day or so afterwards.

"But I know it is important. I might just be a message from someone after the talk saying they are going to change their life for the better. That is everything for me. As a footballer, that was only a game. Yes, it means a lot to people but it is not life and death is it?"

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