The Big Interview: Joe Thompson
Joe Thompson beat cancer when he was 24. Three years later, while playing for Rochdale in 2016, the disease returned. There were tears – he’s not ashamed to admit it. Anger too. But he’d survived Hodgkin lymphoma once and was determined to do it again.
We meet in Manchester to discuss his story – the dreadful lows as well as the highs. We shelter from the rain in a cafe called Atlas, as in the Greek titan who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. It would be an apt metaphor, only Joe has just found out he’s beaten cancer for the second time. He’s looking ahead, determined to return to football stronger than ever and happy to talk about the news that changed his life…
Getting that first diagnosis in 2013, aged just 24, must have been devastating...
I don’t want it to define who I am. It’s not something people around me talk about that much. But it was a big part of my life and a big, serious situation.
When did you become aware that you were ill?
I was in a transition period in my career. I agreed terms on a two-year deal at Tranmere. The first year I played 30 or so games but didn’t feel I could justify the money and what they expected. I hadn’t done myself justice but looking back I was probably unwell that whole season. I felt as if I was performing on a travelator. Going into the summer I decided to switch it up, got myself in the gym and really fine-tuned what I was eating. But I was still quite tired. I went into the next season flying, scored a few goals, assisting, playing well and getting Man of the Match – then it all came crashing down.
During a game?
It got the better of me at Crewe away. We had a man sent off and I got taken off. It felt like I was in a warzone – bullets were flying here, there and everywhere. The game was too fast and I was playing at a slow pace, not quite getting to the ball or moving as I wanted. The same thing happened again the week after. And then I knew I had a problem. A few tumours popped up in and around my neck and shoulder area. They did a biopsy and found out it was cancer. It took a while for it to sink in.
How did you hear that news?
I took my missus and my daughter, which was a bad idea looking back. I thought ‘we’ll make a day of it, go over to the Wirral and have some lunch, the doctor will tell me I have glandular fever or something – not cancer.’ There were plenty of tears on the way home, which is not something I’m embarrassed or ashamed of. I didn’t know what chemotherapy was. I’d listened to what the doctor had said but hadn’t taken it in and processed it. I did my research and I was ticking all the boxes for symptoms: fatigue, night sweats, fevers, general lack of appetite.
Did your career even come into your thinking at this point, with so much at stake?
The doctor said ‘chalk this season off’. That in itself was quite gutting but in the grand scheme of things it did put it in black and white. Football was a minor in this situation. He said, ‘You won’t play again this season, you might not play again and you might possibly die.’ It had progressed quite far. Looking back – and speaking to the doctors – being so fit was kind of a problem. The body can soldier on. If it’s an individual who is more fragile, signs and symptoms might have come sooner.
Were you scared?
Because I was quite young, I was scared not so much for myself but for my missus and my little girl who was about eight months. I was scared too, I’m not going to lie, but a lot of it was the unknown. I was maybe running off adrenaline, not understanding how severe the situation was.
Do you almost feel a sense of injustice that this happened to you?
You do. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong to anyone to deserve this. I ate well, was a good partner and tried to do everything right. I always saw my mum right. I’ve got a brother I’ve always looked after with him being a bit younger. You do ask yourself: ‘why me?’
When did it all really sink in?
About ten days later. Tranmere kept it a bit quiet for my personal process and then we brought out a statement and it grew like wildfire. It was quite overwhelming. Like everyone in football, the first thing I do when I get in is put Sky Sports on. I was there at the bottom of the banner: ‘Joe Thompson has been diagnosed with cancer…’ It’s there in black and white for me to see. That was the moment it really hit home. It was quite hard to process.
When Tranmere didn’t extend your deal you said it left a bad taste. Did you feel abandoned?
Yes. I got to see the ruthless side of football. I had been paid for the year. I stopped in September, so it was a large chunk of the season I couldn’t play. But because the prognosis was so good I hoped there would be something – even just a bit of rehab for two or three months. Then it got to the point I didn’t want to feel anything was given out of pity. I said at the time: you can’t sign on a dotted line that isn’t there. But then Bury rang and wanted to have a look at me.
How hard was it to get back to your level?
First time around it took 18 months. I signed a one-year deal at Bury, didn’t play as much as I’d like and had a few setbacks – niggling injuries the doctors had warned me about with throwing myself back in so soon. But I needed to pay bills, so I had to get back into it. I was grateful to Bury for the opportunity and I was fortunate enough to be a small part of them getting promoted. It gave me the impetus to stick with it, even though it was so hard physically and mentally. I knew I was always playing catch up but I didn’t know what I was putting my body through.
Did you ever feel you wouldn’t get back?
No. I worried whether I’d have the opportunity to play at the level I wanted to. Was it harder than I thought it’d be; did it take longer? Yes, definitely. But I always had the belief I’d get back.
Did team-mates go easy on you in training?
I’m a competitor. I love to win. I don’t think the Bury lads gave me any leeway, because it’s pretty much dog-eat-dog. I’m trying to get in someone else’s position and he’s trying to keep me out. I don’t think they’d be doing me any favours if they did go easy on me.
Were they supportive off the pitch?
There was respect for what I’d achieved and overcome. They saw I genuinely wanted to get back to the game and the love I had for football. They all helped me in different ways, whether through encouragement, a text or simply saying I’d done well in training. Because the changing room and the team were doing so well, it was an ideal situation. If it had been doom and gloom people might have been more reluctant.
You rejoined Rochdale at the start of last season, was it good to be back?
It’s always been a club I held dear to my heart. I made my debut there at 17, I was ready to repay them. And the Rochdale fans were brilliant with me.
And then in December 2016 you were diagnosed with cancer for a second time. How did you deal with that hammer blow?
I thought I’d put it to bed – it was a chapter me and my family had put behind us. The doctors tried to break it to me as best they could. It was literally one tumour, the same cancer on my chest, and I felt it was kind of taking the piss. It was anger, rage – I wanted to smash up the room. But that’s not the answer. Luckily my wife was there to process it and ask the right questions because I was in no fit state to digest what the doctor was saying.
What was the prognosis?
It was ‘wait and see’. They couldn’t take it out or do radiotherapy because it was quite close to my heart. I felt my body had been invaded again and I was sitting doing nothing about it – that goes against everything I believe in. They didn’t want to crack a nut with a sledgehammer and they don’t just diagnose chemotherapy willy-nilly. It’s obviously a very potent solution to cancer.
How did your club respond?
From my manager, the staff and players I got a real sense there was a soldier down and they all wanted to rally around and pick me up. I didn’t play Boxing Day. I was diagnosed on Christmas Eve and that’s not a present anyone wants. I needed a little bit of time to process and get my head straight and the last thing I wanted to do was play football. The manager said I’d played terrific since the start of the season and I was a big part of what he wanted to do.
So you played on?
We were doing well. I think we were fourth in the league. I’d just scored against top of the table Scunthorpe. The manager said, ‘why would we let one tumour get in the way?’ I think he knew that if I could keep things as normal as possible I wouldn’t drive myself crazy over-thinking. He said ‘be deadly honest – you just let me know if you can’t train’. So I played on for three and a bit months.
How did you find that?
It was tough. Some days are hard, some training sessions are hard and I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. In the back of my mind on a Saturday I was thinking ‘is it going to catch me out? Am I going to find this tougher than I should?’
And your last game was MK Dons away in March…
It came to a head, it came flooding back. I must have had some kind of infection and when you have cancer – cancer of the immune system – the infection will knock you for six. I felt okay on the day, sat on the bench and one of the lads, Steven Davies tore his calf. I came on and had the same emotions that happened three years prior. The game was superfast and I was over-concentrating because I needed to. Afterwards I was violently sick and couldn’t stop – blood was in my sick. All in earshot of the players and the manager. I’m pretty sure none of us had been in that situation before. It was a bit of a weird journey home.
And then enough was enough?
Yes. My manager Keith Hill said, ‘you’ve given as much as you’ve got. But life comes before football, health before anything. You’ve got to get treated and come back stronger’. I was in total agreement with that, and I’ve got the utmost respect for him being so honest and kind of going against what a lot of football is – bravado, a tough exterior.
What have you learned through your experiences you’d like to pass on to other players?
The life journey I have gone on, I’m more comfortable sharing it this time. It’s not that I want to keep going over it but I think the story can inspire people. That’s why I went to speak to the Sheffield Wednesday Under 23s. It was quite therapeutic getting it off my chest to an audience that wasn’t close to me. They thanked me afterwards and asked me questions I probably hadn’t asked myself. Then Man City came calling and asked me to talk to their Under 23s and I was delighted to do that. I felt if one or two people in the room could take something from my story then that was enough for me.
How is your rehab going?
It’s going as well as it can do. I know the doctors are a little bit hesitant to throw me right back into the mix. My job is not the same as the average guy. It’s physical and it’s intense so they do want me to phase myself back into it. But yeah, all in all it’s going quite well and it’s been nice to be around the lads again.
Are you back training with the team?
I go in at the same time as them and they obviously go off and do the work they need to do for pre-season while I go in with the physio and do body weight stuff and a lot of bike work. I’m fully aware I’m an outsider looking in but because it has been four or five months where I’ve missed football, it has been nice getting back into the gym and joining in with the banter and getting some sort of normality.
What’s your contractual situation at Rochdale?
I have got another year so I’m fortunate – it gives me enough time to have a real shot of getting back to it. So I take it day by day with the mindset that we’re moving forward.
Is your focus purely on playing again?
100% my priority is getting back playing. I did it the first time, I can do it again. I surpassed where I got to the first time so why not do it again? I’ve only got stronger from the second experience dealing with the treatment, which was a lot more intense this time. If it doesn’t break you, it makes you and that’s the mindset I’ve taken from it all. I’ll give it everything.
The PFA: Supporting you through illness
If you have health concerns or any other worries, don’t hesitate to contact the PFA’s wellbeing team headed up by Michael Bennett. The union offers support, information and access to a fully confidential 24/7 helpline, as well as a national network of counsellors for members in need.
As Joe Thompson explains: “The PFA helped me out a lot. They sorted childcare because my wife had to be there with me. They gave me every avenue if I needed to speak to someone and if I had to come in and discuss anything they were there. I’m 100% grateful for everything they did for me.”