Rochdale midfielder Joe Thompson has just written a book about his remarkable battle with cancer and how he survived it – not once, but twice – and his recovery from debilitating chemotherapy.
If that wasn’t enough, he’s had to endure life-threatening stem cell treatment, spending over two weeks in an isolation unit. Defying all medical expectations, he pulled through and made a comeback to his happy place – the football pitch.
Joe is currently injured with a torn hamstring but says, “I’ve got over worse.” And he has.
“My first goal was to survive before I could even contemplate playing again,” he says.
He may only be 29 years-old, but he has lived quite a life, which he goes into detail about in Darkness and Light. From being a small child, Joe’s life has been a roller coaster ride. His mum was hospitalised with bipolar disorder and his father spent a lot of his time in a youth prison.
His discovery of football meant he could escape life. “It was my solace,” he says.
Most of his teenage years were spent at the Manchester United academy alongside the likes of Premiership stars Tom Heaton, Danny Simpson and Tom Cleverley. He speaks highly of Sir Alex Ferguson and says what an inspiration he has been, even encouraging Joe to write a book to tell his story.
His first diagnosis left the football world gobsmacked. At the tender age of 23 and playing for Tranmere Rovers, he received the world shattering news that he was suffering from Hodgkinson’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer of the white blood cells.
The support he got from the football world during his treatment was overwhelming. After his first recovery, Joe was lucky enough to play for Bury, followed by a short stint at Carlisle, then on to his current club Rochdale, where everything started looking up for him.
Around Christmas 2016 he was given the news that another tumour had been found in his chest.
Joe was understandably upset at this news but he also admits to being ‘furious’ because “it came out of nowhere – I felt ok and I was playing and training well!”
Taking it in his stride, Joe was fully prepared to tackle the second diagnosis head on. For the second treatment, it was decided he would need to undergo a stem cell transplant. This sees the body’s immune system temporarily eradicated.
Joe was admitted to Christie’s where he had to endure 18 days of isolation, only receiving visits from his nearest and dearest. But his 5 year-old daughter Thailula-lily was unable to see him because the smallest infection could have been fatal for him. The slightest sneeze could have been life threatening.
He describes his isolation as being similar to the The Shawshank Redemption and made him question whether his time was coming to an end.
“Eventually there was a time I finally stopped being sick in the isolation unit when I said to Chantelle, ‘I think we’re done now. I think we’ve paid our dues’. There was definitely a few times where I thought this was it.”
Joe admits he wasn’t even thinking about being able to play football again. He just wanted to get out alive and well, which he went on to do thanks to the support of his wife Chantelle, mum Michelle and brother Reuben.
“When I got home there were times when I would black out and sometimes I would sleep for days. But then slowly I started to be able to do more and it was only then that playing again became a realistic goal.”
Defying all expectations, the popular midfielder came on as a substitute in a 1-1 draw against Walsall in March.
Joe goes on to say his goal against Charlton at Spotland in May, which kept Rochdale in League 1 and sent rivals Oldham down, must have been fate.
It may not have been the Champions League or the FA Cup final goal most players dream of, but for Joe it was a huge highlight.
“It was something for the fans that have been with me throughout the journey and it was the perfect reward for them to make sure we didn’t go down.”
Joe admits his book came from a sad place. “I started writing notes when I was in hospital because I wanted my family to know where my mind was at if the worst came to the worst.
“I wanted to write a book to help people. Not just people with cancer but even if it is just a general point about being resilient and seeing the positive side of things. If that can help someone who I hadn’t helped the day before, that means a lot to me.”
Darkness and Light: My Story by Joe Thompson with Alec Fenn is published by Pitch Publishing Ltd and is available in WHSmith and on Amazon.