In the end, the scale of Joe Thompson’s courage only dawned after a trip to Pep Guardiola’s office.
The Rochdale midfielder had not long been out of hospital this summer after two brutal rounds of chemotherapy and 18 days in isolation for stem-cell cancer treatment.
‘I did a speech for Sheffield Wednesday’s Under 23 team,’ Thompson explains. ‘I could barely walk and the lads were looking at me like, “How are you still standing in front of me?”
‘Man City then invited me down. Pep came up to me, “Joe! How are you? Are you on the mend?” All I could think was that this man has changed the game. Imagine the people he has come across and now he knows my story.’
In football, many speak of Thompson with a sense of awe and a couple of hours with him and wife Chantelle explains why.
The first thing to say is Thompson, 28, looks tremendously well. A month ago he received the green light from the doctors to go and enjoy the rest of his life. His hair is growing back, bit by bit, and he can now say that he has fought cancer twice in four years.
It is a tale of fortitude for a family scarred by this most callous disease. Joe lost his maternal uncle to cancer and Chantelle’s father, Paul, died 14 months ago.
‘I carried the coffin for both of them,’ Joe says. ‘I felt it could be me. After the second diagnosis, I got a financial adviser to discuss a will. I started keeping a journal, just in case. I wanted my girls (Chantelle and daughter Lula) to look back and know what I was thinking. It was life or death.
‘Before the treatments, we went on holiday. I thought it could be my last one. I was living for the last moment.’
Thompson was first diagnosed with nodular sclerosing Hodgkin lymphoma in 2013 at Tranmere. He recovered and received the all clear a year later. This vibrant couple, along with five-year-old Lula, hoped the worst was over.
‘Then I was called in on Christmas Eve last year, early morning,’ he says. ‘There were no warning signs. The first time, I had ticked every box — fatigued, night sweats, all of it. But this time I felt fine. Go in, say hello, that would be that. The doctor was gutted. I was angry and crying. I felt like walking out. Christmas dinner was the next day. We tried to keep it normal for Lula.’
Remarkably, Thompson continued to play football. The medical experts needed to wait to see if the tumour was active so he called his Rochdale manager, Keith Hill, who agreed he could play on.
‘I played for four months until March and scored within a week of the diagnosis against Walsall. I told team-mates to treat me normally. Don’t hold back in the tackles. Don’t feel sorry for me.’
His desire to play was driven, partly, by a fear that football might leave him behind. After his first diagnosis in 2013, Tranmere cut him adrift. ‘It was May and my contract was up. Tranmere gave me my P45 without a phone call. The PFA covered nursery fees for Lula. Rochdale have reassured me and told me not to rush. I’m still paid and am under contract but in my head, the clock is ticking and I want to be out there.’
In March, he reached breaking point in a 2-2 draw against MK Dons. ‘It was all a blur. The floodlights came on and they were too bright. It was all too fast.
‘Afterwards, I was violently sick in the changing room toilets. I knew all my team-mates could hear. It’s unwritten in football you need to be macho and I was on the floor on my hands and knees, being sick . . . being weak.’
Thompson now knows he was anything but weak. He was playing professional football four months after a cancer diagnosis. ‘The MK Dons doctor said that. That’s when I thought, “Stop trying to be a hero and get yourself to hospital”.’
A medical update brought bad news. ‘The cancer was in the middle of my chest and heading towards my lymph nodes and armpits. The chemo was two cycles of five days. It went straight into my chest to the major arteries near my heart. It’s a horrendous feeling. It’s a whoosh, it’s cold, you feel it inside you, like a million ants running through your veins. It was 24 hours a day with a 20-minute break at night to have a shower and clean your teeth.
‘I went in with a plan to watch a load of box-sets. I was too weak to do anything.’
The stem-cell treatment and high-dose chemotherapy required Thompson to be in isolation. The specialist warned most patients are in for up to six weeks. He was out in 18 days but his weight plummeted by two stone.
‘It tests your sanity,’ he recalls. ‘Imagine putting yourself in a room, feeling terrible, being told you can’t leave the room, the windows don’t open. You are claustrophobic, you lose all sense of the outside world and civilisation.
‘It was 11 days without seeing Lula and then it got to Father’s Day. The hospital wanted to keep her away for infection reasons but I needed half an hour with my little girl. We had a little cuddle.
‘Children associate hospitals with miracles. She was sure daddy has to stay in hospital and when he comes out everything will be fixed. Three days later, I was out and my spirits picked up.’
Joe and Chantelle share a smile. They are grateful to Manchester’s Christie Foundation Hospital, where the family made friends unified by common misery but shared determination. ‘The hospital has saved my life twice. There was a BBC journalist, a plumber and a doorman. The journo is doing OK. The plumber is in remission. The lad who was across from me . . . the doctor told him there was nothing more they could do. That felt too close to home — the bed away from me.
‘There were times I was scared. One day between my chemo sessions, I was at home and I couldn’t stop being violently sick for hours.’
Support flooded in. Signed shirts came from Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge among dozens more. Bryan Robson sent a text and after coming through at Manchester United, old friends such as Danny Simpson, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck are in touch.
He calls manager Hill a father figure. Thompson is in contact with Wolves keeper Carl Ikeme, now fighting his own cancer battle.
‘I have a routine check for my bloods this month but the specialist said, “I hope to never see you again”,’ says Thompson.
‘I’m not thinking of retiring. I trained most days last month. I’d like to play by December. You set milestones: jogging, running, training with the boys and eventually that amazing feeling of scoring a goal. I’m 28 and still have bags of time.’
© Daily Mail