It is enough to beat cancer once, at any age, however serious. To beat it twice before the age of 30 tests limits beyond which no man or woman should ever have to go.
Mentally and physically, the task of defeating cancer is known to be one of the greatest challenges we may ever face as human beings. For those who achieve victory, that on its own is enough for most. Joe Thompson went beyond that.
Diagnosed with nodular sclerosis Hodgkin lymphoma, one of the rarest forms of cancer, in 2013, Thompson’s football career, at least, looked to have come to a premature end. He was 24 at the time and one of the brightest stars in the lower leagues.
However, Thompson was made of sterner stuff and, gaining inspiration from tennis player Ross Hutchins, as well as Stilyan Petrov and Mark Halsey, all of whom recovered from cancer, the lymphoma went into full remission. Not only that, but Thompson returned to training and was given a contract at Bury in 2014.
That is inspirational in itself. Those diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma have an 86% survival rate but it significantly increases the risk of other diseases, ultimately resulting in it being just as lethal. As well as this, chemotherapy is famously draining for both body and spirit. Yet within two months of announcing his recovery, Thompson was back under contract in the football league. A box-to-box midfielder, he was evidently as hard as nails off the pitch as he was on it.
For over two and a half years, life resumed, Thompson flitting between League Two and the Conference with various clubs, not getting the game time he used to but playing a regular part. An emotional homecoming occurred in August 2016 when he returned to boyhood side Rochdale, the club where he began his career. However, life came crashing down once more less than five months later.
Diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma once more, Thompson found out on Christmas Eve, resulting in “so much anger,” as opposed to upset. This time it was a lot more serious and he immediately put football on hold once more. The monotony of chemotherapy returned once more alongside the knowledge that the adverse effects of the treatment may not be felt until some time afterwards. That was, at least, if he beat the disease once more.
Which, of course, he did, battle-hardened from the first fight. Thompson had made a second recovery by October of the same year. This time the wider football world took notice. He was invited to speak to youth teams across the country, his story touching those who often turn a blind eye to the lower echelons of English football. He started speaking within weeks of completing a course of isolating stem cell treatment which had weakened his body to the bone.
Thompson only realised the extent to which the world had taken notice when asked to speak to Manchester City’s youngsters. Pep Guardiola knew him, not only by name, but by his extraordinary tale. Thompson recalled how “all I could think was that this man has changed the game…and now he knows my story.”
Throughout the gruelling second spell, another man retained all his faith in Thompson both as a man and a footballer. I could lavish praise on Keith Hill all day for what he has done for my beloved Rochdale but sticking by Joe Thompson has proven to be his bravest and most successful decision to date. Never was there a moment when his contract may have been cancelled. Only a true optimist would do what he’s done, not just in the context of Thompson, but also in the defining, final day victory against Charlton.
Thompson had only made ten appearances since his return, still straining every sinew to return to full fitness. But when the moment came for changes, when Rochdale were in dire need of a goal, Thompson was the man he turned to.
He’s not a natural goalscorer, had had little impact when he was granted opportunities in the second half of the season. Yet he saw in Thompson a man who knows what it is to survive, to fight against the odds. That was the man to save him and his team.
Many will never believe in fate. I do now. Rochdale were dead and buried in February, eleven points from safety. At that point Thompson hadn’t featured in a single Rochdale victory. But the stars aligned.
For Joe Thompson is the ultimate, perennial survivor. A true sporting inspiration.