WHEN the cancer came back, this time Joe Thompson was so angry he wanted to smash up the doctor’s office.
Why had they not got rid of it completely four years ago? Why must he be put through this hell again?
The Rochdale midfielder and his young family could not believe it, they thought they had put that nightmare behind them.
But drawing on the never-say-die spirit – literally, in this case – that has seen him forge a career in the ultra-competitive world of professional football, the 28-year-old put together a battle plan that would see him crow just 18 days after undergoing a stem-cell transplant: Thompson 2, Cancer 0.
Thompson had beaten The Big C – specifically, nodular sclerosing Hodgkin lymphoma back in 2014, but was told on Christmas Eve last year that it had returned.
Unlike the first time where “loads” of tumours had been discovered on his chest and had reached his lymph glands in his neck, armpits and down to the stomach and spleen, this time it was just the one active tumour on his chest.
But because it was so near his heart, neither surgery nor radiotherapy were an option. The docs said the former would risk “painting the room red”, while they wanted to see how it would develop before starting chemotherapy, leaving Thompson playing a waiting game.
Meeting me at a Rochdale hotel four weeks after getting the all-clear, he recalled: “I was very angry this time. I wasn’t acceptant the first time, but I didn’t know what was what, so it was like ‘OK’.
“This time it was as if me and the doctors, had failed. Why hadn’t we nailed it first time?
“The doctor had known me for four years and broke the news in the best way he possibly could. Still I wanted to smash the room to pieces.
“Anger is not something I’m known for, so it came as a shock.
“It was unfortunate that it had come back but fortunate that it was the same type. The scary thing for me was it was back.
“There’s no right time to tell anyone they’ve got cancer but it gave me the feeling of ‘This might be your last Christmas, so try and enjoy it with your family’.
“But the fact that it was just one tumour was infuriating. It was like cancer was taking the p*** out of me.
“The waiting was horrible. You feel your body is being attacked, your family is being attacked and your castle is being attacked, and you have your hands behind your back doing nothing.”
Amazingly, Thompson carried on playing until a trip to MK Dons on March 11 when he knew at half-time that the disease was starting to take effect.
He had come on as a sub 25 minutes in due to an injury but felt shaky during the break. The floodlights were turned on at the interval which left him seeing stars as he walked back out for the second period.
Still, he battled on for the rest of the match which Dale almost won only to be denied by a last-gasp Dons equaliser for 2-2.
It was gut-wrenching for the team, but literally in Thompson’s case as he was violently sick in the changing room afterwards, with blood worryingly in his vomit. His manager refused to let him play on anymore. Thompson knew it was for the best.
Two days later he was at Manchester’s The Christie, one of the largest cancer treatment centres in Europe, working out a programme involving two five-day courses of 24-hour chemotherapy to begin at the start of April.
But first, against the doctors’ advice, Thompson took his wife Chantelle – who he married the year before, understanding the true meaning of the ‘sickness and health’ vow because of what they’d been through – and daughter Lula to Thailand.
Lula’s full name is Thailula-Lily, given after she prevented the couple from going on their dream holiday four years previously by arriving into the world.
Yet knowing what potentially awaited him when they returned, how could he possibly enjoy what, sadly, might literally turn out to be the holiday of a lifetime?
He replied: “I think a beach, blue sky, your daughter having a nice time and you sitting back enjoying some nice coconut water can ease anything!
“I thought it might be my last holiday. That sounds sad but we didn’t know what was round the corner. We loved it. It was everything Chantelle and I had ever dreamed of.”
The chemo courses started when he returned – astonishingly even keeping him connected to the machines when a fire broke out on the hospital roof – while Chantelle brought in his home-made vegan food.
He met four fellow sufferers there including a security guard, a plumber and a BBC journalist, enjoying dark humour as their hair started to fall out and camaraderie through the tough times, and all with which he has stayed in touch.
Then came the unforgettable stem-cell treatment.
To protect from potential life threatening infections, the patient is kept in isolation in a controlled environment for the duration – in what sounds like not far off solitary confinement.
It left him weaker than he had ever felt, while the chemotherapy made him vomit. One time he was so ill, he threw up a hundred times in three hours, which Thompson admits scared him.
He recalled: “You’re put in a box, then made to feel terrible. You do go to a dark place, it tests your insanity.
“You don’t feel any concept of life like fresh air, rain. The only time I left in the time was on a wheelchair for an X-ray.
“Some days went slow, some went quick. I was on chemo for the first six days which is tailored to kill off all your cells, to strip you down with no immune system and start again. That’s why you’re in isolation.
“From Day 10-13, I was a corpse.
“I felt like the security camera in the corner, looking down at me in a bed.”
Most patients take four to six weeks to go through it, some more than two months. Unfortunately some people don’t make it. Speaking to the professors beforehand 21 days had been the quickest they could recollect. Ever the competitor, Thompson did it in three days fewer.
It was a visit from his daughter which gave him the inspiration to achieve that feat.
He said: “I got to Day 15 and it was Father’s Day. They pleaded with me not to let my daughter in due to the risk of infection, but I threatened to walk out if they didn’t let me see her. I probably physically couldn’t, but they could watch me try.
“She came in, but soon she got bored as daddy couldn’t do anything. Fifteen minutes later, she left but that was enough. I had my little antidote. Three days later, I was out.”
And that was it, all clear. Ironically, after 18 days in a bed, Thompson went home and slept for the next few days as he was so tired.
He thought he had torn his calf as he first walked out of the hospital as he had not used his legs in so long. And as he went through the exit doors, the former Carlisle man burst into tears as he felt the fresh air on his face for what felt like the first time.
Thompson added: “Even the strongest of men cry. There’s no shame in that. If you’re comfortable crying in front of your family, that’s one of the biggest blessings of all.
“I know we don’t want to show we’re vulnerable, I know what guys are like, I’ve been in and around them 24/7 for the last 12 years.
“If you don’t cry, it’s because you haven’t created something that you love enough.”
Love is a theme that crops up continually during our emotionally-draining interview, which lasts for 1hr45mins – not bad for a fella who lay bedridden and motionless a month before.
Love for his daughter, mum and brother and all family. But love for his wife, who he describes as “the real hero” of the story is unwavering, after her remarkable support. Love for the game, that he is determined to return to. Love for life.
It is something he has tried to put across in the speeches he has given over the last two weeks explaining his battle to youth teams, including Sheffield Wednesday’s Under-23s up at Cassius Camps in the Lake District and Man City’s U23s.
And it is a message he gave to Carl Ikeme, the Wolves goalkeeper recently diagnosed with leukaemia, when he coincidentally visited him the morning before we met up.
Looking understandably thinner and weaker than his playing pictures, Thompson’s voice sounded tired – yet, encouragingly, he was extremely open.
He is clearly improving with every passing day and even did a six-mile bike-ride at the gym two days prior to our conversation. He was aching from exercise – but it was “nice pain”.
The Rochdale staff have drawn up a rehab plan and while there is no timeframe on a return, that dream of playing again, which some said may never happen, genuinely seems possible.
That passion and persistence must have given encouragement to Ikeme, whose wife had contacted Chantelle for Thompson’s advice ahead of her husband’s own frightening journey.
Thompson said: “He was sat there, he wasn’t on the machine, and he was waiting for his mum, dad and his sister to come. So he’s obviously got a good support around him.
“I’d say (he was scared), yeah, but he’s in good spirits. He’s still mobile and still active. He’s a big guy.
“He seems in quite a good headspace but it’s the unknown to him.
“I just answered his questions. He was asking me about any things I do diet wise, or anything I do that maybe he’s not thought of. He seems similar, he’s a family man which is everything I’d like to think I am.
How did your mum deal with it? How did your wife deal with it? Your kids? It was things like that.
“My one main message would be ‘You’re doing fine mate. Just keep up what you’re doing, you’re on the right track’.”
Thompson has had to go through what many of us will never experience – and all at such a young age. But as the cancer returned before, does he and his family worry that it could come back again?
He replied: “I don’t live in fear, and I don’t think my family do. We know it’s a possibility.
“But the stem-cell treatment, which I didn’t have the first time, is where I get a lot of encouragement from.
“It’s given me a brand, new shiny immune system. The gladiator has a new coat of armour, a new shield and a new sword. So bring it on. I’m not in fear, not at all.”
Here’s to seeing that fearless gladiator battling it out on the Spotland pitch in the near future. The anger is dead, inner peace and love is alive and well.