'Seeing me play vs. Spurs can inspire people with cancer' - Joe Thompson
ROCHDALE, England -- Joe Thompson knows he really should not be preparing to face Tottenham Hotspur in Sunday's FA Cup fifth round tie for League One minnows Rochdale at Spotland.
Just 14 months ago, the 28-year-old was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in three years. Having beaten the disease once, he has since gone on to beat it again, but the personal victory was one thing, overcoming all the obstacles in his way to win back his career is another mountain that the midfielder must climb and that journey is still in its early stages.
"I played my first game, after completing my treatment, in late-December," Thompson tells ESPN FC. "It was one year to the day since I was diagnosed, so it was a big moment for me.
"But my doctors think that I am crazy. I really shouldn't be playing at all this season because my body still needs to recover from the treatment, which I finished last June.
"It was a particularly potent form of chemotherapy that I had to go through and I lost two-and-a-half stone in weight, dropping to 10 stone, so it will take time to get myself back to the level of fitness I need as a professional athlete.
"But playing football is what I love and I had missed it. There are times in training when I tell the manager, Keith Hill, that I am struggling and need to ease up a bit, but I am somebody who wants to compete and days like Sunday, when we will face Spurs at Spotland, are what every player at this level dreams of."
Thompson, a former Manchester United youngster, was first diagnosed with nodular sclerosis Hodgkin lymphoma in late 2013 while playing for Tranmere Rovers.
Despite his fight against the disease, Tranmere released Thompson at the end of his contract the following June, but he bounced back from that rejection after recovering from illness to sign for Bury in August 2014.
Further moves to Wrexham, Southport and Carlisle followed before he re-signed for Rochdale, his hometown club, at the start of the 2016-17 season, but the cancer returned in December 2016, forcing him to fight for his life a second time.
Yet despite his diagnosis, just days before Christmas, Thompson chose to continue to play for Rochdale for another three months.
"The second diagnosis was unexpected and it was obviously a hard blow to take," he said. "The first time, when it was in my blood, I displayed symptoms. There were none the second time around, but the cancer returned in my chest and was spreading to my armpit.
"Having beaten it once, I was positive I could beat it again, but I also knew what lay in front of me in terms of the treatment, so there were obviously days of doubt.
"I decided to carry on playing, though, because I wanted to be fit enough to win my battle.
"I cut out all meat, fish and dairy products from my diet, instead taking on a plant-based vegan diet to give my body the best chance of flushing out the toxins that come with the treatment. I am still on that diet now.
"The playing on was about maintaining my fitness, but I also needed something to take my mind off the cancer, to stop me over-thinking.
"That worked while I was training and playing, but once I was off the pitch, the reality of my situation was never far from my mind.
"I started treatment for the second time last March, though, and went through it for three months and have now been in remission since June, with a routine check-up due next month."
Thompson accepts he is unlikely to start Sunday's cup tie against Mauricio Pochettino's team, admitting that a full 90 minutes is beyond him, although he did make a 20-minute appearance for Rochdale during last Tuesday's 3-2 defeat at Bristol Rovers.
But any game-time at the weekend, Thompson believes, will offer hope and inspiration to many cancer patients that they can overcome their battle.
"I am not the first person to beat cancer twice, some have done it three, four or more times," he said. "But I know that my story can inspire people and seeing me on the pitch against Spurs could be one of those moments which inspires somebody.
"During my battles, I spoke to Stiliyan Petrov and Bryan Robson, who both overcame cancer, and you just try to focus on the positives. But everyone's battle is different and nobody has ever had chemotherapy through Joe Thompson's body before, so you have to meet your own challenge in the most positive way that you can."
Thompson admits, however, that a surprise encounter with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was a moment of pride following his second victory against cancer.
"City had asked me down to their training ground to speak to their Under-23 team about my experiences," Thompson said. "I don't mind doing those visits because it allows me to get my thoughts off my chest and also answer any questions that people may have.
"But at the end of it, Pep arrived and called me over. He said, 'How are you, Joe? It's so good to see you.' "I was a bit choked by that because Pep has won everything in the game, is one of the biggest names in the world, but he knew my name and my story and wanted to know how I was.
"I think it summed up the calibre of the man that he was prepared to do that. It was an inspirational moment for me.
"I know my story inspires people too. I have been through hell twice, but the only advice I could give to people is to think positive thoughts and be the best person you can be."
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_