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‘Some things are more important than football’: Football Fern Rebekah Stott on her cancer journey

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

It started, as it almost always does, with a lump. In June 2020, Football Fern Rebekah Stott noticed a bulge in the space just above her right collarbone. She thought she had been training too hard in the lead-up to her first Women’s Super League season: an inflamed muscle from too many push-ups, perhaps.

She had some tests, but the results were inconclusive. Keep an eye on it, the doctor told her. So off she flew to England. By the end of August, the lump had grown. It was large enough that she could feel it when she moved. Several weeks of paperwork and virtual consultations went by – health system delays brought about by the pandemic – before she was finally admitted to a new clinic. They performed another biopsy. That’s when she heard the word for the first time: lymphoma.

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“When I heard that, I actually had a little cry to myself,” Stott told Guardian Australia. “That was the first point where I was actually like, ‘this could be serious.’

“As a 27-year old, you don’t really expect to have cancer. I actually didn’t know what lymphoma was, so I went on Google and searched it. And I was like, ‘holy crap, could I have cancer?’ I was scared. But then I said, ‘you know what? Whatever it is, I’m going to fight this and I’m going to be fine.’”

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Two days later, Stott was on a flight home to Melbourne. Two of her best friends, Matildas Steph Catley and Lydia Williams, travelled down from London to help pack up her apartment. Stott got the confirmation email while she was still in hotel quarantine: she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

It was a relief. Hodgkin’s is, in her words, the “good type” of cancer: treatable in a short space of time. “I think I was very lucky to have had that [one],” Stott said. “I look back at the last eight months and think what I’ve gone through… it’s crazy but compared to other people that have worse cancers and illnesses, I think I’m very lucky.”

Stott decided to start writing about her experiences in a blog, beat it. by Stotty, which follows her journey from the beginning. In it, she shares the everyday realities of someone going through ferocious chemotherapy – the physical side-effects like nausea, mouth ulcers, hot flushes, muscle loss, as well as the mental and emotional challenges – in the hopes that she can help others seeking answers to the same questions she had.

“Because I was researching a lot when I found out, trying to just figure out what it was and what I was about to go through, there wasn’t a lot of stuff out there,” Stott said. “So I thought it’d be a really good idea to get my story out there and also help raise awareness and help other people who are wondering what the lump on their body is; try and encourage people to go and get it checked as soon as possible.

“From my childhood, it’s always been instilled in me to look for all the positives in whatever situation you go through. I think that really helped me in the early days, especially, to be like, ‘yes, I’m going through this, but what can I find that’s good out of it?’ and I think the blog is one example of that.”

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The blog acted as a kind of therapy for Stott. Football – which her life had revolved around for almost two decades – had been ripped away from her. Naturally, she began asking questions about her identity and her future, using the blog to share those anxieties and fears.

“At the start, I was fine. It was like, ‘okay, don’t have to go to training, bit of a holiday.’ But as it went on, I found myself a bit lost. Like, what am I doing? I feel like I should be doing something but I’m not doing anything,” she said. “I think it was a good realisation that I need to have something after football is done; to have something to go to outside of football while I’m still playing, too, so it makes the transition a bit easier once I am retired.

“It was a nice relief for me to be able to share what I was going through. You don’t exactly just tell your family or friends all these deep things sometimes, but to really get it out there quite raw… it’s important to show that: yes, it is a hard time, but you can be vulnerable and share what you’re going through.”

Outside of football, Stott began working on her business, which is named after her blog. In collaboration with CanTeen Australia and Community Co., she developed a cancer bag that includes a beanie, snacks, skincare products, and other items that are distributed for free to newly-diagnosed cancer patients. She also used the blog to raise funds for the World’s Greatest Shave, organising a “wig party” with friends and family in Melbourne. It was, in part, an attempt to wrench back some control over an uncontrollable situation. She raised just under $40,000.

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While the blog traces some of Stott’s darkest moments, including a breakdown towards the end of her recovery process where she started to question why this was happening to her – she says the most difficult part has been after the treatment was finished.

“You think, ‘oh, you’re in remission, how good that you’ve beaten it, let’s get back with life.’ And that’s [pressure] you put on yourself as well, but it’s not like that,” she said. “You still deal with the physical sides: my body has to build up from literally no muscle, which is painful. I’m still having hot flushes because of the [fertility] injections that also affect me mentally.

“So those types of things that you don’t think about before you go through treatment, or while you’re going through treatment when you’re like, ‘I just can’t wait to be finished.’ But then it’s like, ‘well, actually, it’s not finished. Not really.’ You’re still gonna deal with things that you’ve gone through and things that have happened to you. It’s a long process.”

Having signed with Melbourne City for the upcoming W-League season, Stott is now building back her fitness and putting time into her business. She will also continue to write about her experiences on her blog. True to character, she is trying to take as many positives from it as she can.

Related: Dozens more female footballers and family members escape Afghanistan

“I think I will enjoy things more and really make the most of the small things,” she said. “Simple things like going out for a dinner when my mouth wasn’t terribly sore. [My business] has been really good for me mentally, to have something else away from treatment, away from football.

“Being able to take the positives from any situation you’re given, whether it’s terrible or it’s good, is the key for me; to just be thankful for what I have and look for the positives. I’ll definitely keep blogging and sharing my story and sharing my emotions and my thoughts. I think if I can have a bit of a platform to share for other people going through something similar – if that helps people – then I’ll keep doing that, too. Until I’ve got nothing left to say.”

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