Immediately after the MRI, I was told that there was a tumour. But we didn’t know if it was benign or malignant yet. I went to training, then when I came back I was told to see a urologist to get a second opinion. It took him approximately ten seconds to confirm that it was a tumour. He grabbed the scanner, placed it on my testicles and we had a final diagnosis. Then it all happened very quickly: we had to find out what type of tumour it was, how big it was, if metastases had spread anywhere else… which they had. They’re still here, in fact.
We had to start treatment, organise surgery, let people know. I didn’t have a house [in Dortmund] yet. I got a lot of messages; we didn’t know whether to announce it publicly. We had to tell family, friends, people who follow me; there were a lot of things to think about in the first few days. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by people who are great at what they do, which allows me to stay focused on the really important stuff – trying to get better. We took all those decisions together. Everyone remained very strong. I was ill but it was affecting the people around me, so you have to think about them too.
We have had to give up a piece of ourselves, of our masculinity. That’s never easy to handle. But you have to put things into perspective and remind yourself that you have made it through a very tough time. You have to be proud of that scar on your body and tell yourself that there was nothing you could have done to stop that from happening to you. It’s a huge challenge and overcoming it means that you’re a warrior, you’re strong. This little piece of missing flesh mustn’t destroy your self-confidence.
I often try not to pay too much attention to words. I find it important to focus on what is actually going to happen, how am I going to feel, how are we going to treat it; I really try to ignore the name of this disease. It’s scary, but we have plenty of ways to fight it. The problem with cancer, as a word and as a disease, is that there are so many different types that can affect your chances of survival differently. It’s pretty pointless to pay too much attention to this particular word.
Humour is one of the things that makes me feel good on a daily basis. We should approach things in a light manner – or at least try to – because we’re always thinking the worst. With all the experiences I’ve had, and all the people I know and who are around me on a daily basis, I realise that I’m very lucky to have the life that I have. My life has always been linear; I’ve never had any difficulties. This is the first big ordeal I have had to face. These things happen, unfortunately, but we get over thems. There’s always someone worse off and we need to put things into perspective. Every day we need to enjoy the little time that we have. If we spend time with someone, we need to have a good time and be happy.
I try to take the positives out of every situation. One of the first things I told myself was: “OK, it’s happened to me – I am going to do everything to be good mentally and physically.” I get to spend time with my children. Those are the moments of happiness. I have more time so I can plan more things. I can do sports that I wouldn’t usually do. It is good to do something else, to see people I don’t usually see, to think about other things because the football routine is not easy. It is very intense every day. We’re always thinking about the last training session and the one coming up; about the match we have just played and then the next one. It is more than addictive: it is competition in its purest form. Now, mentally, there are fewer highs and lows. We know the routine and I just have to focus on eating well and sleeping well. Then we think about the next chemotherapy appointment. We deal with everyday matters.
We never thought there would be such fervour behind me, such support. It was huge. Whether it’s in the Netherlands, in Germany, in France, in England, in Côte d’Ivoire, in Italy – anywhere. We were stunned. I didn’t think I would need it that much, but now I realise that it gives me so much strength.
I know everything about my cancer – everything. When it affects you personally, you spend all your time trying to know more about this disease. I joked about it with my wife: I told her it’s annoying that I had to fall ill to become a cancer expert! I spend five days at a time at the hospital, where I am hooked up 24/7; I can’t get out of bed while the treatment is being injected into my body. Then I get two weeks’ rest. That’s one phase, and I have to do that four times. Four phases lasting roughly three weeks each. After that, depending on how my cancer is progressing and how it is spreading, I may be forced to undergo surgery.
There are people a lot worse off than me. I’m lucky enough to have had three children already, I’m married, I have played a few professional games before, I have achieved some things in football. I don’t have much left to prove at my age. But this cancer affects young people, people who may not have found love yet, who don’t have children, who are trying to understand who they are, who are building a social life for themselves. It can stop those people in their tracks. It can affect their self-confidence and, of course, damage their sex life.
A lot of people ask when I’ll be back. But there’s a lot to take into account, so it’s hard to give them a straight answer. Let’s just say that I have a timescale in mind. If I’m lucky enough not to need surgery, things can go very quickly. Three weeks after the final phase, checks are made to see what stage the metastases are at, and whether you require surgery or not. If I don’t need an operation, with the way I train, I’d like to think that I will be in good condition at the end of those three weeks. I feel fine from both a mental and a physical point of view, which is of course helpful in order to fight this disease. I find it important to focus on what is actually going to happen, how we are going to treat it. It’s scary, but we have plenty of ways to fight it.
As a child, football was always there. It was always there because where I lived, that was all there was. There were balls everywhere: before school, at school, after school, while you were sleeping – it was everywhere. The only problem was my mum, who played a trick on me by making me take judo lessons for three years. It did help me: the sense of discipline, you learn how to fall as well; judo is a great sport. I even regret not having stuck with it for a bit longer. But after a while I’d had enough, all the older kids in the area were playing football, so I brought the registration forms to my mum and she didn’t have a choice – I started playing. And three years later I was at Auxerre. It happened very fast.
Players from the suburbs of Paris sometimes have more success. They are born into conditions where you have to fight – we fight to get out of there. There is also a sense of community. Being part of a community starts by being friends, but, unfortunately, we might be fighting for the same spot. It’s tough because when you’re young it’s hard to deal with these emotions: friendship and competition at the same time. That’s what makes you grow up.
Get checked out. Get a blood test, see a doctor when something doesn’t feel right. Because with cancer, you don’t see it coming: it’s asymptomatic and the few symptoms we might have are very mild. On an individual level don’t be scared, ashamed, lazy, anything. If you feel there is something different, you need to talk about it. Secondly, for football clubs especially – professional or amateurs – get your players to have blood tests. We can always get things checked out sooner and it’s the clubs’ responsibility to put certain tests in place. Every blood sample should be tested for these things. When you get an MRI to check knees or ankles, you can also get a blood test done. It could lead to an important discovery. It’s about the health of the player. It can save lives.
This is an extended version of an interview that’s in issue 13 of Champions Journal