“The idea of speaking out, ultimately, was to help other people, 100%, but when people would message me and say: ‘I didn’t have the confidence but now I have booked an appointment with my GP, thanks so much for talking’ … that to me meant absolutely everything,” says the Arsenal centre-back Jen Beattie.
“That was the whole point. The whole purpose. Just to make people feel comfortable that they could go to hospital or their GP and get something checked.”
It is just over two months since the Scotland international revealed she had breast cancer and four months since she received her diagnosis, on 8 October.
Beattie has played through it all and speaking out was, for her, the natural thing to do. “I have friends who work within the NHS and they were telling me that the number of diagnosed patients for cancer had gone down massively, because people were scared to go in because of Covid, they were apprehensive and had massive anxieties around going into hospitals, which I can completely understand,” she says.
Beattie’s decision to go public, despite early on being “far too emotional to speak”, has had a huge impact. “The majority of messages were just support from the football community. Something like this shows just how much a community can come together,” she says.
“But the ones that definitely stuck out were from people telling me they were going through a similar situation and that: ‘It was really nice to hear your story,’ or: ‘I’ve been sitting on symptoms and I’m going to get them checked.’
“It was important for people to see it from someone they might not have expected to be going through something like this. No one really expects a sports person to go through something as horrible as this.
“That’s why I wanted to normalise it: we’re all human, we all go through some really hard things. I knew I needed to normalise the conversation really early on, that helped me process it massively.”
Having gone through such an intense and scary experience, it would be easy for Beattie to step away from the spotlight. Instead, though, the 29-year-old is continuing to lend her profile to the cause. Having seen Beattie speak so powerfully, Scottish Power, which has raised £30m raised for Cancer Research UK in nine years, approached her about becoming an ambassador for its fundraising efforts. “Helping people was No 1,” she says.
On 13 December, shortly after going public, Beattie stepped into the away dressing room at the Academy Stadium of her former club Manchester City to see warm-up shirts adorned with her name and number in pink. “It was overwhelming to say the least,” she says.
In the home changing room, similar shirts were being pulled on. “What the clubs did on that day was incredible. Seeing the number of 5s in pink everywhere was a very, very surreal moment, but a real special one at the same time – it makes me emotional thinking about it now – because, again, it shows the community spirit within the game.
“It was an important match for both teams and putting the emotion to one side was hard. “I’m not going to sit here and say: ‘No, I was a professional going into the game,’ because I was emotional. It was a huge game, we needed to win it and, unfortunately, we conceded a goal in the last minute.
“It was bittersweet. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful moment and a great way of showing the level of care that everyone had, but at the same time I was like: ‘I can’t believe this is me, I can’t believe this has been my story.’ We lost as well. So that was rubbish.”
Beattie was about a week into treatment then and finished her course of radiotherapy just before Christmas. “I’m really glad I trained and played throughout the whole process, because it helped me in so many mental and physical ways, to have a different focus,” she says.
“The main side-effect of radiotherapy is fatigue but exercise can help. So coming into 2021 I just wanted to focus on football and getting rid of lockdown and being able to see friends and family as soon as possible, because I’ve not really been able to process it with everyone, and that’s been tough. It feels like a decade ago but it’s only four months and actually I’m still processing it in my own head.”A game-by-game mindset has helped. “As soon as treatment finished, that was me. Maybe that’s the footballer in me: you just look forward to the next day and wake up and go. I wish I was able to spend more time with family – Covid didn’t help that situation at all. But so many people are in the same situations or a lot worse.
“So I had to be grateful that even on the small side of things I can get up and go to work. That was huge for me mentally to be able to do that and deal with what was going on.”