The news came as a shock. For everyone. But especially for the 28-year-old professional footballer and family man: Testicular cancer! Training gave way to chemotherapy, pain replaced playing. Sébastien Haller believed in his return from the first moment. He gave everything to achieve it and now celebrates an amazing comeback.
“You can get cancer, but you can also beat it. That’s what I’ve learned in the past six months,” says the 28-year-old Frenchman. “You’re not only fighting the disease, you’re also fighting for your children, you can’t just give up.” Five days before Christmas, the doctor gave him the green light: The patient can play professionally again. And he wants to be a role model for all young men.
Bonjour, Sébastien, how are you doing?
Very well, much better than the past six months, even if that’s not saying much. It’s been a difficult time and I’m now in the fortunate position of enjoying life much more than before. And as a footballer, I’m really happy of course to get back to playing football.
Dortmund was always a great place for you. You scored a few times against BVB.
That’s true! Twice last season for Ajax Amsterdam in the Champions League, and before that twice for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. Added to that I have fantastic memories of Dortmund: A great stadium, great atmosphere, great football! Long may it continue, with as many goals as possible for BVB!
I checked in the archives to see which of your Dortmund colleagues you came across first. Can you remember?
Hmm, I played with Marius Wolf at Frankfurt, but before that … I assume you mean a French native speaker. Maybe Thorgan Hazard? Even if he’s not here at the moment. We know each other from the start of my career in the fourth French league. Thorgan was playing for Lens, I was with Auxerre. Or Rapha Guerreiro? He played against me when he was at Caen in the second division.
Two close misses there. It’s actually Emre Can. In June 2010 you faced each other in a U16 international between France and Germany.
That’s right, I remember now! 3-3, a mad game. Emre was an incredibly good player even back then.
You have something else in common besides this game. Emre had cancer four years ago. A tumour was discovered in his thyroid gland during a routine check-up in Turin.
I think it’s very good that he talks about it so openly. As footballers we’re in the public eye and are seen as role models. If we don’t highlight the risks of cancer, who will? Look at me, I had testicular cancer. That’s a subject that’s often ignored, especially by young men. I want to show people how important it is to face this issue head on. Yes you can get cancer, but you can also beat it. That’s what I’ve learned in the past six months.
Was there a particular moment when you realised: I’ve done it, I’ve beaten it?
Not really, because I never doubted that I would play again. I clearly remember the meeting with our doctor when he said: “Okay, Sébastien, you can return to training. That was around 20th December. I knew then that the tumour had gone and there was nothing left of the disease in my body. And after that? Of course, the first game at the training camp against Fortuna Düsseldorf was a milestone.
The next milestone was the first Bundesliga match against Augsburg. You came on as a substitute for Youssoufa Moukoko in the 62nd minute.
Oh yes! It felt great knowing the coach had confidence in me. Coming back from cancer is different to recovering from a thigh strain. In professional football there’s no time for sentiment, it’s all about results. I know what it means when the coach selects me for a Bundesliga match.
You quickly repaid the trust he placed in you. First with the assist for Gio Reyna for the winning goal in Mainz, then with your first Bundesliga goal for BVB against Freiburg. On World Cancer Day! Right in front of the South Stand! It doesn’t get any better than that …
What a moment! For me and so many other people, in the team, amongst the staff, the whole stadium was on fire. This support means a great deal to me! This goal confirmed that the coach was right to have confidence in me. And I got the job done.
A key match will take place in April against Union Berlin. Against Union’s centre-back Timo Baumgartl, who desperately wants to play against you. For a very special reason.
I’m also looking forward to this! Timo had testicular cancer like me. He contacted me immediately after my diagnosis and gave me a lot of advice. The same goes for Marco Richter and Jean-Paul Boetius at Hertha BSC. Like me, they were surprised by cancer diagnoses last summer, but both were lucky enough not to have to undergo chemotherapy.
You had two operations and four courses of chemotherapy after your devastating diagnosis last July. Nevertheless, you only missed 19 days of training during these six months. How did you do that?
I know myself and my body very well. I know what I can do and what I can’t. I give everything I can for my job every day. And I know what football gives me. That helped me a lot during chemo. The first few days after chemotherapy are not easy. You feel weak and just don’t want to get up. It’s difficult to get motivated. But you have to! The children are already at school, you have to force yourself to eat something, then to exercise, eat something again – even though you don’t really want to. That’s tough! Later, the children are home from school and you devote yourself to them, so there’s no room for therapy. There is a life beyond the illness. I also wanted to live for the family during this difficult time.
How did you explain to the children what was happening to you? Cancer is not an easy family topic.
No, not for children and not for adults either. My wife and I did a lot of reading and online research. The key message was: Don’t try to hide the illness from the children! Children have a sixth sense for it and find out anyway. They feel it. We know our children, but they know us too.
They know you more than anything as a strong, indestructible father.
Yes, I was somebody they could do anything with, even jump around on! Suddenly that wasn’t possible any more after the operations and during chemo. They could also see something was wrong with me because suddenly I had no hair. So we showed them a video clip. It was about what cancer is and what it can do, that anyone can be affected by it – and now Dad had it too. We talked about the things you can do about it, such as chemotherapy, and that you can lose your hair in the process, but that in the end everything will be fine. I think the most important thing for the children was that I was there for them and always gave them the feeling that they were the most important thing in my life. And they saw that I was doing well in the process. That’s what counts!
This makes them strong for the future. And it makes them aware of the importance of regular preventive check-ups.
This is an important point. My children are at additional risk because of my illness. They will have to have check-ups early. But they have also seen their father take on this battle and win. To present that in a positive way: My children have been sensitised to the topic of cancer at a very early age.
Are there questions you never want to hear again? Such as: How did you feel when you found out about your illness?
No, I understand these questions and why they’re asked. I’m happy to talk about it. I don’t know how many messages I received from friends, acquaintances and relatives through many different channels. A hell of a lot, and I’ve tried to answer them all. Writing is all well and good, but I’m more comfortable looking people in the eye and talking to them in person. That wasn’t so easy after the diagnosis.
Have you benefited as a person from what has happened over the past six months?
Absolutely! I take the positives out of every challenge. Look at the extra time I suddenly had for the family. I was there for my wife and children! We spent so much time together, we went paddling, cycling, golfing. We had time for so many things that we didn’t do before. Don’t get me wrong: I love my job as a footballer, I want to give everything for BVB, and that’s exactly what I did in rehab. But the time I couldn’t devote to therapy and my recovery as a football player I gave to the family.
Which probably saved you from falling into a deep hole.
Definitely! Go to a hospital and look at families where one of the parents has been affected by cancer. It’s hard for both sides! You have to fight not only the disease, but also for your children, you can’t just give up. That’s how it was for me too.
Football did not forget you in those difficult days. At the World Player of the Year awards, you presented the Ballon d’Or to the best goalkeeper in the world, Thibaut Courtois of Real Madrid.
That was a fantastic moment! I was very proud because I never expected it. Didier Drogba hosted the evening, he is a hero for me. I was very touched that he dedicated part of his speech to me. The ceremony took place in Paris. I’m from that area, and of course my family was there – what a night!
A few weeks later, you were back in the spotlight as a player. In July 2022, you said goodbye to the training camp in Bad Ragaz and then reported back for duty in January 2023 in Marbella. A circle had been completed.
The road to get there was long and hard. That makes it all the sweeter to be part of it again. When you’re back working with your colleagues, sweating and talking, then you really know: You are a football player again! That’s a lot different from running alone through the woods. Then the first game against Fortuna Düsseldorf, the first goal against FC Basel – sensational!
How has cancer changed you? What’s the difference between Sébastien Haller in July 2022 and the one in February 2023?
That’s a good question. I certainly live more consciously now than before and I appreciate the value of being healthy. Having cancer means that in the past six months I’ve been much more in the public eye. I’ve used this as an opportunity to promote the fight against cancer. I want to show that it can affect anyone. Even the privileged football player Sébastien Haller. But I was given advanced warning when I played with Marco Russ in Frankfurt …
… the former captain of Eintracht, who also had testicular cancer.
When I came to Frankfurt, he had already beaten cancer. We talked about it in the dressing room, so I was sensitised to this topic though I never thought it would hit me one day. Never! So once again: Prevention is crucial! Please take it seriously! Let my experience be a warning to everybody. I never saw it coming for me. Until it finally did.
Author: Sven Goldmann
Photos: Alexandre Simoes
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