Borussia Dortmund striker Sébastien Haller, who is undergoing treatment for testicular cancer, shares an update on his condition and offers advice for others in a similar position.
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Since he was a child, when he convinced his mother to let him give up judo, football is all that Sébastien Haller has known.
The game was at first a diversion from growing up in the tough Paris suburbs, then an obsession and finally a profession. After scoring goals in France, the Netherlands, Germany and England, Haller's career reached a new high this summer when he joined Borussia Dortmund fresh from securing a Dutch league win with Ajax. However, before he could pull on the famous Yellow and Black jersey, he received a diagnosis that not just threatened his career, but his life.
It was during pre-season tests with his new club that a tumour was detected following a short period of illness on international duty with Cote d'Ivoire, for whom he was eligible due to his mother’s Ivorian heritage.
Now, with his treatment underway and a return to the game in his mind, the 28-year-old reflects on his diagnosis and offers important advice to others in a similar position.
The summer got off to a great start: we won the league with Ajax, then I went on holiday. I celebrated my birthday, my niece’s christening and had a great holiday. There was my transfer too – I was surrounded by good vibes. Dortmund invested a lot of money in me, I was determined to show what I was capable of and was eager to get going. Then everything just stopped overnight.
It started, from what I can remember, with a pain in my stomach while I was away with the Ivorian team on 31 May. I took medicine for three or four days and it went away, but then I started feeling like I had the flu straight after, so I spent my entire time with the national team feeling ill. I felt better once I got back home, but since it first happened, I could feel a little niggle slightly below my stomach, behind my abdominals. It was annoying, but it wasn't really painful, I suffered from indigestion at times, and I felt bloated.
Seeing as I was on holiday, I just thought it would go away, but this little niggle refused to go anywhere, so I started wondering if it could be a hernia or something like that and I asked my osteopath to check.
I went to Dortmund a couple of times in the meantime, thinking it wouldn’t be anything serious, but it still wouldn’t go away. My osteopath told me to go for an ultrasound scan, as it could be a hernia or something similar.
Then I met up with the Dortmund squad for our pre-season training camp in Switzerland, and I asked to go for a scan; five minutes later, it was done, and I could feel some pressure behind my abdominals, so we decided to go for an MRI scan the following morning. Immediately after the MRI, I was told that there was a tumour there, but we didn’t know if it was a benign or malignant one 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 scan, 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.
After that, we had to start treatment, organise surgery, let people know – there were a lot of things to think about in the first few days.
Upon receiving the news, Haller took time to learn more about the diagnosis and understand the treatment process, the road to full recovery and a return to the game.
The first thing that came to my mind was: this treatment and getting back in shape are going to take some time. There are also things I will need to be good at and with which I will have to deal in the right way. I think nutrition and training are very important to stay physically and mentally healthy.
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 know everything about it, which stage it’s at, everything. Of course, when it affects you personally, you end up trying to find out more information online, you spend all your time trying to know more about this disease, about your cancer.
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 of rest. That’s one phase, and I have to do that four times. Four phases of chemotherapy 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. A lot of people are asking me when I will be back, but there’s a lot to take into account so it’s hard to give them a straight answer.
I’m lucky enough to feel well. I am physically able to work, I feel fine from both a mental and a physical point of view, which is of course helpful to fight this disease.
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 metastasis is 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.
A period away from the game has also given him time to reflect on how fortunate he has been so far in his life.
With all the experiences I’ve had, and all the people that 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.
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 was a spoiled child; I never had any worries. This is the first big ordeal I had to face. Some people start their lives like that. I was lucky that it came later in my life so I can’t complain.
There is always someone who’s worse off and we need to put things into perspective.
I always try to take the positives out of every situation. All of this has happened to me, but I get to spend time with my children. Those are the moments of happiness and cannot be overlooked.
Haller also has a message for other young men with health concerns or going through similar experiences.
I’m lucky enough to have three children already, I’m married and have achieved some things in football; there are people a lot worse off than me. 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 mentally and physically speaking, who are building a life for themselves. It can stop those people in their tracks.
It can affect their self-confidence and, of course, damage their sex life. We have had to give up a piece of ourselves, of our masculinity and 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, and that’s something to be proud of. You must be proud of that scar on your body, and to tell yourself that there was nothing you could have done to stop that from happening to you.
It’s a challenge, a huge challenge, and the fact that you were able to overcome it means that you’re a warrior, you’re strong; this little piece of flesh, of your body missing, mustn’t destroy your self-confidence, instead it shows how much stronger and bigger you are as a person.
Don’t be scared, ashamed, lazy, or anything like that. Get checked out, get a blood test done and see a doctor when something doesn't feel right because with cancer – you don’t see it coming – it can be asymptomatic and maybe the few symptoms are very mild. We don’t feel bad, but we feel there is something different and you need to talk about it and get checked out by professionals.