In February 2021, Brighton defender Rebekah Stott had 24 hours to say goodbye to her team-mates, pack up her life on England’s south coast and jump on a plane to the other side of the world.
New Zealand international Stott, 28, had just been told it was likely she had cancer and she was desperate to return to Australia, where she had been living before moving to the UK.
The country was limiting international arrivals because of Covid but a resourceful travel agent secured her a seat on a last-minute flight.
A week into quarantine in Sydney, she received the final results of the medical tests from the UK. She had Hodgkin lymphoma – a cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and glands spread throughout the body – and was facing months of gruelling chemotherapy.
Now, a year on from her diagnosis, Stott is in remission and has returned to the pitch as a player for Melbourne City and, with her sights firmly set on a home World Cup in 2023..
After being recalled to the New Zealand squad last week, she told BBC Sport how excited she was to be back playing the sport she loves.
“It feels like I’ve got my old life back and nothing has really changed,” she said.
Stott first noticed something was wrong when she found a lump on her neck in June 2020 – three months before leaving Melbourne City for Brighton in the Women’s Super League. She went to her doctor, and had a biopsy, which came back inconclusive.
After being told to keep an eye on it and “not thinking too much of it”, she continued with her move to England, going on to make 10 appearances for Brighton.
“I started playing for Brighton but then the lump started to grow and got pretty big, so I thought ‘there’s something wrong here – I really need to get this checked out and figure out what it is’,” recalled Stott.
“I was told they were pretty sure it was lymphoma – they just weren’t sure what type it was and what stage it was. As soon as I heard that. I was like ‘I need to get home’ – 24 hours later, I had packed up my apartment and was on a flight back to Australia.”
She turned to the internet to research the illness, discovering that it was curable. After getting her final diagnosis in February 2021 she said she was relieved, as “at least then I knew what it was and I could get through it”.
“I had a really good six months with Brighton, I was playing a bit and enjoying it, the team were amazing, so I was pretty gutted to have to leave,” she added.
“But my health comes first and it was the best decision to get back to Australia and get the treatment.”
First, Stott had IVF, in case her fertility was lost during the treatment, before starting what she was told would be six cycles of chemotherapy.
Football was at the back of her mind at that point. She described the chemo as “full on” but to her surprise, and relief, she only needed four cycles after scans showed the treatment had worked.
“I was just so happy and so thankful that I didn’t have to go through two more cycles,” she said. “After that, I was pretty confident that I would be in remission.
“One month later I got the call from the doctor that I was in remission – it was such a great feeling.”
After five months of being unable to train while she focused on her health, the defender was ready to return to some normality.
“I thought, OK, I need to start working if I want to get back on the field,” she said.
“It took a good four or five months to really get fully back into it. I couldn’t get my heart rate over 160 during treatment, so it took me a while to be able to do anything without it going crazy.
“It was a long process and quite mentally challenging – but good to be back on the field and playing.”
Gradually starting to build up her game time, Stott officially returned to action for Melbourne City – the club where she has spent much of her career and is the club’s leading appearance maker – in December.
“They really looked out for me and got me back into shape,” Stott said. “I did 60 minutes and then started building up to 90 and now I’ve got four 90s under my belt.
“It’s been eight months and I’m so happy that I’m really getting back into life.”
In the short term, Stott wants to continue playing for the A-League side and “hopefully becoming better than I was before all this”, but long term, she is targeting playing for her national side at next year’s World Cup – being hosted jointly by New Zealand and Australia.
“That’s one of the biggest goals I have – it doesn’t really get much better than that,” she said.
That goal is now within touching distance after Stott was called up to the 23-player New Zealand squad for the invitational SheBelieves Cup, which starts on 17 February and also features hosts the USA, the Czech Republic and Iceland.
“I’m so excited to be back with the Ferns, I’ve missed my team-mates and representing New Zealand,” she said. “To be able to represent your country is so special and something that I will never take for granted.
“It’s everything I’ve worked towards over the past few months and I just can’t wait to be back out there, I think it’ll be quite emotional.”
After her stint at Brighton was cut short, Stott also hopes to return to England and the WSL in the not-too-distant future.
She said: “It’s on my radar. The WSL is probably the best league in the world, so that’s where I want to be – and hopefully something comes along.”