Stott: I feel like I’ve come home after beating cancer

  • Rebekah Stott was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last March

  • The New Zealand defender recently returned to the national team

  • Stott spoke to FIFA about inspiring others and her plans for the future

For much of the world, isolation was a defining feature of the COVID era.

Rebekah Stott experienced something altogether different.

The New Zealand international has more reason than most, of course, to lament last year as the worst of her life. After all, besides those global struggles with national lockdowns, closed borders and the outlawing of personal contact, Stott found herself in a gruelling individual battle with cancer.

Yet amid the long, draining months of chemotherapy, Stott found that she was fighting – and winning – her battle with the support of huge and ever-expanding global family. The result was that, far from feeling alone or isolated, the defender became immersed in the warmth of countless well-wishers.

“It was so good to see. Amazing really,” she reflected. “I didn’t know that many people even knew about me and I really didn’t expect my story to have that much of an impact.

“But it was so cool that so many people came out to support me and backed me to get back to full health. It helped a lot. I’m still pretty amazed by it all.”

Fierce rivals and firm friends

Stott’s fight, and subsequent recovery, also served as a rallying point for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™ co-hosts. The 28-year-old, who moved to Australia as a child and represented the country at youth level, personifies the bonds that unite Matildas, Football Ferns and their respective countries.

That was certainly reflected in the outpouring of affection from both sides of the Tasman Sea when she was first diagnosed, and the warmth with which she was welcomed back – first to the W-League, then to her national team.

“I definitely felt that,” she told FIFA. “I moved to the Sunshine Coast in Australia when I was 11 and have such strong links and friendships in both.

“One of my best friends, Steph Catley, is in the Matildas, and I’m close to a few of the other players. This 2023 World Cup is really meaningful to me in that respect.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 13:  Stephanie Catley of Australia and Rebekah Stott of New Zealand pose for photos during the announcement of Australia & New Zealand's Joint Bid to host the FIFA Women's 2023 World Cup, at AAMI Park on December 13, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Wayne Taylor/Getty Images)

“Once game time comes around, those friendships go out of the window of course and the rivalry is fierce and competitive! (laughs) But it’s cool to have those bonds and I’ve definitely had amazing support from the football community in both Australia and New Zealand.”

There was another heart-warming reminder of that closeness last month, when Stott accepted Australia’s Aivi Luik’s invitation to perform an on-field head-shaving following a friendly match between these Antipodean rivals. It was part of Luik’s fundraising effort following a recent cancer diagnosis for her younger brother, and Stott – who has inspired thousands through her @BeatItByStotty website and Instagram account – was delighted to lend a hand.

“Me and Aivi grew up in Queensland, played together and we’re good friends,” she said. “The fact that I could help her with that shave and raise some money to fight brain cancer, and support her brother, meant a lot to me. And, again, to see the support in the football community again was just incredible.”

Homecomings and overseas ambitions

That 3-1 defeat to the Australians in Canberra was the fourth match in which Stott has come off the bench for New Zealand since resuming her football career late last year. The first came in February at the SheBelieves Cup, and it proved to be an emotional occasion.

“That Iceland game was pretty special,” Stott admitted. “Just to be back in that environment with the girls, stepping back on the field with that shirt on, made me realise how much I’d missed that feeling.

“I’ve played football since I was four years old and it’s always been part of my life. To not to be able to do that while I went through the chemo was hard. But it has made me appreciate it all the more. Stepping out on the grass again, even just for training, has been so nice. It’s been like coming home.

“I’m not fully recovered yet and definitely not back to where I was before treatment. I’d say I’m at 70 or 80 per cent, so still with a bit to go. But I’m working hard and I should be hitting 100 per cent around July. I’m definitely on the way back up now.”

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 17: Rebekah Stott #6 of New Zealand looks to the ball during a game between New Zealand and Iceland at Dignity Health Sports Park on February 17, 2022 in Carson, California. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Returning to play abroad, having cut short a stint with WSL side Brighton when she was first diagnosed, is a key priority. “My goal is to head back to Europe in July and I’ve got my agent looking at that right now,” said the defender, who had also enjoyed spells in Germany, Norway and the US.

“I’m excited to get back into that again and return to the life I had. I also want to get myself in the best possible shape for next year. I don’t think you can get any better motivation than a home World Cup!”

An inspiration – now and in the future

But while Stott is eager to reclaim the life and thriving career she had been enjoying prior to her diagnosis, she doesn’t plan on consigning her experiences with cancer to the past.

Her positive outlook throughout and efforts, in raising funds and awareness, inspired many who were enduring similar ordeals. Having been touched by their stories, she has no intentions of leaving them behind.

“Those moments, when you see those messages from people, are so special,” she said. “I can’t tell you how rewarding they are for me. It’s just amazing.

“There have been tough times for me, and there still are tough times. If I could wipe what happened to me over the last year, I probably would. But as soon as I was dealt those cards, I looked to stay positive and I can say now that a lot of good things came from it all. I can definitely find the positives.

“What I’ve been through will always be a part of me and I’ll definitely look to keep up my Instagram page dedicated to helping people going through the same experiences. I want to stay in that area and help raise awareness for as long as I can.” Read about Stott’s favourite FIFA Women’s World Cup memories and hopes for Australia/New Zealand 2023 next week.