Thursday 29 October 2020, 18:26

Pressley: I still can't believe I came back so quickly

  • October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

  • Orlando Pride defender Toni Pressley is a breast cancer survivor

  • Read an exclusive interview with the former USA youth international

The last year has been a tumultuous one for Toni Pressley. On 5 July 2019 she found out that she had breast cancer, throwing everything she knew and held dear into doubt. "There was a period of time where I knew I had cancer but I didn’t know how serious it was, I didn’t know what my treatment was, I didn’t know if I needed chemotherapy or radiation or if I would be able to play soccer again or what my future would look like."

In three months' time, having undergone a double mastectomy in early August, in what can only be described as a miracle, Pressley was out on the pitch again. She substituted in to Orlando Pride's final match of the season, Ashlyn Harris was transferring the captain's armband on to her left arm and she was doing was she loves most: "I really enjoy two things: I like to be able to start play and I also really enjoy stopping play (laughs)."

Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, Pressley is facing more unknowns and uncertainty. The former USA youth international graciously took time out to talk with about the lessons she's learning in this time and how her survival story has shaped and transformed her life.

Toni Pressley How has life changed for you since the pandemic began, both as a professional soccer player and more importantly as a human being? Toni Pressley: "I’m still kind of in a bubble phase. We tried as a club, even during the NWSL Fall Series, to make it as much as a bubble as we could. I’m still ordering my groceries online and not really going too many places, unless it’s to work out or coach [Pressley coaches a youth club in Orlando]. I’m still in the mindset of staying home as much as possible. I’m not really sure when I’ll phase out of that. The Covid situation’s left a really big mark on me. I’m just trying to stay as safe as possible.”

As it Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and you are a survivor and professional athlete, how do you use your platform to encourage other women? In posting things on a social media I’m spreading awareness and getting the message out there, especially my story in general. As we’ve seen with Covid, it can happen to anyone and that’s how I see breast cancer. It can happen to anyone. My case is just one of several prime examples of that because I think of myself as a pretty healthy, active person as a professional athlete. It’s about making people aware and realising that no one is exempt from disease, no matter how fit we think we are. It’s about encouraging people to be proactive in their health and recognise the changes in their bodies and to take those signs seriously and not to put it off as many of us do or we think symptoms could be related to something else. For a long time for a couple of months I thought my symptoms were completely related to something else. It’s about being proactive and mindful in going to the doctor and really taking care of yourself.

What have you learned about yourself through this entire process? How has it changed you as a person? I’ve realised I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was, especially mentally, to grapple and deal with being diagnosed and going through surgeries and going through a period of time where there was a huge unknown and dealing with that. Being able to really stay focused and present is something that I’ve learned to do and it’s something that, in the past, I’ve taken for granted. I was always so worried of what’s to come or the future that I forgot to be in the moment with myself, with people and experiences. This whole experience with cancer has really taught me to be mindful and present and that I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was.

When you think back to your return to the pitch last October, what kind of emotions does that bring out for you? Honestly a little bit of disbelief. I still can’t believe that I was able to come back in such a short period of time. It has a lot to do with a community of people behind me, from friends and family to our club and the league, my doctors and our Orlando Pride staff to help me get to a place where I was able to compete in the last game and get back to training so quickly. I remember always wanting to push myself and always contacting my doctor to ask if I could do certain things and they would say, ‘You just need to calm down’. But I would always say, ‘but I feel ok, just let me do something!’ It was hard especially when I’m pretty independent and so used to doing things for myself, to kind of let people do things for me was a bit tough but I’m still in disbelief that I was able to come back so quickly.

It's clear that art is important to you. Where does that love for art originate from, and how does it help you holistically? I’ve always been a creative person and it’s another outlet that I enjoy to relieve stress or tension and get away and escape, and for as long as I remember, I’ve always loved art and took classes in high school. That’s one thing this pandemic has helped me reconnect with, painting and drawing, so that’s been fun to alleviate stress in that way, even though I was stuck at home all the time. I was constantly searching for things to keep busy and reconnecting with painting and drawing during that time was so awesome. I was able to design a logo for Breast Cancer Awareness shirts the Pride is selling. I knew I wanted it to be a little different than what your typical Breast Cancer Awareness logos are or what we’re used to seeing, so I hope people like them and I hope they buy the t-shirts (laughs). I’m in to writing poetry, too, so that’s flourished a little bit. I’ve been cooking a lot. I love to cook! All of those things have been at the forefront of this whole pandemic for me."

Could you give any advice to anyone on the importance of getting checked? The one thing we can do for ourselves is to know your body. No one knows your body better than you do. If you can be mindful and recognise changes and not ignore symptoms and be proactive, it can save lives. I was diagnosed at stage 1, but who knows what would’ve happened if I didn’t have the wherewithal to go to the doctor, you know? I think about that a lot and feel very fortunate that I did go to the doctor when I did, because it could’ve been a lot worse.

Toni Pressley