Jess Carter interview: My sister and partner have had cancer – football has been my escape
Jess Carter and Ann-Katrin Berger’s mental strength was clear to see in a dramatic night at Stamford Bridge on Thursday; they held their nerve to score Chelsea’s fifth penalty and save the deciding spot-kick respectively in the win over Lyon. Off the pitch, though, their immense fortitude has been evident for a long time.
Back in 2017, when they were both playing for Birmingham City, Berger was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She recovered and spent four years in remission, before learning that her cancer had returned last summer, during Germany’s charge towards the final of the Women’s European Championship.
Carter, Berger’s partner as well as her team-mate, has been by her side throughout. She knows exactly how much strength the support of loved ones can provide to a cancer patient, and she had to draw on that again when her sister Amelia was diagnosed with breast cancer at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
Covid restrictions meant she could not be alongside her, but the Chelsea defender was determined to show her sister she was not alone. She cut her own hair to try to show Amelia, from afar, that she was with her.
Amelia’s return to full health, coupled with the fact that Berger is doing well – she has continued playing while undergoing treatment and now needs only routine check-ups – means that Carter counts herself as one of the lucky ones. Yet going through these journeys with those closest to her has motivated the three-time Women’s Super League champion to become an official supporter of Marie Curie, which provides end-of-life care and support for cancer patients.
“I’d like to think I’m quite a positive person and so I always believed Amelia was going to be okay and get through it, but it was a horrible moment to not be able to physically be there for her,” 25-year-old Carter says, reflecting on the moment her sister told her she had cancer during lockdown. “That was really difficult. It makes you feel a bit useless, not being able to help at all. It was a really scary period of time but it was much scarier for my sister than it was for me.
“I’m just very lucky that she was able to be so strong through it. It was a really lonely time for her and all we could really do was be there over the phone, as she was obviously a high-risk for Covid as well at that point, which was sad for the whole family. We’re just really thankful that she managed to get through it and then, the first moment we were allowed, we were all there to help her.”
Carter says her sister is now doing “really well” and has since given birth to a baby boy, but such positive turnarounds are of course not the case for every family. In 2021, more than 130,000 people in England died of cancer, and that is why Carter is so passionate about the hospice care provided by the charity sector.
The Great Daffodil Appeal, throughout March, is Marie Curie’s largest fundraising campaign of the year, encouraging people to donate and wear a daffodil, and Carter says: “In the past few years I’ve had family members that have been really sick, and they haven’t passed away, but the idea of knowing the amount of support that is out there for people through Marie Curie is really special.”
Top 3 isn't too bad 👏🏽 pic.twitter.com/gGNiB3eP1l
— Jess Carter (@_JessCarter) February 28, 2023
Particularly after that experience, for the Carter family, being at Wembley last July as Carter and the rest of the England squad celebrated winning the Euros was extra special. That summer, though, was also when Berger’s cancer returned, and Carter is quick to praise her partner’s mental resilience.
“Ann was like ‘Okay, can I play football? Can I get back to it the next day?’ and her question was ultimately ‘Am I dying?’. They said, ‘No, but it still needs to be dealt with', so Ann was like ‘Okay, what’s next?’. It’s a very factual German way with Ann. It was almost maybe easier for me to deal with because she was so kind of ‘Job done, what’s next?’, and she moves on to the next thing,” Carter says.
“It helped me to be able to handle it as well. The fact she’d had so much good treatment before, and recovered so well from it before, I didn’t doubt that she could do the same again. Her strength made it quite easy for me.
“The treatment she’s received from her doctors has been exceptional, and Chelsea have been great. But thankfully for us, Ann hasn’t had to deal with any more surgery or anything like that for the rest of the season, so she just follows up on her check-ups and continues that way, and hopefully there’ll be no more surgeries going forward.”
Despite that positive news, Carter says football has served to provide her with a bit of an escape at times, adding: “You get to football and you forget about anything that’s gone back home. Most of the time my home life is amazing, so those little periods of time where people are sick and you get to football for that period of time you just totally switch off from it.
“Finding your own escape almost from it is a really good way to be able to handle those emotions or to be able to reset yourself from those things you’re feeling, to then, when you get home, almost be able to be in a fresh place to deal with it again. That was good for me personally.”
Berger and Carter’s crucial roles in Chelsea’s shootout victory over European champions Lyon on Thursday will etch their names into the team’s folklore and – speaking before the tie – Carter had made it clear the team were incredibly determined to bounce back from March’s setback in the League Cup final.
Take a bow, @berger_ann 🤩
Her two sublime saves in the shoot-out send @ChelseaFCW through to the last 4⃣ #UWCL pic.twitter.com/7HoV9w1DM7
— UEFA Women’s Champions League (@UWCL) March 30, 2023
“We were really devastated about the Conti Cup final, it wasn’t a performance like us, and we had to get back together and find our rhythm again and work together as a team to make things right.”
With Chelsea competing for trophies on three fronts, and still in with a chance of a WSL, FA Cup and Champions League treble, Carter’s mind has not yet cast towards this summer’s World Cup, but after playing for her country in all three England games in February’s Arnold Clark Cup success, she appears to have a good chance of being selected.
She is not counting her chickens yet but says: “If I was fortunate enough to go it would be huge. There’s a massive pool of talent that Sarina has got to choose from, so I know I’ve got to put in a lot of work to get there in the first place, but it’d be huge.
“Going to another major tournament is obviously amazing for anybody but going there and trying to get some minutes would be a massive stepping stone in the right direction for my international career.
“What we’ve done as an England team, it’s creating history, and by bringing the country together again during that period of time, it was impressive, really pushing girls football forward in the right direction.”
It's time for change. Every five minutes someone in the UK dies without the care and support they need. Marie Curie’s Great Daffodil Appeal encourages people to donate and wear a daffodil to help the charity continue to support people and their families at the end of their life. For information and to donate visit: Mariecurie.org.uk/daffodil