Joe Thompson smiles as he is reminded how his incredibly turbulent football journey began. "My debut for Rochdale," he says. "I was just 17. I played against Carlisle, came on for 20 minutes and was against the left-back, Zigor [Aranalde].

"I was thinking, right - I'm a quick, young pup here, I'm gonna show this old man what's what. It didn't quite pan out that way. He'd seen it all before. But I enjoyed it. That's nearly 12 years, now."

The time since that 2006 night has given Thompson obstacles much more daunting than a canny Basque defender. When we meet, it is four months to the day that he walked out of hospital having beaten cancer for a second time.

What, having gained so much painful perspective, would he tell the teenage Joe about the road ahead? Thompson rubs his chin. "I'm not sure if I would say to the kid exactly what would happen. But I would tell myself to prepare for setbacks, because there will come a time when things aren't so good. Be ready, and, if you remain positive and keep working hard, you'll be fine."

Thompson's setbacks are well-known; the way he has confronted them inspirational. Having overcome one diagnosis of nodular sclerosing Hodgkin's lymphoma, and spent a season rebuilding his career at Carlisle in 2015/16, the cancer returned last winter. After more gruelling treatment, the 28-year-old is in remission and, he says, "60 per cent" of the way back to a return to action for Rochdale, who he rejoined after leaving United.

Thompson is also using his battle for wider good. Our interview takes place in Carlisle on the morning he is due to speak to the Blues' business club - and half-an-hour in his company is uplifting. Does he believe his "positivity" also aided his physical recovery? "Definitely. I also know the people around me being positive helped. The last thing you want, in that kind of situation, is have other people draining from you, talking about negative things that are totally irrelevant. I don't care if you've had an argument with such-and-such, or if work's not going so well. Just be grateful you've got a job, you're healthy, you've got a house. Things we take for granted."

Thompson made 17 appearances for Carlisle, scoring once, yet made enduring bonds. In between two five-day blocks of chemotherapy which required the winger to be kept in isolation in the summer, he agreed to meet former Blues defender Michael Raynes for lunch. "Initially I thought it was just going to be Raynesy and his little girl. In the morning he kept asking if I was okay, checking I wasn't feeling sick - I said no, I've had my medication, I'm feeling alright, I'll come for some food.

"I was still very weak, but when I saw him I was delighted - and then, as I turned round, Chas [Wyke], Nicky [Adams], JK [Jason Kennedy] and Joycey [Luke Joyce] were all there too. They caught me off guard. But it was something I needed. After the treatment, and feeling horrible, it was a click back to normal, having a laugh and a joke."

Adams, who played with Thompson at Rochdale, also later visited him in The Christie in Manchester, as doctors told him he would be allowed home the following day. "He was buzzing. But I was like, 'Nick, just keep it to yourself, 'cos I know how things can change in a night time'."

Things didn't change, and Thompson walked from the Christie, triumphantly tweeting: "THOMPSON 2 Cancer 0". The news was celebrated by the football community - while his story touched many more. During treatment he had posted videos on Twitter; one revealing a stage of hair loss, another showing Thompson crying.

Why did he decide to make his ordeal so public? "I didn't want to feel I was flying the flag as such, but I thought, as a professional athlete, I was in the best physical condition to be able to deal with this treatment," he says. "So if anyone's gonna do it, it's gonna be me.

"I didn't want to hide too much. At first I thought I'd do a blog, but that wasn't possible. But when I did have the energy, I would do something. And I knew from the initial bits and bobs I heard back how many people could relate to it."

As the interview pauses, and Thompson goes outside for photographs, a man sitting nearby approaches me. He knows Thompson's story and wants to praise the player for being so open. Later he returns to shake his hand, after which Thompson discusses his steady return to football.

"When I left hospital, I could barely walk," he said. "There was a lot of muscle wastage, and, for a month after, I was still being sick. The doctors reminded me that the treatment I'd undergone wasn't for the faint-hearted." Slowly, though, he reintroduced himself to Rochdale, and a progressive regime of stretching, biking, the treadmill and, now, more frequent football training.

Remarkably, he hopes to be back playing by Christmas. "That would be a good present for me, considering I got the diagnosis last Christmas Eve." Receiving that news, of a tumour on his chest, "burst my bubble", but also urged him to focus on ensuring his daughter, Lula - now five - had a Christmas to remember.

"We tried not to brandish the word cancer. But I had a conversation with her before I went to hospital, and she just said, 'If that's what you've got to do, the doctors are gonna make you better'. Genius. I didn't want to say, 'Well, sorry baby, not everybody comes out of hospital alive, especially with this illness'. Her mindset was that the doctors were gonna get me sorted. So I thought, okay, we'll roll with that."

Thompson had bravely continued playing until March, before his symptoms became more challenging and treatment approached. Now looking forward, he says: "I think it will be quite emotional [when I play again]. I remember my first goal after getting back the last time. It was for Carlisle at [Plymouth], a game that we lost, so it was bittersweet, but you couldn't take the achievement off me. Ideally, this time, it will be a winning penalty or something."

During his fight for life, and health, Thompson also revamped his diet, and believes his switch to plant-based veganism helped him rebuild his body quicker. The United defender Tom Miller has taken inspiration from this and, having spoken to Thompson, adopted a similar diet.

"I felt I had to do everything in my capabilities to give myself the best chance to stay alive," Thompson says. "When you've got cancer, it can only grow and survive in an acidic state. It wants sugars and certain foods to generate growth. So I thought, pfff, no chance. I won't feed you. If we're gonna go to war, I want all the artillery I can come with."

This dietary regime saw Chantelle Thompson - who Joe married shortly after leaving Carlisle last year - make repeated visits to hospital with his vegan meals. In this, and limitless other ways, he is indebted to his wife. "I'll never be able to repay Chantelle, but I'll do my best. Millions of people say the words 'in sickness and in health' in their vows, but you only realise what it means when the **** hits the fan."

Thompson says he also took strength from his memories of Carlisle, having found Keith Curle honest and open as a manager, Lee Fearn "meticulous" as a fitness coach - and also having, in a squad effort, helped clear the homes of some of the flooded victims of Storm Desmond in December 2015.

"This place - the club, the city - has got a real sense of community and togetherness," Thompson says. "I remember driving back from the floods with some of the lads, when we helped out that day, and it was like, Jesus, some of those people have had their lives and memories literally washed away - yet they were still positive. 'Let's find a solution, let's all stick together'. That's one thing I take with me in my life and my family. It's not always a sunny day, but when it isn't, stick together, have that pack mentality, and we can get through it."

Thompson frowns when asked if he feels his second major victory, and his willingness to share it, will leave a legacy. "I would put the word 'legacy' with the greats," he says. "But I'm aware that I can help people. I got given it [cancer] once, and I did a lot for charity. Then I got given it again, as if to say, 'Come on, Joe'. Not a calling as such, but sometimes life navigates you down a path.

"After football I would like to do more public speaking. As I do it I'm feeling more comfortable, and seeing people get things out of it."

Thompson kept a private journal, and some notes on his mobile phone, during his illness. "Things that, maybe, I'd put into a book. Also, I was conscious of writing down where I was emotionally, in case I did go [die]. For my mum, brother, wife, family, to look at."

Was that difficult? "It was, for those reasons. And it was hard concentration-wise. Sometimes the chemotherapy affects your co-ordination in your hands, so I couldn't write for long without it shaking or hurting. When I look at a certain day I'll think, 'Wow, I was all over the place'. But it was nice to set on paper what I was thinking."

It is not surprising when Thompson says "quite a few people" have asked him about writing a book. But he is not yet ready. "We're still in the middle of the story. You haven't got your ending yet. Let me get back on the pitch and tick that off. Let me get that first start, that first goal."

When the final chapter is written, and the journal's poignant contents can be revealed, Thompson hopes it will touch generations. "It [the journal] is for when, potentially, my daughter has children, so she can say to them, 'You know what granddad did one day? Well, he didn't just do it once, he did it twice. Look how strong I am'."