Toni Pressley's Courageous Battle With Breast Cancer and Her Will to Help Others

Her breast cancer diagnosis shocked the team. But Toni Pressley didn’t let it stop her. Now, unfazed and undeterred, the Orlando Pride defender aims to share her story, hoping to generate more awareness and help others along the way.
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When Orlando Pride nutritionist Rikki Keen decided she wanted to speak with the team about breast cancer and women’s health, her aim was simple: awareness. After being diagnosed with an early form of breast cancer in November 2018, Keen wanted to share her personal experience with discovery and treatment of the disease, but she began the presentation with a more relatable example for her professional athlete audience: the story of her client and friend Kikkan Randall, the U.S.’s first Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing who found out she had breast cancer just months after winning in Pyeongchang.

“My goal was not to scare them, but to say, Look, this can happen to the utmost healthiest women,” Reed says. “What pushed me to get checked sooner was that I had someone influence me, and that was Kikkan. The chances [of getting breast cancer] are one of eight, so the chances are good it’s not gonna happen. But don’t think you can’t be that one.”

Keen’s talk made an immediate impact on the team, as she campaigned for the women to go to annual check-ups and even pushed the Pride to adopt a team gynecologist.

“The girls really got on board,” Keen says. “And another wave came when they found out about Toni.”

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Pride defender Toni Pressley had been noticing soreness and aching in one breast for a few months, but she didn’t decide to go get checked until hearing Keen’s story. On a Friday ahead of a home game against the Washington Spirit, the follow-up call from the appointment delivered grave news: ductal carcinoma in situ, an early, non-invasive form of breast cancer.

For weeks following the diagnosis, Pressley kept it mostly to herself, continuing to train and play games while only a handful of people knew. At that point, she didn’t know whether or not she needed chemotherapy, but she had scheduled surgeries to remove the cancer and complete a double mastectomy, which she decided on for preventative measures.

“I didn’t want it to be this huge thing weighing on everyone while I was there training and while everyone was there trying to do their job,” Pressley says. “I was just trying to be as positive as possible. I had it in my mind that I caught it early enough and these were just the next steps in what I’m going through.

“It was pretty hard after games because I was unsure when I would I be back or if I would play soccer again. That was probably the toughest moment.”

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On the day before her double mastectomy, standing in front of her team and fighting to hold back tears, Pressley finally revealed her secret after more than a month. As Pressley stepped away from the pitch, her story had an immediate influence across the NWSL, sparking a league-wide auction benefitting Libby’s Legacy, an Orlando foundation chosen by Pressley that provides breast cancer resources to underserved communities.

Throughout the process, Pressley turned to Keen—who was diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer and also underwent a double mastectomy—for advice and support, on everything from what she should pack for the hospital to necessities for post-surgery comfort and care. “I told her when you are faced with this, when you don’t know your treatment plan, when you have to wait on these different tests and it disrupts your life, just know you’re going to come out a lot stronger,” Keen says.

After two surgeries and six weeks of recovery, Pressley was allowed to start doing some cardio and exercises on her own, and soon, just three months after her diagnosis, she returned to the field for the Pride’s final home match of the season on Oct. 12, aptly designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Night. 

Orlando captain Ashlyn Harris handed over her armband to Pressley as she stepped on the field and Pressley finished out the game at center back. It was an emotional and inspirational moment to close the 2019 season, but Pressley’s journey is far from over.

Just days later, the Melbourne, Fla., native underwent a successful reconstructive surgery and began yet another recovery process. Once she’s cleared to play, Pressley says she will focus on rebuilding her fitness for the 2020 NWSL season and re-establishing a routine, one that now includes follow-ups with her plastic surgeon and oncologist appointments, plus daily prophylactic medication for the next five years. In spite of it all, Pressley is unfazed and undeterred, speaking calmly and confidently about her journey and how it can help others.

“Be aware of changes in your body. Be proactive. Because at the end of the day, that can be the thing that saves your life,” Pressley says of her advice to other women. “As athletes, we are healthy and that prevents so much, but realize that this can happen to anyone.”