The 22-year-old Sydney Sixers rising star reveals her frightening cancer diagnois, while being isolated from family in Sydney's COVID lockdown, and how cricket and her teammates inspired her fightback and recovery
Back on my feet: Cheatle’s untold cancer battle
After a surreal, challenging and at times frightening few months, Lauren Cheatle is soaking up touring life with her teammates in South Australia, enjoying the chance to simply just be a cricketer.
Not a cricketer on the injury list or a cricketer going through a rehab, but a cricketer who gets to do what she loves: tear in and bowl fast for the Sydney Sixers.
And tearing in is exactly what she has been doing; despite missing the first few matches of the Weber WBBL|07 season the left-arm fast bowler is the Sixers' leading wicket-taker, having collected 10 wickets at 8.80 in just six matches.
Her successful return is all the more remarkable in the context of what she has experienced this year, and what she is still continuing to deal with.
And it is her love of the game, and her determination to be in the action, not watching it from the sidelines, that has been driving Cheatle since she noticed a strange lump on her shin in early June.
It was a freckle that changed, rapidly, getting darker and hurt to touch.
Yearly skin checks are normal practice for Cricket New South Wales players, and the next was due in a couple of weeks.
But Cheatle didn't wait, instead seeking the opinion of CNSW medical staff, who immediately referred her to a specialist.
The 22-year-old's urgency – and that of her doctors – made all the difference.
The diagnosis was early-stage skin cancer.
Understandably, it was not the sort of news the left-arm fast bowler had anticipated.
"It was a shock, it's a call you never expect to happen, but definitely not at 22," Cheatle told cricket.com.au.
"I just knew in my gut that something wasn't right and as soon as I showed our doctors at Cricket New South Wales, they got me into a specialist straight away and it all moved very quickly from there.
"We were so lucky we caught it when we did, because if we had waited another couple of weeks, the outcome probably could have been very different."
Things moved quickly after that call; within a week the lump was removed, taking a chunk out of her shin.
A lymph node from her groin, known as the 'sentinel node' as it would reveal whether the cancer had spread beyond the initial site, was also taken for testing.
Seven nerve-wracking days later the results came back: the cancer had not spread, and Cheatle could breathe again.
"I think that was the longest seven-day wait I've ever had to get that call back," she said.
"If it gets into your lymph nodes, that's when it starts spreading through your body."
The timing of her action was crucial.
"I can't stress enough how lucky we were to catch it when we did," Cheatle continued.
"I feel like it's quite easy if you're young to ignore those things, especially if you don't think anything's wrong.
"But I would strongly suggest to anyone to always get everything checked.
"Even if it (turns out to be fine), there's no harm in getting a check once a year and just being on top of your body and knowing when things potentially aren't right."
Cheatle had to stay off her feet for the best part of two months following the surgery as she healed, a frustration for someone who describes herself as "a horrible watcher of cricket" and who just wanted to join her state teammates at preseason training.
The surgery to her lymph node still requires care, as the pockets left from its extraction continue to fill with lymph fluid and requires draining by a specialist every month or two.
That procedure also left Cheatle with nerve damage; she currently has no feeling in her upper left thigh, but there is optimism these side effects will improve over time.
"I would have loved (the recovery) to be smooth, I feel like it was anything but smooth," she said.
"It's different, I'm used to recovering from shoulder injuries, and all the staff and I know what that looks like and the milestones you need to tick off.
"This was quite a unique recovery because it wasn't an injury per se, you're working with the lymph system so it's something completely different to what we're used to."
For this to happen to any 22-year-old is hard to fathom, but for it to happen to someone whose elite cricket career (that started with an international debut aged 17 in 2016) has already been punctuated with several major shoulder injuries, seems even more unjust.
Not that Cheatle is wasting time feeling sorry for herself – and she is determined her legacy will not be that of merely the 'comeback kid'.
"I feel like sometimes (the word) resilience is overused … I just really want to get back to playing, I can't stress that enough," she said.
"I want to get out there with my teammates and play.
"I feel that the lack of opportunity I've had over the last four or five years has just made me want to play even more.
"I've put in so much work over the last few years, that I feel like I've earnt it, to be able to be on the field."
That question of 'why keep going?' is one she has been asked after each setback.
But her answer remains the same.
"I was thinking about this the other day," Cheatle said.
"And I feel like when things are going well for cricketers, and athletes, reporters ask them why they love the sport.
"And the reasons why I love cricket are the reasons why I want to (keep going).
"I get to travel the country and the world playing cricket, which is my dream job.
"I've made some of my best mates in our squad and in other teams as well.
"I love the competition, I'm super competitive, and I just want to get better and better.
"I love playing and being on the field and I haven't been able to do that much of late, so I feel like that's also what's been driving me."
Cheatle endured this latest setback through Sydney's lockdown, unable to see her family, who live in Bowral.
But she was thankfully surrounded by the close support of her housemates, Australia pacer Hannah Darlington and Sydney Thunder's Anika Learoyd, and the bond she shares with her cricket family came to the fore.
"Not seeing my family was the hardest part about the whole process," Cheatle said.
"I'd have loved to have gone home over that time especially when I was off my feet, but like many other people in Sydney, that opportunity wasn't there during COVID.
"I'm super lucky I live with Annika and Hannah and their support, along with the rest of the squad and our support staff, was unreal."
In July, Cheatle was approached by the charity Camp Quality to be part of their 2021 Big Walk for Little Kids to support children facing cancer.
It was pure coincidence; the charity had no idea what she was going through when they reached out to her.
But it came at just the right time, and fast bowler signed up to walk 200km over a month to help raise valuable funds.
"The timing of it was strange really, the opportunity came up maybe a week or so after my operation," Cheatle explained.
"They had no idea what I was going through, they approached me more as a cricketer.
"It fell into my rehab well, I was getting back on my feet in late August through September and I needed to be getting kilometres through my legs, so the timing of it just fit perfectly.
"I got the smallest taste of what these kids and what these families are going through, so any way that I could help, I was definitely going to do it, and I was really happy with the outcome of that."
Cheatle returned to the Sixers' XI for their match against the Melbourne Renegades in Launceston.
She went wicketless from her two overs bowled in that game, but has picked up a wicket in every match since; most impressively bagging 3-16 and 3-15 in last weekend's double-header in Mackay.
"I've been hanging out for this for the last four months," Cheatle concluded.
"I'm really excited to just to get back on the park."