Women's World Cup

From cancer survivor to World Cup star, Colombia's Linda Caicedo aims to make history

Caicedo is set to become the tournament's first woman to play in the U-17 World Cup, U-20 World Cup and FIFA World Cup within a year

This article may have Spanish-language video from our Telemundo sister station.
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Known as the "Colombian Neymar," Linda Caicedo from the Colombian Women's National Team hopes to pack a punch in the 2023 World Cup with her speed and drive.

As a soccer prodigy from a young age, the 18-year-old is set to become the tournament's first woman to play in the U-17 World Cup, U-20 World Cup and now the FIFA World Cup within a year.

A fútbol prodigy at age five

Linda Lizeth Caicedo Alegría was raised in Candelaria, Colombia, a small farming town about 17 miles from Cali, the country's third-largest city.

Ever since she was a toddler, Linda began developing a love for soccer and her parents let her follow her heart.

"She started playing soccer when she was in the womb," Linda's mother, Herlinda Alegría said during an interview on the “My New Favorite Futbolista” podcast. "When she was already walking, she would go out and play in the street."

At age five, her parents took her to a small soccer club for kids in Candelaria called Club Real Juanchito, where she was introduced to Diego Vasquez, the club's vice president that saw her talents from a mile away.

"Linda came to our club when she was five years old, holding her mother’s hand," Diego said.

Diego says back then, Linda's mother told him she was "kicking everything at home," including kitchen utensils and dolls, because the only thing she cared about was playing ball.

Years later, Linda's skills got better and she ascended to the next level at the club, where she met the club's president Rafael Murillo, who would eventually become her lifelong mentor.

As she played in the league, "Profe Rafa" fell in love with her ball skills, and she later became a starter in all youth games.

A heartbreaking diagnosis

Although she describes her childhood as being the epitome of "freedom," her life achievements haven’t been free of obstacles, in fact, one of the biggest she had to overcome came just as she started making waves about her soccer skills.

According to Linda, the problem arose a few months after her fifteenth birthday, when she started experiencing small sporadic stomach pains.

"We noticed she had some pain, a small pain, on her stomach and the doctors told us that it was gastritis and we started treating her for gastritis," Linda's mother said.

But despite treatment, the pains only intensified and caused her stomach to grow. That's when the family took Linda to a clinic.

"The truth is that I was very young and maybe I didn’t quite understand what was happening to me," Linda said on the “My New Favorite Futbolista” podcast. "My parents were the ones who received the information because I was very young. It was very complicated."

After several exams, in 2020 just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Linda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. 

18-year-old Colombian forward Linda Caicedo, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was just 15, is now one of the sport’s most electric goal scorers.

Overcoming the unthinkable

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is one of the most common types of cancer among women worldwide. Just in the United States, ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women.

In Colombia, officials estimate one in every 70 women will develop ovarian cancer at some point in their lives.

For Linda's family, the diagnosis was particularly shocking since the world's average age for an ovarian cancer diagnosis is 60.

According to Dr. Jill Tseng, an assistant clinical professor of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of California, Irvine, ovarian cancer begins with the abnormal growth of cells that starts in a woman's ovaries.

"Women who have never had children can be more at risk. Women who have started their periods earlier go through late menopause can be at higher risk," Tseng said. "Probably 1 out of 10 women with ovarian cancer have a genetic cause."

The road to recovery would be a steep one for Linda. According to her mom, Linda was devastated by the diagnosis and feared she would never be able to play soccer again.

"Every time we would take Linda to the hospital, she would cry and she would ask the doctors to please tell her the truth if she would be able to play fútbol again," Herlinda said.

The 18-year-old is making her World Cup debut on the heels of a battle with ovarian cancer.

As she prepared to receive treatment, doctors instructed Linda to stop playing until the cancer was in remission, which broke her heart.

"The diagnosis made her feel very sad. She would ask doctors and her mother, and they would tell her that it was going to be a lengthy and slow process," Murillo said.

In March, two weeks after her diagnosis, Linda underwent surgery to remove the tumor and then a six-month chemotherapy treatment that forced her to spend three months in bed.

At this time, the world was shutting down crowded events due to the coronavirus pandemic, which included sporting events. So, fortunately for Linda, she was not missing much time on the field.

"That (the pandemic) helped her a lot because if there were a competition, I think she wouldn’t have been able to handle it. It would have affected her so much," Herlinda said.

Seven months later, in September 2020, Linda beat the odds and was officially declared cancer-free.

"I feel that it helps you to grow for better or for worse," she said. "It was a bad experience, but then it turned into something positive."

Returning to the pitch

Linda’s return to the field was nothing short of a miracle -- after all, she was back on the field just days after her last chemotherapy session.

"I was at Deportivo Cali, and they all welcomed me in the best way. They were super aware if I needed anything," Linda said about her teamates. "In that sense, I was very fortunate, very grateful and the support they gave me was impressive. Also, the therapists and everyone."

Though Linda did not struggle to get back to the physical level she was before the diagnosis, her road to recovery psychologically turned out to be harder than she anticipated.

"Recovery was something that took a long time – to readjust, not physically, to let go of the fear that maybe your teammates are already at a pace and you have to train more to be able to reach them," she said.

Linda would also suffer hair loss as a result of chemotherapy. According to the American Cancer Society, hair loss is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy patients.

In the United States, 65% of chemo patients experience hair loss and 72% of those believe hair loss has a negative effect on their daily lives.

For Linda, this was no different. After losing her hair, she went to a specialist so she could play with a wig strong enough to last hefty activity.

After she got a wig, her confidence grew by the day.

"The days her wig was on, she started to smile again," Herlinda said.

Civil unrest

As Linda pushed to get better on and off the field, on April 28, 2021, civil unrest hit cities across Colombia to denounce taxes, corruption and lack of health care. The demonstrations lasted several months and made Linda's medical check-ups a long and complicated journey.

"To travel from Villa Gorgona to the clinic in Cali, we needed to take multiple motorcycle rides to certain points, and then we needed to walk to some others," Murillo said.

Murillo added they had to avoid roads and even walk because protesters would build barricades and set any car they found on fire.

"One time, we were coming back, she (Linda Caicedo) threw herself on the floor and said, 'Mom, I can't do this anymore' because we didn’t even have a jar of water," Murillo said.

Months later, in November 2021, Linda had her last checkup.

Road to the World Cup

Three years after her cancer diagnosis, Linda has come a long way in her soccer career and now she is widely known in Colombia as the "Colombian Neymar" by the press, in a nod to the Brazilian soccer star.

And Linda has the baggage to back up her nickname. In 2021, she was the leading scorer of Copa Libertadores. In 2022, she competed in the U-20 World Cup in August. At the U-17 World Cup in October, she led the Colombian National Team to a second-place finish and was awarded with the Silver Ball and the Bronze Boot.

And most recently in 2023, a few days after turning 18, Linda began a new journey in a new country with Spain’s iconic soccer club Real Madrid.

"It brings us so much happiness to see that although she had a bad time, she was able to return to the pitches to play," Linda's father Mauro Caicedo said. "She went back to her social life and then to see her again playing and training and everything, that was great happiness for us."

An inspiration on and off the pitch

 Aside from being one of the most recognized female soccer players in Colombia, Linda is also very active in giving back to the community and inspiring future generations.

In 2022, Caicedo became an ambassador for Fundación Mi Sangre, a non-profit organization established by Colombian singer ‘Juanes’ and civic leader Catalina Cock, which focuses on helping young people develop leadership and entrepreneurial skills to reduce violence in Colombia.

And in February 2023, Linda Caicedo was named the first-ever Ambassador of Resilient Youth by the U.S. government for her work inspiring children and teenagers in her native Colombia.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, the award is given to those who "maximize the potential of vulnerable youth in 30 municipalities in Colombia." As an ambassador, Linda has shared her story and challenges to encourage younger generations to pursue their dreams.

"Telling people my story and letting them know that we can move forward, it’s incredible. Everyone has a different story. Not everyone is born under the best conditions," Linda said. " I value the things I have, and they value what they have. It’s a mutual learning."  

Listen to the full episode of NBC and Telemundo's "My New Favorite Futbolista" podcast with Caicedo here.

18-year-old Colombian forward Linda Caicedo, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was just 15, is now one of the sport’s most electric goal scorers.
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