Dreaded Diagnosis: Cancer and Athletes
The news hit like a thunderbolt. It always does.
Paul Azinger, the PGA tournament champion coming off his breakthrough season on the pro tour, has lymphoma cancer. Doctors found the disease in the bone of Azinger’s right shoulder blade after he struggled through the Skins Game over Thanksgiving weekend in obvious pain, his swing clearly restricted.
Eleven months earlier, Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the most dominant player in the NHL, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, cancer of the lymph nodes. Before that, it was Karl Nelson, a tackle on the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Before that, it was Jeff Blatnick, an Olympic wrestler.
All were athletes in their prime, struck down by a dreaded diagnosis, linked by the single word that would chill anyone:
And yet, as frightening, as horrible, as ugly as that word is, it does not have to be an end. It can, instead, be a beginning, the start of inspiration for others.
Certainly, Lemieux proved that. He underwent 22 radiation treatments for six weeks last winter. On the day he completed the final one, he chartered a plane and flew to Philadelphia where his team was playing that night. He dressed for the game, played and scored a goal and an assist.
It was as if he had never been away, and it was the start of a remarkable comeback, a recovery that strained the limits of reality. Lemieux had consecutive four-goal games and a five-goal game. He scored 30 goals and 26 assists in the final 20 games of the season to win the NHL scoring title and the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player. His accomplishment was nothing short of miraculous.
“An average person is not able to do that,” said Dr. Samuel Kopel, associate director of hematology and oncology at New York’s Maimonides Hospital. “Most patients can tolerate the level of radiation he received as outpatients, but only the most well-conditioned person could go back to his sport and do it without a loss in efficiency.”
Lemieux said he approached the disease positively.
“I kept myself busy with other things,” he said. “I didn’t think about my cancer on a day-to-day basis. That certainly helped me get through it. I’ve been very positive since the beginning. I think that’s my nature. Anytime you have some adversity, you must have courage.”
Cancer demands an excess of that commodity. It is, after all, an equal opportunity disease. “Cancer doesn’t care who you are or what you do,” Nelson said. “It strikes anyone.”
He and Blatnick both faced it twice. In between bouts with the disease, Blatnick won a gold medal in Greco Roman wrestling at the 1984 Olympics.
Nelson had just won a Super Bowl with the Giants and was in the prime of his career when his cancer was discovered. He underwent 43 radiation treatments and returned to play a year later. When the disease recurred, he was treated with chemotherapy and retired from football. He now is a broadcaster for the Giants and remains a patient of Dr. David Wolf, an oncologist at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.
Wolf was asked whether athletes like Nelson, Blatnick and Lemieux are better equipped to deal with cancer. “To be purely scientific, that question has never been answered,” he said. “But my spin on it is that athletes do better.”
There are a number of reasons for that.
“In general, athletes are starting with better performance status of a given organ,” Wolf said. “If you’re dealing with an athlete’s heart, functionally it’s better than that of a non-athlete. With equivalent damage, the athlete winds up with a higher functional level.
“People with better performance status have better nutrition and are younger. That has a bearing on the final outcome. It’s common sense that they do better.
“Then there is the athlete’s notion of winning and losing and fighting. An athlete with an illness can view it as he would an opponent that he would fight to win. Mentally, an attitude of fighting it is more natural. Attitude and mind play a big role.”
Azinger is under the care of Dr. Lorne Feldman, co-director of oncologogy at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, Calif. “The cancer is localized and there is no evidence of any spread,” Feldman said. “The expectation is for total cure.”
Azinger spoke optimistically of hitting balls again within six or seven months and defending his PGA title in August. He also revealed a very human side when he asked well-wishers to remember him and his family in their prayers.
Courage comes in all sizes and shapes from muscular, burly types like Blatnick, Nelson and Lemieux to tiny Heather Farr, a wisp of a woman who fought cancer with every fiber of her being.
In 1986, at age 20, Farr was the youngest player to qualify for the LPGA Tour. On July 3, 1989, at 24, she was diagnosed with cancer.
“You go through life, especially as an athlete, thinking you’re doing all the right things with your body,” she said in 1989. “You never expect this to happen. You may get into a car wreck or something, but you don’t expect your body to go haywire.”
Farr went through a four-year battle with cancer, a fierce fight that ebbed and flowed through three relapses, a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, insertion of a metal rod in her back, and marrow replacement.
Through it all, she refused to let the disease rule her life. In February, 1992, she married Goren Lingmerth. Pro golfer Meg Mallon served as one of her bridesmaids.
Last month, the LPGA Tour was in Arizona, when Farr went back to the hospital again. On Nov. 20, Mallon was at her bedside when, at age 28, Heather Farr died.