April 18, 2003

A Greater Appreciation for Survivors

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What has nine toes and loves Cornell hockey?

This guy.

Yes, that’s right. As of Wednesday, I have nine toes. The second toe on my right foot had to go because it became home to a benign tumor. Even though the growth wasn’t malignant, I was very glad to see the troublesome toe go. Over the past five years, it’s caused me nothing but aggravation.

The problems culminated this fall when I had to undergo six months of low-dose chemotherapy. Once a week, I sat in a doctor’s chair and enjoyed an I.V. of chemicals that didn’t exactly feel good. Fortunately for me, the amount of chemo that I had to take wasn’t close to the amount that most cancer patients deal with. My side effects were so mild that I was still able to do just about everything I normally did — go to class, play hockey, and even run a triathlon, although I struggled through that one.

In addition to the mild nausea, dehydration, and fatigue, there was one other side effect that was unintended. I began to appreciate what athletes like Lance Armstrong and Mario Lemieux have gone through. Yes, I didn’t experience anything close to their level of sickness and treatment. But seeing other patients undergo worse chemotherapy regimens and experiencing the side effects when I tried to compete in sports gave me a glimpse of what someone like Armstrong went through.

Winning the Tour de France isn’t an easy feat. It’s 2,082 miles of mountains, other cyclists, heckling fans, and it goes on for three weeks. And Lance Armstrong has won it four times in a row after overcoming testicular cancer that left him with a less than 50 percent chance of survival.

Scoring 100 points in an NHL season isn’t easy, either. Only three people did it this past year. But Mario Lemieux did it twice after beating Hodgkin’s disease. And he came close this year, at age 38, scoring 91 points for a team that didn’t even make the playoffs.

The list of athletes that have come back after beating cancer is a long one, and their accomplishments are truly amazing. Being a professional athlete requires an amazing amount of physical ability, and few diseases or their treatments diminish that ability like cancer. So while reaching a career high of 50 assists in a season would be impressive for any hockey player, that mark is unbelievable considering Saku Koivu did it this season — a year removed from his chemotherapy treatments.

Paul Azinger underwent chemo and radiation therapy for cancer in 1994, but came back as well, winning the 2000 Sony Open in Hawaii. In baseball, there have also been comebacks. John Kruk and Eric Davis both returned to the field, as has current Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell.

Even at Cornell, sophomore men’s lacrosse goalie Kyle Miller is missing the season while he undergoes treatment for cancer at home in Canada, and hopefully, he will be able to make a full comeback and return to the Red.

Cancer is an awful disease with no real method of prevention. It can strike just about anybody, and there aren’t many options for its treatment. So I consider myself fortunate that I only had to deal with a benign tumor, low-dose chemo, and losing my toe. It also helped me realize what cancer patients who undergo full doses of chemotherapy have to tolerate. My mom, who beat breast cancer three years ago, supported me so much during my treatments. While I was receiving them, I sometimes struggled to deal with my minor side effects. I have no idea how she managed through her chemo.

It’s my experiences with chemo and my mom’s experiences as well that gave me a real appreciation for what senior men’s hockey player Sam Paolini did this year. Paolini helped raise nearly $10,000 for the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance with a program he started called Power Play for Prevention. For his efforts, he was given the Hockey Humanitarian award. The prize is important in signifying that athletes can play a major role in their communities, and in Paolini’s case, it helps show that athletes can help fight cancer even while others are being affected by it.

On that same day that Paolini won the Humanitarian Award, sophomore goalie David LeNeveu was snubbed for the Hobey Baker award. I guess nine shutouts weren’t enough to be considered the best player in hockey. Hopefully next year, I won’t be able to count his shutouts on my toes. Then maybe he’ll win.

Seriously, though, I don’t mind missing a toe. I’ll still be able to play hockey and run once I heal from the surgery, and if I have my health, there’s little that I can complain about. Now that the ordeal of having a tumor is behind me, I’ll be able to return to participating in, watching, and writing about sports without having to worry about how to deal with the tumor or when my next chemo treatment is.

The public likes to make heroes out of athletes, and there are a handful who may deserve that title. But having experienced even the minor problem of a benign tumor on my toe, I know now that the bravest athletes, the ones who should truly inspire us, are those who battled back from a deadly disease to return to compete at a level with the world’s greatest.


Archived article by Alex Fineman

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