This week, I found out I have something in common with Atlantic Coast Conference “Defensive Player of the Year,” Mark Herzlich.
Herzlich has two claims to fame: he has been an utterly dominate linebacker at Boston College since 2006, and he was recently diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. Ewing’s sarcoma is a bone cancer that most often affects young males: children, teenagers and adults.
Herzlich is 21. I was 20.
He told ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich that “it can be pretty life threatening.” What Herzlich doesn’t know—what no teacher but experience can explain to him—is that Ewing’s is not life threatening.
It is life ending.
Cancer does not change everything a person is, but it deeply alters what he hopes to become—so deeply that there is no comparing the life after to the life before. And there is no going back.
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When a young man goes to the hospital to have his cancer treated, he packs two suitcases: one for clothes and a toothbrush and a Bible; another for his dreams. Everything he hopes someday to become goes to the hospital with him.
Treatment begins and ends with chemo, and each chemo cycle begins and ends with a nurse plugging a mechanical pump into a surgically-implanted “port.” The port connects to a plastic tube designed to guide the contents of an IV bag marked “biohazard” directly into a major artery.
But the pump is for much more than delivering the chemo—at full speed it is capable of pushing a couple of liters of saltwater per hour directly into the circulatory system—useful, because the foul, odd-colored stuff coming through the port would scorch the blood vessels and corrode the kidneys if it stayed in the system too long.
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A young man can take whatever clothes he wants to the hospital, but sooner or later, he will end up dressed in one of those gowns—you know, the drafty ones that don’t quite allow for any sense of modesty. I never did figure out why the hospital insists on dressing up all the patients the same way.
Eventually the cycles become routine—chemo, rest, chemo, rest. The habit starts to show in your fingernails: stripes, like the bands you’d see in the trunk of a fallen tree; thin, oddly colored layers for seasons of destruction and thick layers for times of regrowth. Then your hair falls out.
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Ewing’s has an ironic and cruel sense of humor: it’s a childhood cancer, and the only cure we have comes with the side-effect of undoing the work a teenager does to become an adult. Ewing’s turns a man into a man-child.
One day I had a summer job salvaging the water-damaged guts of a ruined apartment complex with a crowbar. The next day I was diagnosed. Within a month I learned that treatment would leave me bedridden for 30 weeks out of the coming year.
Odds are, Herzlich is in for surgery and (I’d guess) radiation, too. If it goes for him like it did for me, he’ll be cancer-free in 12 months—but the uncertainty persists for years.
Of course, Herzlich’s experience could be different. At 6-foot-4 inches, 238 pounds, the man is built like a stone sculpture wrought by Agesander of Rhodes—built for football. Maybe the 110 tackles he made last year reflect a strength that goes beyond that of mere mortal muscles.
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“It’s a little scary, but there are things in my life that have come and gone—obviously not as big as this, but there are certain things you can learn,” Herzlich told Dinich. “I’ve learned there are some things you can’t control, and those are types of things I don’t like to worry myself with because I can’t control them. All I can control now is how I am mentally through the process. I hopefully can be a positive story in the end of this for people who go through this. It’s really up to God and medicine how everything works out.”
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Every young man diagnosed with cancer takes a lot with him to the hospital. When he leaves, he wears clothes he brought from home. He’ll leave all the drafty gowns behind. But the experience of cancer is not like the drafty gown. It can’t be taken off and cast aside. From now on, cancer’s shadow goes everywhere he goes.
After the treatment—assuming it goes well—and after taking some time to heal, Herzlich will open up his suitcase full of dreams. Here’s hoping an NFL uniform will still fit him just right.