BLINKING INTO THE GLARE OF the television lights, Mario Lemieux
went public last Friday, a difficult thing for this very private
athlete to do under the best of circumstances. These were far from
the best of circumstances. Earlier in the week, doctors had
discovered that Lemieux has Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer, and
he had called a press conference in Pittsburgh to bare his feelings.
''I've faced a lot of battles since I was really young, and I've
always come out on top,'' Lemieux told the assemblage. ''I expect
that will be the case with this disease.''
Medical experts do, too. If, as doctors believe, cancer was
present only in the one lymph node that had been removed from
Lemieux's neck on Jan. 8, there is a 90% to 95% probability that he
will be cured. Of course, there is a 5% to / 10% chance that he
won't. His life, not to mention his extraordinary career, hangs in
Lemieux, 27, has long been known to keep his emotions under wraps,
and the Penguins' team doctor, Charles Burke, was impressed by how
well he seemed to take the bad news. But Lemieux was simply waiting
to be alone. ''I could hardly drive home because of the tears,'' he
said. ''I was crying all day.'' He needed nearly an hour to pull
himself together and to summon the courage to tell his fiancee,
Nathalie Asselin, who is six months pregnant.
The star-crossed Penguins are all too familiar with cancer. In
November 1991, 60-year-old Bob Johnson, who that spring had coached
Pittsburgh to the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups, died of
brain cancer. The year before, Penguin goalie Tom Barrasso's daughter
Ashley, who was two at the time, nearly died during a fight with
neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer. Both illnesses played
havoc with the emotions of the team.
Now Lemieux? ''This was like a kick in the teeth, or some other
part of the anatomy,'' said Penguin owner Howard Baldwin. ''Actually,
I'll tell you where it hits me: right in the soul.''
''It seems like everything bad that happens in hockey happens to
our team,'' said wing Kevin Stevens. ''It seems as if it just never
ends. But we're strong enough to deal with it. And Mario is strong
enough to deal with it.''
On Jan. 13, the morning after the Penguins announced Lemieux's
illness but two days before his press conference, he strolled into
Pittsburgh's Civic Arena dressing room as though nothing had
happened. He took a left turn into the trainer's room, as he usually
does, said hello to Stevens, center Ron Francis, wing Rick Tocchet
and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, the team's leaders. ''As soon as I
walked in, everything went silent,'' said Lemieux. ''That was
unusual. People aren't sure what to say. When somebody has cancer,
there's not much you can say except, 'Good luck.' ''
Barrasso shared with Lemieux and the rest of the Penguins the
perspective he had gleaned from his daughter's illness and recovery.
''You have to feel as though you're going to kick the cancer right in
the ass,'' Barrasso said. ''He should feel great about his chances. I
think he'll breeze through this.''
Lemieux first noticed the lump in his neck a year and a half ago
but didn't think anything of it. He finally mentioned it to his
doctors two weeks ago, when he began suffering from a sore throat. At
the same time, he was experiencing an unrelated flare-up of back
Rest was prescribed for his oft-injured back. Lemieux was hoping
that after two or three weeks of convalescing, he could resume his
pursuit of Wayne Gretzky's single-season scoring record of 215
points. With 104 points in 40 games and with half the season to go,
the record still seemed within reach. But after the one- by
two-centimeter node was removed from his neck and biopsied, the
future looked a great deal murkier.
The doctors were relieved when no further evidence of Hodgkin's
was found. ''Future reoccurrence is uncommon,'' said Burke. ''We do
not feel this will affect his long-term health and is certainly not
life- or career- threatening.''
Lemieux will undergo four or five weeks of radiation treatment,
commencing after he takes antibiotics for two weeks to knock out an
unrelated lung infection. Allowing two or three weeks to bounce back
from the side effects of the radiation, which can include
cottonmouth, sore throat and fatigue, Lemieux could be back on the
ice in 10 weeks. The playoffs are 12 weeks away.
The treatment is relatively painless. Before receiving each of his
five- times-a-week doses of radiation, Lemieux will have a customized
lead shield placed over his vital organs to protect them. The shield
will be lined up before each treatment, using a tiny dot that will be
permanently tattooed on the center of his chest.
Then he'll lie on his back inside a machine called a high energy
linear accelerator, which will twice blast his upper body with
radiation that's as much as 50 times more powerful than a typical
X-ray. Each blast will last from 35 to 60 seconds.
Patients most often complain that the radiation makes them feel
tired. ''Mario is a world-class athlete; he's in excellent shape to
begin with,'' says Dr. Ted Crandall, an oncologist who prescribed
Lemieux's treatment. ''His fatigue is going to be less than the
However, Karl Nelson, the former New York Giant offensive tackle
who was successfully treated for Hodgkin's, which was diagnosed in
1987, was also a world-class athlete. He returned to the Giants the
next season, but a reoccurrence of Hodgkin's convinced doctors that
he needed to be treated with chemotherapy. The chemicals coursing
through Nelson's body had debilitating effects, like arthritis and a
deadening of sensation in his feet. Nelson retired in 1989 and became
a broadcaster for the Giants.
Wrestler Jeff Blatnick, who learned he had Hodgkin's in 1982,
hoped to conquer the disease with surgery and radiation. Blatnick
subsequently won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, but his dream of
competing in the '88 Games was dashed when the disease reoccurred --
necessitating him to undergo chemotherapy -- and he failed to make
the team. Now a broadcaster and motivational speaker, Blatnick has
been cancer-free ever since.
Lemieux will be monitored closely after the radiation treatment
ends. There's a history of cancer in his family. A cousin died of
Hodgkin's, and two uncles died of other forms of cancer. With that in
mind, he became a spokesman for the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute seven
years ago. ''I'm going to try to do more of that,'' said Lemieux.
''Maybe I can help people learn that if you have lumps on your body,
you've got to get them taken care of.''
Last October Lemieux signed a seven-year, $42 million contract
with the Penguins. At the time the investment looked sound for
Baldwin, who had spent only $41 million to buy the franchise the
previous fall. Even though he must realize that the financial health
of the team may be riding on the superstar's return, Baldwin says,
''This is not about hockey. This is about a precious human being who
is going to recover.''
''The thing with Badger ((Bob Johnson)) was, once they diagnosed
he had it, it was pretty much a matter of time before . . . before he
died,'' said Stevens. ''With Mario, it's just a matter of time before
he's fine again.''
''I'll be back when I'm 100 percent cured,'' Lemieux said.
''Hopefully, that will be in time for the playoffs, and I can help us
win another Stanley Cup. But first things first.''