Soon after Lyle Alzado developed the brain lymphoma that would eventually cause his death, he announced that the cancer had been caused by anabolic steroids and human growth hormone.
Alzado, who died yesterday at age 43, said he hoped that by making his case public, he would help others learn from his mistakes.
"He used steroids to get bigger and to win," said Dr. Lyle Micheli, an orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. "He was involved in a sport that requires size and strength."
When Alzado was a student at Yankton (S.D.) State College, he believed that his National Football League career would be dependent on performance-enhancing drugs. Soon after he began heavy use of anabolic steroids in 1969, Alzado increased his weight to 265 pounds, and he was able to bench-press more than 500 pounds. He joined the Denver Broncos in 1971 and competed for 15 years in the NFL.
He became known for his violent behavior both on and off the field, an attitude that helped earn him All-Pro honors as a defensive end.
But Alzado paid a heavy price. He spent $20,000 to $30,000 a year on steroids, which were shot into his veins so many times that it eventually became nearly impossible to continue the injections.
Alzado then switched to human growth hormone and continued using it even after his professional career ended in 1985 and during an attempted comeback in 1990.
"These things will always be anecdotal," Micheli said. "But we know that anabolic steroids stimulate, or rev up, the cells in the body.
"And when you stimulate those cells, you increase the chances of tumors developing. Growth hormone has that exact kind of risk."
Alzado developed a rare form of brain lymphoma in April 1991. He began talking against steroid use in public and on television and launched the Lyle Alzado National Steroid Education Program, though there was no scientific proof that his illness was caused by steroids.
Alzado moved to Portland, Ore., in March to begin chemotherapy treatment at the Oregon Health Sciences University. The treatment involved using concentrated sugars and tiny catheters to maneuver anti-cancer drugs past the "blood-brain barrier" of blood vessels. Injected sugars open those blood vessels, providing a direct route to the cancer.
After being treated March 11, Alzado developed pneumonia. He was readmitted for treatment March 20. He died yesterday at his home in Portland.
Alzado's deterioration occurred quickly once the cancer developed. He changed from a forceful presence to a shadowy figure with a raspy voice and weighing about 160 pounds. The cancer was in remission last year but recurred in January.
"I had my mind set, and I did what I wanted to do," Alzado said of his steroid use. "So many people tried to talk me out of what I was doing, and I wouldn't listen."
Dr. Forest Tennant, the NFL's drug adviser from 1986 to 1990, said Alzado would not be an isolated case.
"I don't think we've even begun to see the consequences of steroid use," Tennant said. "Alzado will be the first of a lot of big names to come down with cancers."
Alzado had been married for a month to Kathy Davis, 25, a fashion model, when he was diagnosed with the cancer.
A private memorial service was planned today in Portland.