Lemieux's treatment begins hopes high

January 14, 1993|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- As Mario Lemieux begins intensive, exhaustive treatment that is bound to weaken even the greatest hockey player in the world, doctors and people who have overcome Hodgkin's disease assert he has a good chance to recover and rejoin the Pittsburgh Penguins -- a team that is used to a mix of hockey and reality.

Lemieux, who was found to have the cancer this week and has started radiation treatment, spent an hour yesterday customarily leading the team he has helped carry to two straight Stanley Cup championships. This time, the captain did his best to lift the spirits of a franchise whose coach, Bob Johnson, died of brain cancer before last season, and one that endured the plight of goalie Tom Barrasso, whose daughter, Ashley, suffered from leukemia two years ago.

"I'll be fine," Lemieux told reporters as he got into his car. "No problem."

Doctors removed a lymph node from Lemieux's neck and said they found no evidence of other problems. Whether Lemieux can return in six weeks, as the Penguins predict, or if he ever will lift the Cup again, the 27-year-old superstar is given a strong chance to resume a normal life. His chances of again reaching extraordinary heights will depend on how well he responds to a month of daunting radiation treatment.

"The big thing is to stay positive, to believe you're getting through it and beating the cancer," said former New York Giants tackle Karl Nelson, who was found to have Hodgkin's disease in 1987, returned to play in 1988, suffered a regrowth later that year and was treated successfully with chemotherapy. He works for a New Jersey-based financial services company and broadcasts Giants games on the radio.

Nelson said Lemieux will have to brace for therapy that will make him feel worse than suffering from the disease. "He'll lose his sense of taste, he'll find it will knock out his salivary glands and he'll experience 'cotton mouth,' " the former football player said. "Everyone reacts differently to radiation. But basically, you're very tired, very wiped out."

And, in that, Nelson said Lemieux must call on the training that helped him win three scoring titles.

"As an athlete, you're used to pushing yourself through tough situations," Nelson said. "I always saw my treatment as training camp -- it was something I didn't want to do, but it was helping get me to a regular-season game or the Super Bowl."

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