A Warrior’s Battle

(Wayne State Warriors goalie Marc Carlson sat out his entire junior season after being diagnosed with testicular cancer last summer. Cancer seems to be a word sweeping through hockey these days, from Shawn Walsh to Chris Serino to Saku Koivu, with some stories ending happier than others. Carlson came to us and requested a chance to tell his personal story. What you see is Carlson’s story, in his own words — his struggles, his fears, his tears — and how he met the situation head on, hoping one day to return to the ice, and just hoping to live. — ed.)

My battle with cancer began last August. As I was playing in my last Top Gun summer game in Hingham, Massachusetts, I already knew that there was something wrong with me.

The night before, as I was lying in bed watching a movie, I found a tumor on one of my testicles. I immediately got an empty feeling in my stomach and became overwhelmed with the worst fear that I have ever felt, a fear that most people have never known. Because a good friend of mine encountered something similar years earlier, I knew that I had to see my doctor as soon as possible. Like most people, I’ve always been stubborn about seeing the doctor, but this wasn’t something that you waited to ask about during your next routine physical. In most cases I would have let it be forgotten, especially since I was going to be leaving for school in three weeks. But thankfully, this time I heeded the signs because, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here right now.

After multiple visits to different doctors I had a clearer picture of my situation. One week after I had found the tumor, my father and I sat in my urologist’s office; he was very straightforward with us. He said, “There is a 99 percent chance that you have cancer. If you do not have surgery to remove the tumor, then it will kill you. If you do not follow through with the necessary therapy afterwards, then it will kill you. The choice is yours.” Although he may have come across as harsh to most people, it was exactly what I needed to hear. I simply said, “Let’s do it.”

I was scheduled to go under the knife a week before I was supposed to leave for school and my junior season at Wayne State. I kept holding onto that 1 percent chance that it wasn’t cancer and that I’d be able to be with my team at the beginning of September. I was in the best shape of my life, mentally and physically, and I didn’t want anything to get in the way. But as the time went by, that 1 percent seemed to grow smaller.

One of the hardest parts in the beginning was calling my coaches and informing them of my situation. Trying to explain it to them — while also holding back my tears to remain strong — proved to be a difficult task. But an even tougher thing to swallow were the times my mother would hold me in her arms, crying, telling me that it should have happened to her. Or even to hear my brother say the same thing. It certainly was an emotional roller coaster.

Up until the day of my surgery I remained stubborn and defiant about getting back to school and skating. I was determined to be back at the beginning of September regardless of whether I needed therapy or not. It wasn’t until I sat in the recovery room, barely conscious, that it finally hit me.

You really have no idea what cancer does to your body until you try and go back to something that you have been doing religiously for years. I began to realize what it had done to my body once the simple things, both on and off the ice, now looked like mountains in front of me.

Lying in bed, clenching my girlfriend’s hand, tears began to fall as I heard the urologist tell my parents and I what was going to happen. He told us that there was no way that I would be going back to Detroit for school. The cancer had already spread to my abdomen and in a matter of weeks would be into my chest. He continued by telling us that I’d be starting chemo within a week and that during chemo I was going to become so sick that I wouldn’t even be able to walk. Not quite the encouraging words that I wanted to hear, but nonetheless the words I needed to hear.

I began chemo the same day that my teammates started classes. While they were getting up to attend classes so they could hopefully graduate, I was waking up just so I could live and hopefully see them again. I was up at 7 a.m. so I could be injected with some of the most toxic drugs that your body can handle without actually shutting down. These were the drugs that were supposed to cure me, but at the same time possibly cause permanent damage to my lungs and liver. And if that isn’t enough, these drugs also have the potential to cause leukemia later in life.

My chemo on the first day took about five hours, but that was a short day for me. This was my life for the next nine weeks.

My chemo ran for three cycles, each lasting three weeks. The first week of each cycle I was being injected five days a week. During my first cycle, these days ran about five or six hours, but by my second and third cycles, these days lasted for eight or nine hours. The next two weeks in the cycle consisted of a 15-minute injection once a week.

The five-day weeks were obviously the toughest for me. I tried to live a normal life and go out for a little while on Friday nights, just to get out, but after such a strenuous week it proved to be extremely difficult. I’d last for a short time and then all I wanted to do was curl up in my bed. Following those five-day weeks I usually started feeling somewhat normal again by Tuesday. My strength was up and I didn’t have to rest as much. But in less then two weeks the dreadful five-day week would come again.

My nurses were amazed with me everyday. While every patient was coming in for their chemo on an empty stomach, I (at least 30 years younger than the others) was coming in on a full stomach and the eating never stopped. A lot of people lose weight during chemo, but that didn’t happen with me. I brought my lunch every day and was eating every hour. At one point in my chemo I was up 10-15 lbs. Granted it was fat, but my body didn’t become skinny and frail like so many others. It was almost as if my muscle slid down and settled around my waistline. One of my biggest fears was losing weight and I didn’t let it happen.

At times during my chemo my white blood cell count became dangerously low. I was going to have to inject myself at home to bring the counts back up. But every time, for some reason, the counts would come back on their own. Low blood cell counts make one more susceptible to disease, hence making large crowds of people dangerous. Thankfully, because my body responded so well, my doctor was never forced to restrict me from large gatherings of people. I consider myself lucky for that, but even more because I was never sick once. I never got sick to the point that I was immobile, like my urologist said I would be.

I got myself back in the gym during my ninth week of chemo. The week after that, all of my body hair that I’d lost during the third week, started coming in. I think that the hair loss aspect is a lot harder for women to adapt to, but I have actually learned to like it. I still keep my head shaved and I don’t see myself letting it grow anytime soon.

During the same week it was announced that I’d been cured of testicular cancer, just a few days after my 23rd birthday.

Doctors don’t even use the word “remission” because reoccurrence of this cancer is almost unheard of. They will just keep a close eye on me for the next two years. I’ll have blood tests monthly and CT-scans every three months. So far all the tests have been clear.

I have been working out since November, but I didn’t touch the ice with my team until the middle of January. It had been five months since I had faced any shots of real caliber. It certainly has been a struggle for me both in the weight room and on the ice. You really have no idea what cancer does to your body until you try and go back to something that you have been doing religiously for years. I began to realize what it had done to my body once the simple things, both on and off the ice, now looked like mountains in front of me. I feel like I have made a lot of progress thus far, but I am nowhere near where I envision myself to be. I know that I’ll get there; it will just take a lot of time and patience.

I do not know why, but I was diagnosed with one of the most curable cancers in the world during a time when I was in the best shape of my life. Nine times out of ten, I avoid the doctors, but this one time I didn’t mess around. It proved to be a wise decision in my battle versus one of the fastest spreading cancers. What I have been through the last eight months I do not wish upon anyone. Yet at the same time it is something that I wish everyone could experience because of the way that it forever changes your life.

I have always been someone who lets the little things in life get under my skin. Our coach, Bill Wilkinson, once told our team, “If you worry about the rabbits, then you will be crushed by the elephant.” It is something that not only holds true in our roles as athletes, but also as people in our everyday lives. Life is a fragile thing and worrying about the little things is a lot of wasted time and energy. After cancer, I finally realize that these little things are so insignificant.

My battle and triumph have shown me that nothing in life will ever compare. A battle such as this makes everything else look easy. I am grateful for my experience and, looking back on it, I believe that it was a blessing in disguise. In the end I have become a stronger person and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.