Davis can take comfort from recovered athletes Blatnick, Azinger, Lemieux among those who know ropes on long road back

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As outfielder Eric Davis begins his recovery from colon cancer, he can gain inspiration and courage from the likes of Olympic gold-medal wrestler Jeff Blatnick, veteran golfer Paul Azinger and hockey great Mario Lemieux, all of whom overcame cancer to resume their athletic careers.

"For me, recovery started with getting over the fear," said Blatnick, who overcame Hodgkin's disease -- a cancer of the lymphatic system -- to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 1984 Olympic Games, two years after being diagnosed with the disease.

"When people hear the word 'cancer,' they automatically assume the worst. At first, I wondered, 'Why did this happen to me? Am I going to die?' But once I got past the fear and stigma of cancer, I got back into my life -- my job, relationships, wrestling and planning for the future," Blatnick once told the Los Angeles Times.

"I competed the week after I completed my chemotherapy. Did I compete as well as I had before? No. Was I happy with the results? No. But the important thing was to see I could still do it. And when I won that gold medal, I was one happy dude."

For Lemieux, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in January 1993, the comeback was even more dramatic.

After two months of therapy, the Pittsburgh Penguins center had a goal and an assist against Philadelphia in his first game back. Despite missing 24 games, he went on to win his fourth NHL scoring title with 140 points.

Recalled Lemieux: "At that point, all you want to do is prove to yourself that you're fine and that the cancer is behind you. Maybe it was foolish, but that's what I felt I had to do.

"If you have a second chance to do something you love, you appreciate it more. Sometimes you take it for granted, but when you miss playing for a year and are able to come back, you feel different. Anytime you have adversity, you must have courage.

"That's why if people need help [dealing with cancer], it's something I want to do," Lemieux told Sports Illustrated after retiring in April. "I think, because of what I've been through, I'm a good example for people who need encouragement. I was able to come back and lead a normal life."

Azinger, playing with success on the PGA Tour, said he thought of giving up golf after lymphoma brought excruciating pain to his right shoulder in 1993.

He had been the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 1987 and won at least one tournament in each of the seven years leading up to winning the PGA Championship at Inverness in 1993, when he was first found to have cancer and forced to undergo chemotherapy.

"I was in the top 10 three times that year, at the top of my game, and then my whole life suddenly changed," Azinger told London's Sunday Telegraph this year.

"All I could think of was getting to live to see another day. I wanted to turn life into a vacation -- family, fishing and fun. Golf was no longer important. I wanted to be successful without putting in the effort."

But thousands of letters and calls of encouragement from fans and friends who had conquered cancer rejuvenated Azinger's zest for golf. Last October, he finished eighth in the Las Vegas Invitational after shooting three straight rounds in the mid-60s.

"People look at me, and say, 'Poor guy, got cancer.' I don't know when they'll start saying, 'had cancer.' For two years, all I wanted to do was live a little. Now I want to live life and also play good golf."

David Wolf, an oncologist at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center who treated then-New York Giants tackle Karl Nelson, who overcame Hodgkin's disease to play a few more seasons, said athletes stand a better chance to survive cancer.

Said Wolf: "In general, athletes are starting with better performance status of a given organ. If you're dealing with an athlete's heart, functionally it's better than a non-athlete.

"But there is also the athlete's notion of winning, losing and fighting. An athlete with an illness can view it as he would an opponent that he would fight to win. Attitude and mind play a big role."

Athletes with cancer

A list of some athletes stricken by cancer during their careers (listed team is when cancer was diagnosed):

Baseball

Brett Butler, Dodgers

Darren Daulton, Phillies

Eric Davis, Orioles

Jerry DiPoto, Indians

Dave Dravecky, Giants

Mike Gallego, Athletics

Danny Jackson, Pirates

John Kruk, Phillies

Scott Radinsky, White Sox

Danny Thompson, Rangers

Matt Turner, Indians

College basketball

Mark Alcorn, LSU

Wes Flanigan, Auburn

Phil Scaffidi, Niagara

College football

Sal Aunese, Colorado

Ernie Davis, Syracuse

Joe Roth, California

Freddie Steinmark, Texas

Golf

Paul Azinger, PGA

Todd Barranger, PGA

Arnold Palmer, PGA

Gary Sanders, PGA

Kathy Ahern, LPGA

Heather Farr, LPGA

Kathy Linney, LPGA

Babe Zaharias, LPGA

Hockey

John Cullen, Lightning

Milos Holan, Mighty Ducks

Mario Lemieux, Penguins

Pro football

Kirk Collins, Rams

Doug Kotar, Giants

Dan Lloyd, Giants

Karl Nelson, Giants

Brian Piccolo, Bears

John Tuggle, Giants

Jim Vellone, Vikings

Miscellaneous

Lance Armstrong, cycling

Jeff Blatnick, wrestling

Richard Petty, auto racing

Steve Scott, running

Butch Walts, tennis

Pub Date: 6/18/97

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