On Monday morning, as his D.C. United teammates arrive by vans at their preseason training field in Clearwater, Fla., Chris Odoi-Atsem will drive with his brother Steven from Bowie to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
Every other Monday for four months, Odoi-Atsem has followed the same routine for treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This visit, however, will mark both an end and a beginning.
He will complete his eighth and final session, free of cancer and clear to resume a soccer career that was derailed last year.
“I feel good,” Odoi-Atsem said Friday. “Honestly, it went by pretty fast.”
Chemotherapy did not cost him much hair from the top of his head or from his chin — “not that I had much anyway,” he said, pulling on the tangle of facial strands.
With his health improving, Odoi-Atsem reported to United training camp last Monday in Washington. While his teammates began the grind toward the March 3 opener against MLS Cup champion Atlanta, Odoi-Atsem jogged on the side and, for the first time in quite a while, began to kick around the ball.
While United gets settled in Florida, he will remain home for the last treatment and a conditioning regimen that, if all goes well, will allow him to join the team for the second phase of camp in Florida, starting Feb. 13.
“We are super-excited he is moving in the right direction,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “I can’t wait to see him playing again with his teammates.”
Odoi-Atsem, 23, is from Mitchellville, played four years at the University of Maryland and was United’s first-round pick in the 2017 MLS draft. Before that, he thrived at Bethesda Soccer Club and DeMatha High School, where was a 2012 first-team All-Met.
He started five matches in his MLS rookie year and made one early-season appearance last year before injuries, fatigue and other mysterious symptoms sidelined him for months. Late in the summer, as United was reviving its season behind Wayne Rooney at Audi Field, doctors located a 7.5-centimeter mass growing in Odoi-Atsem’s chest. Two biopsies later, he was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In October, he began treatment.
“There was never any doubt I would beat cancer, but definitely there was doubt I would make it back to the professional level,” he said. “Lying in bed, a pins-and-needles feeling in my feet, my legs were weak, I thought, ‘Oh man, can I really make it back to being a top athlete?’ I had faith in myself and my doctors in getting back to where I was.”
Support came from his older brother Steven, who left behind a new electronics business in Ghana — family roots are in West Africa — to move into their mother’s house, where Chris lives. Their mother works two jobs, so Steven usually rode with Chris to the hospital.
“I thought it was only going to be a few weeks, but he has been here,” Chris said. “I’m sure he wants to be there [in Ghana], but he thought it was more important to be with me. It means the world.”
Beyond the well wishes from teammates, friends and fans, Odoi-Atsem received support from Charlie Davies, the former D.C. and U.S. national team forward who in 2016 beat liposarcoma, a rare type of cancer. He also conversed with Sebastian Salazar, a soccer-specialized reporter for ESPN who overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma several years ago.
Scans after his fourth treatment showed the cancer was in remission.
“I was a little surprised. It was good to know everything was working.”
Maryland’s improbable run through the NCAA tournament and championship victory lifted his spirits, as well. And throughout the process, his United family has been there.
“Every time I checked in with him,” Olsen said, “he was so cool and positive.”
Since starting treatments, Odoi-Atsem has been staying active during what he calls his “off-weeks” — the seven-day stretches with no chemotherapy sessions. During treatment weeks, fatigue typically sets in two days after his sessions and lingers until Friday. By Monday, he is eager to use a stationary bike, elliptical machine and weights.
Now that United has opened camp, “doctors say I can train as much as I can tolerate, but not much actual soccer.”
On the first two days of camp, he used a treadmill and did some biking. Later in the week, he began jogging for the first time in months. “Not too fast,” he said. “It’s a step forward.”
Once he is up to speed, Odoi-Atsem will aim to earn playing time, if not with the first team then perhaps on assignment with Loudoun United, the club’s new second-division operation.
No matter where he lands, he will remain thankful for a second chance.
“Last year, dealing with it, not knowing what was going on, I couldn’t train to my full ability,” he said. “I wanted to be with the team. Now I’m getting closer. I have to be smart and go step by step and work myself back.”