D.C. United's Chris Odoi-Atsem, a former Terp, diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma

The Washington Post

Chris Odoi-Atsem, D.C. United's second-year defender from the University of Maryland, woke one morning about six weeks ago with chest pain and shortness of breath.

His short career had already been interrupted by bone spurs in the left ankle, compartment syndrome in both calves and, most recently, general fatigue. The team had begun to wonder whether its 2017 first-round draft pick — a Mitchellville, Maryland, resident — was going to cut it in MLS.

But on this day, after his mother drove him to an urgent care center in Bowie, Odoi-Atsem learned something much more serious was ailing him. He had a 7.5-centimeter mass growing in his chest.

Two biopsies later, Odoi-Atsem was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer. He will soon begin a four-month chemotherapy regimen at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

The cancer has not spread and doctors have told him they expect him to make a full recovery. He is already planning to resume soccer next year.

"There is no doubt I am going to get through this," he said in an interview Tuesday. "It's just a matter of time. I am very positive."

A fleet-footed and athletic right back, Odoi-Atsem, 23, appeared in nine regular season matches last year and started five times. Because of the various physical ailments this year, however, he has played in one league game, a 12-minute stint at Columbus in the fourth week of the season.

Since preseason, Odoi-Atsem has struggled with overlying fatigue. At first, he thought it was tied to the offseason recovery from surgery for bone spurs.

But it continued to sap his energy. The compartment syndrome - pressure in the muscles that compresses blood flow - first surfaced in early 2017 and flared up again this spring. He underwent surgery in May, a procedure he thought would, once and for all, rid him of all his issues.

However, he still didn't feel right and stopped activities all together. He said he grew frustrated not knowing what exactly ailed him and how to combat it. A series of tests - muscular, neurological, cardiovascular, pulmonary, blood - revealed nothing unusual.

Then he experienced the recent episode that prompted him to visit the urgent care center. X-rays and an MRI exam revealed the mass in his chest. The team then arranged further testing and two biopsies to identify the specific form of lymphoma.

In a strange way, "it was a relief," he said. "Going through the last couple months, not knowing what was wrong. Now I am able to say, 'I got this.' It's cancerous, but I can fight it, I can attack it."

It's unclear, Odoi-Atsem said, whether the undetected lymphoma had contributed any of the physical setbacks.

"There was always something hampering him from being at his best and being an option for us," coach Ben Olsen said. "It can get pretty callous in the soccer world when guys are constantly injured. At some point, you question whether he is going to be able to play pro soccer. When we heard about the cancer, it started to make sense real quick."

Odoi-Atsem has researched other athletes who have overcome lymphoma and resumed their careers. The list includes the NFL's Eric Berry and James Conner, and MLS's Matt Lampson, who had stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was a teenager.

The diagnosis was humbling.

"I work out every day for a living," he said. "You don't think something like that is going to affect you, but that is real life. Things like that can happen to anybody and hit anyone."

Doctors have told Odoi-Atsem that, if he is feeling up to it, he can exercise between rounds of chemotherapy, which will be administered every other week.

He has a strong support system around him. He lives with his mother, Pamela, who beat breast cancer nine years ago. A brother lives in the Baltimore area. There are former teammates and classmates from his Maryland high school and the University of Maryland, plus his D.C. United family, which, in the past few weeks, has also embraced defender Oniel Fisher, who suffered a severe knee injury, and midfielder Paul Arriola, whose father died last week at age 48.

"There was some doubt [about the future] when I didn't know what was wrong with me, but now that I know, I am going to beat this," he said. "I am 100 percent confident I'll be back playing. I just imagine myself without it and how impactful I can be again on the field."

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