BC linebacker Herzlich is diagnosed with cancer

By Mark Blaudschun and Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / May 15, 2009
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Boston College announced yesterday that star linebacker Mark Herzlich has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Ewing's sarcoma, a malignant tumor often found in bone or soft tissue. The cancer often occurs in male teenagers, most commonly in the pelvic area.

According to Herzlich's father, Sandy, the cancer has not metastasized.

"As you can imagine, the whole family is in a state of shock," Sandy wrote in an e-mail to a BC fan website. "We received very positive news that the cancer has not spread beyond its initial source. The recovery and success rate when the cancer hasn't spread is much higher."

Herzlich, 21, the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, has returned to Pennsylvania to be near his family and to consult with doctors on treatment options.

"This past week, I got some news nobody wants to hear," he said in a statement. "After undergoing some tests to determine the cause of some pain I had been experiencing in my leg, I learned that I have Ewing's sarcoma.

"Obviously, I was shocked. I had been extremely focused on preparing for my senior year at Boston College and for life beyond that. Now, I must channel all that energy into facing my toughest opponent yet and that is exactly what I will do.

"At this point, I do not know what this means for my football future, but I am determined to rid my body of this disease so that I can put that uniform back on. Thank you in advance for your prayers and concerns. Together, we will fight this and win."

Ewing's sarcoma is a form of bone cancer that strikes an estimated 250 people annually in the United States. "It shows up with an ache or a pain, occasionally with a lump or swelling that someone notices," said Dr. David Harmon, a bone cancer specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.

Patients with the disease typically undergo chemotherapy, Harmon said, and may also have surgery or radiation treatment. Chemotherapy, the doctor said, would significantly slow down an athlete for a matter of months or even a year. "Everybody does get chemotherapy," Harmon said. "That's the hard part for a young man trying to do anything athletic."

An athlete's ability to return to competition is largely dictated by the size of the tumor, which, in turn, determines the extent of surgery. "If the lesion's not too big and it's not threatening a fracture in the leg, they might not have to do anything that would limit his career," Harmon said. But patients with larger malignancies face the prospect of having more bone and muscle removed as well as extensive radiation that can cause stiffness. Often, the tumors when discovered are the size of the fist and can be as large as a football or basketball.

Patients with Ewing's sarcoma whose cancer has not spread and who receive standard treatment have a survival rate of 70 to 80 percent, Harmon said.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 238-pound Herzlich, who has been a starter since his arrival on the BC campus three years ago, was coming off his best season. He was a first-team All-America selection last season and led the Eagles with 110 tackles and 8 pass breakups. He was tied for the team lead with 6 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries.

Herzlich was banged up during the early part of spring drills last month. "Just the usual bumps and bruises," he said with a smile, explaining why he wasn't practicing one afternoon.

The linebacker felt better after the spring game April 26, in which he was the star on and off the field (the crowd around Herzlich for autographs far surpassed any other Eagle).

But when the pain in his legs and back wouldn't subside, Herzlich and his family became concerned. He told first-year BC coach Frank Spaziani of the diagnosis Wednesday night.

"It brings me to tears thinking about it," said Spaziani yesterday. "He's such a good kid. I told him that whatever we could do for him we would and that he should deal with it like he deals with things on the football field, just fight his way through it."