The next time you think of calling in sick, be it because of a bad hair day or a bad hangover or the dire need of a mental health day, think of Phil Kessel. The Bruins' 19-year-old rookie center suited up last Saturday night against New Jersey and skated every shift asked of him (16 total ), already having been told he had testicular cancer.
Less than 48 hours later, Kessel's right testis was surgically removed Monday afternoon at Massachusetts General Hospital. According to team internist David Judge, his prognosis is excellent. The young cancer survivor could be back skating and practicing with his teammates within a couple of weeks, and possibly return to the lineup a short time later.
"I would consider Phil cured," proclaimed Judge, speaking during a news conference late yesterday afternoon on the ninth floor of the Garden, "with a very low likelihood of recurrence."
Toughness takes many forms, in many professions, in men, women, and children. But how many people do you know, including the one who greeted you in the mirror this morning, who are able to accept a diagnosis of cancer, be scheduled for imminent surgery, and then report directly for the next shift?
Maybe there is some denial in that. Maybe there is some teenage avoidance, even adolescent naivete. Who knows exactly, or totally, what enables someone to steel himself against the word "cancer" and try as he may to take it in stride?
But there most certainly is a degree of courage and toughness to it all, and Kessel showed beyond a doubt last weekend that he has a mental strength and focus that many of us could only hope to own -- even in times far less ominous than being told, yes, the foreign growth you have detected indeed is cancer (in Kessel's case: embryonal testicular carcinoma).
"I couldn't believe it, to tell you the truth," said Kessel, speaking some two hours before his teammates faced the Florida Panthers last night on Causeway Street. "It was tough. I had a hard time with it."
According to Kessel, he visited Judge's office a week ago Friday, after a couple of months of not feeling well. He was tired. A lingering cold was bothering him.
"Not feeling great," he said. "Just not feeling myself."
Also, said Judge, Kessel could feel a lump on his right testis, something the doctor confirmed in Kessel's initial physical examination that Friday. Tests were ordered. More doctor visits were scheduled, including with a urologist and an oncologist. Within 24 hours, prior to last Saturday's opening faceoff, the diagnosis was confirmed.
But Kessel played, logged 12:21 of ice time, and even returned to the arena the following day, mingling with his teammates, as well as their wives and toddlers, during the annual on-ice Christmas party on Causeway Street. Good humor and holiday spirit abounded that day. One can only imagine how that festive tableau played through Kessel's eyes. He had surgery the next day, and then spent a good portion of the rest of the week, on an outpatient basis, following up with Judge and other MGH doctors.
"He's only a young guy, and for him to play last Saturday, knowing what he knew, that's just unbelievable," said teammate Brad Boyes. "I mean, to know something's wrong, and then to play . . . that's a lot of courage on his part."
Netminder Tim Thomas was among a few teammates who noticed Kessel wasn't in the room on time for practice last Saturday morning, prompting the 32-year-old goalie to give the kid a call.
"He said he was in the doctor's office, getting things checked out," recalled Thomas. "And I said, 'OK, well . . . are you sick . . . everything all right?' And he said, 'Yeah,' and then he got all emotional. So, you kinda knew something was up, you know? Then to play . . . honestly, I don't know if I could have handled that, and I'm a lot more experienced. You sorta wonder, what was he thinking that night. Surgery like that, they may not know everything they're going to find, and you wonder if he's thinking, 'Could this be my last game?' You don't know."
It wasn't until four days after surgery, said Kessel, that follow-up tests provided enough clarity and assurance for the doctors to proclaim him cured. All of which led him yesterday back to the Garden, where he followed up the news conference by joining a few of his teammates in a short session of hallway soccer outside the Bruins' dressing room around 6 p.m.
Patrice Bergeron, Marc Savard, and other teammates wore shorts and T-shirts during the informal warm-up. Kessel, walking gingerly, wore street clothes, and his wide kid-like smile. He also wore a scruffy beard, looking very much like a college sophomore, which would be his status had he chosen to remain at the University of Minnesota rather than turn pro after being selected No. 5 overall in the NHL's amateur draft in June.
The diagnosis of testicular cancer wasn't officially announced by the Bruins until late yesterday morning, five days after the club, following Kessel family wishes, issued a release noting the rookie was being treated for an illness not related to hockey. The release that day also asked for the media to respect the family's request for privacy. Less than 12 hours later, Channel 4 was the first to break word that Kessel had testicular cancer. A fan website, noting a Kessel family member as its source, also reported testicular cancer much earlier that day.
"There are some things I am upset about," said Kessel, when asked yesterday about the media's handling of his health issues. "I am not happy about some things. I wanted to keep it private, but sooner or later it was going to come out. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
No doubt the journalistic issues, consequences, and ramifications of Kessel's case will be debated for some time. At least until the next high-profile athlete in our city is diagnosed with cancer, or a stroke, or some other dastardly health issue that sends the city's reporting engine into high gear all over again. In a city as journalistically competitive as ours, Kessel is right -- sooner or later, and usually sooner, it's going to come out.
All of that, however, seemed of little importance late yesterday afternoon when Kessel sat next to Judge on the Garden's ninth floor, the two men talking candidly and clinically about cancer, about being cured, and, thankfully, about what comes next.
Where now for Kessel?
"Not sure," said the brave kid from Madison, Wis., noting that he would have to discuss short-term plans with club general manager Peter Chiarelli. "Maybe I'll go home. I haven't spent Christmas at home in four years, so . . ."
For now, Kessel's NHL record shows 27 games, 5 goals, and 9 points. His game is speed and agility, and he has displayed impressive snippets of touch around the net. Like every kid who comes to the NHL, the time would come for him to prove his courage. Between games, practices, and hospital visits last week, he proved that beyond a doubt.
"It was kinda hard," said Kessel of suiting up last Saturday. "But, I just tried to do the little things to help the team."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.