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Posted: Wednesday July 29, 2009 11:38AM; Updated: Friday September 25, 2009 4:47PM
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BC star Mark Herzlich battling his toughest opponent: cancer

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BC's Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer in May

Herzlich is undergoing aggressive chemo and hopes to be back in 2010

He has received an outpouring of support from people he's never met

By Kevin Armstrong, SI.com

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Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, on May 12.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

WAYNE, Pa. -- On May 14, Sister Barbara Anne, a 75-year-old Franciscan nun, sat by her computer inside the Our Lady of Angels convent in Mishawaka, Ind., and scrolled through the day's news. One article was about Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year who had been diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in his left leg. She had never heard of him, but his battle tugged at her. "God put Mark in my heart so I would write to him," she said.

Her cursive pen strokes had proven cathartic in recent years. To supplement daily prayers, the colon cancer survivor corresponded with two Marines serving in Iraq. They returned home safely a year ago, and she continued to search for those in need of reassurance. That afternoon she composed a note in flowing script on a piece of flowered stationery:

Dear Mark,

You are young and have so many dreams to be experienced. I've lived for three quarters of a century and am grateful for all the blessings I've been given during my lifetime. I still have a few unrealized dreams that I want to see come to fruition. So let's fight this cancer together ...

Twenty-four hours a day nuns in the infirmary and convent pray for Herzlich. His name appears among the sick on a list of perpetual adoration for which the nuns offer up intentions. Herzlich has never spoken to any of the 40 women or had time yet to respond to them, but Barbara Anne has been his most frequent mailer. "We see the return address and know warm wishes and striking penmanship await," Herzlich's mother, Barbara said.

Hope continues to arrive from unexpected sources. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis lit a candle for Herzlich in the school's grotto and began exchanging text messages with him. Red Sox CEO and president Larry Lucchino recounted his personal struggles with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (1985) and prostate cancer (1999) on Sox letterhead. Seven-time Tour de France champion and testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's invitation to join Livestrong hangs on the refrigerator. "Be as aggressive about your treatment as you are on the field," he writes.

Inspiration fuels his recovery. Two months into an aggressive chemotherapy plan, the 21-year-old has yet to endure an episode of nausea, but his strength is sapped during treatment cycles. The decision to undergo radiation for the malignant tumor, which started in his bone and spread to surrounding soft tissue, instead of surgery two weeks ago was the most significant since identifying the doctors to work with. "I can't even feel the tumor unless I really search for it," Herzlich said, rubbing his thigh and noting that the tumor has shrunk from the tissue.

Change is more pronounced above the skin. At different times, the linebacker has worn his hair braided into corn rows, puffed into an afro and spiked into a Mohawk. To preempt the cancer killing his hair cells, he shaved his curly locks. He has no facial growth for the first time since sophomore year of high school and the follicles on his legs have stayed the same length since chemo commenced in mid-May. "I really don't want to lose my eyebrows," he told BC quarterback and roommate Codi Boek.

All is not lost. He maintains his playing weight around 240 pounds, swims regularly and lifts weights with his upper body. He errs toward caution when outdoors. Since picking up golf he drives tee shots some 240 yards, occasionally off the course. His shots are all arms, though, as he's hesitant to exert himself fully. The cancer gives him a five-percent higher chance of breaking his leg. "If it breaks, the cancer spreads," he said.

For now, only goodwill has metastasized. Meats have been mailed from Chicago, chili came from Cincinnati and Kentucky ice cream came packed in dry ice. A chain of mothers will deliver meals through August, when Herzlich reports to school as a student-assistant coach and resumes classes. "I never even knew you could mail ice cream," said his mother, a tennis teaching pro who took the summer off to aid her oldest son.

There, on the kitchen counter, Sister Barbara Anne's notes (always written on a different color of paper) rest in their own pile. One day after a fawn was born outside her window, she wrote Herzlich about how full of life the newborn looked and enclosed a photograph in the envelope. Another time she related details of her physical rehabilitation with five-pound weights. When I feel like I'm tired, I think of how many more Mark would do if you were here.

Her friendship comes with a caveat. Though she holds no official affiliation with the University of Notre Dame, she can see the Golden Dome from her convent rooftop and has been known to be tardy for prayers when football games run late. In the first letter, she wrote: As you well know, Boston College has been our nemesis. So on Oct. 24 I will be rooting for Notre Dame -- but not nearly as hard as I will be rooting for you!

Love and prayers,

Sister Barbara Anne

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