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Hockey Scores & Recaps Standings Stats Teams Matchups Players Minors College Juniors SI Almanac INSIDE THE NHL

Happy Days

His cancer in remission, John Cullen is back with the Lightning

by Kostya Kennedy

Posted: Wed September 16, 1998
Sports Illustrated John Cullen's body is cancer-free and his personal trainer, John McCortney, says he's in the best shape of his life, but whenever Cullen coughs, he can't help having an uneasy feeling. "I start thinking, Oh, man, here we go again," he says. "The fear never goes away."

Fear became part of his life in the spring of 1997. Cullen, a 5'10", 180-pound center, was leading the Lightning with 55 points and playing like an All-Star, but he had flulike symptoms he couldn't shake. Long shifts left him wheezing. His chest burned. His jaw ached. He ignored the signs for weeks before getting a chest X-ray. When Tampa Bay's physicians saw the results, they blanched and ordered a CAT scan. It revealed a baseball-sized tumor in Cullen's chest that, upon further testing, was found to be malignant. He had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Though he immediately had to begin chemotherapy and would miss the rest of the season, Cullen remained buoyant. "He lost his hair and he had pain from the chemo, but he worked right through it," says McCortney. "He ran, lifted, everything. He got stronger."

By early September '97 the tumor had been eradicated. But then Cullen flew to a Boston hospital for a precautionary gallium test, which determines whether cancer cells live in the body. The test came back positive. At a press conference in Tampa a few days later, it became clear that Cullen hadn't fully understood the implications of the results. When a reporter asked Cullen's doctor about his chances for survival, the doctor said, "About 50-50." Cullen yelped and broke into tears.

While Tampa Bay players paid homage to Cullen last season by wearing his number 12 on their uniforms, Cullen fought for his life. First came more chemotherapy as well as radiation, the side effects of which once caused his heart to fail. Last October, John's wife, Valerie, and a nurse were wheeling him to a radiation session when he suddenly went limp. The nurse checked his pulse. Nothing. "Code blue! Code blue!" she screamed. Doctors rushed into the hallway and revived him with a defibrillator.

Not long after, John endured a bone marrow transplant. During the days as his marrow was harvested, cleansed and reintroduced, Valerie had to wear a surgical mask when she sat by his side. He returned to Tampa last winter, but he was fragile. On short walks he couldn't keep pace with Valerie as she pushed their two-year-old daughter, Kennedy, in a stroller. Soon, however, he began exercising, and in April he went to Boston for another test and learned that the cancer was gone.

These days Cullen, 34, can do sets of sprints that last an hour. His legs are muscular, his body robust. In a Lightning scrimmage last week he skated hard and displayed the soft hands and offensive craftiness that have helped him score 550 NHL points. "Looks like the same old John Cullen to me," said left wing Paul Ysebaert.

"On the ice I'm focused," Cullen said. "I don't think about the other stuff. I tell you, though, when I go to Boston for checkups, each one makes me as nervous as the last."

Issue date: September 21, 1998

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