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As he walked into the doctor's office, Mike Anderson was thinking that he was in the best shape of his life. It was the summer of 1987, and Anderson had been called into the student health center, along with a few of his Maryland football teammates, to take a routine physical examination. As a sophomore the previous fall, Anderson had become the leader of the Terps' special teams, returning kickoffs for an 18.6-yard average and punts for a 15.5-yard average. He was looking forward to the '87 season, when he would be given a chance to run the ball from scrimmage and show why he had been a two-time all-Met tailback at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md.
Then, as is his wont, Anderson made conversation. "As I was getting ready to leave, I told the nurse that I was feeling great except for my anemia," says Anderson. The nurse, Judy Edwards, summoned him back into the office. He had not taken a blood test while at Maryland, and there was no record of anemia in his file. She asked him to take a blood test.
That same evening, July 10, Anderson received a phone call from Edwards, asking him to return to the health center for further tests. The following day, Anderson learned that he had leukemia. "I was devastated," says Anderson, now 22. "I couldn't believe it because I didn't feel sick at all. All I thought was leukemia, wow, I'm going to die."
Nearly 2½ years later, Anderson received another telephone call. This time the call was from Maryland volunteer basketball coach Mike Gielen. In 1984 and '85 Gielen and Anderson shared time in the backcourt of one of coach Morgan Wootten's legendary DeMatha teams. Over the phone, Gielen explained that Terp basketball coach Gary Williams was searching for a backup point guard. Anderson, who is 5'10" on tiptoes and 191 pounds, hadn't played organized basketball in almost five years. He thought his friend must be kidding. Anderson's first basketball practice at Maryland was last Dec. 11. He played his first game for the varsity on Dec. 12.
Terp football coach Joe Krivak was among the first people to see him after Anderson received the frightening news in 1987. Anderson's condition was diagnosed as chronic myelogenous leukemia. With conventional treatment, the median life expectancy for a CML patient is 3½ years after discovery. Says Krivak, "The first thing Mike said to me was, 'Coach, I'm going to beat this.' " Krivak had his doubts, but he told Anderson that when he was ready there would be a spot waiting for him in the Maryland backfield.
By the third week of the '87 football season, Anderson was back in uniform. His condition had become generally known, and when he trotted onto the field at Maryland's Byrd Stadium to return a punt against West Virginia, the 40,125 fans gave him a standing ovation. "It was an emotional moment," says senior tailback Bren Lowery. "They were cheering so loud for Mike that I think it inspired all of us."
The Terps came from one point behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Mountaineers 25-20, and Anderson was given the game ball. Afterward, he was sought out by reporters. "I told them to go talk to Bren, because he scored the winning touchdown," recalls Anderson. "I didn't understand the fuss. As far as I was concerned, it was business as usual."
Anderson took a businesslike approach to his treatment, as well. The doctors had presented him with two options. The first was a bone-marrow transplant, a procedure with a 60% cure rate but one requiring a donor who has compatible marrow. The most common match is found between siblings, but Anderson is an only child. He has been listed with the National Marrow Donor Program since October 1987, but no suitable donor has been located.
By default, Anderson chose the only available treatment with the potential to cure him, alpha interferon, an experimental drug. Alpha interferon is a biological-response modifier, and though the mechanism by which it works on leukemic cells is still not understood, clinical observation has shown that it can control blood counts and symptoms related to the disease. Anderson, who at one time couldn't stand the sight of a needle, in August 1987 began injecting himself with interferon every day. The results were dramatic. Whereas at one time all of Anderson's blood cells could be identified as being part of the leukemic process, within a month apparently normal cells began to be detected in significant numbers.
He saw action in six football games during the '87 season before the pace of his recovery seemed to catch up with him. Fatigue and bouts of nausea are side effects of the alpha interferon treatment. "During practice he would go over behind the team house and throw up," says Krivak. "He was completely exhausted." Anderson didn't dress for the final three games.