Rest was prescribed for his oft-injured back. Lemieux was hoping that after two or three weeks of convalescing, he could resume his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky's single-season scoring record of 215 points. With 104 points in 40 games and with half the season to go, the record still seemed within reach. But after the one-by two-centimeter node was removed from his neck and biopsied, the future looked a great deal murkier.
The doctors were relieved when no further evidence of Hodgkin's was found. "Future reoccurrence is uncommon," said Burke. "We do not feel this will affect his long-term health and is certainly not life-or career-threatening."
Lemieux will undergo four or five weeks of radiation treatment, commencing after he takes antibiotics for two weeks to knock out an unrelated lung infection. Allowing two or three weeks to bounce back from the side effects of the radiation, which can include cotton-mouth, sore throat and fatigue. Lemieux could be back on the ice in 10 weeks. The playoffs are 12 weeks away.
The treatment is relatively painless. Before receiving each of his five-times-a-week doses of radiation, Lemieux will have a customized lead shield placed over his vital organs to protect them. The shield will be lined up before each treatment, using a tiny dot that will be permanently tattooed on the center of his chest.
Then he'll lie on his back inside a machine called a high energy linear accelerator, which will twice blast his upper body with radiation that's as much as 50 times more powerful than a typical X-ray. Each blast will last from 35 to 60 seconds.
Patients most often complain that the radiation makes them feel tired. "Mario is a world-class athlete; he's in excellent shape to begin with," says Dr. Ted Crandall, an oncologist who prescribed Lemieux's treatment. "His fatigue is going to be less than the average patient's."
However, Karl Nelson, the former New York Giant offensive tackle who was successfully treated for Hodgkin's, which was diagnosed in 1987, was also a world-class athlete. He returned to the Giants the next season, but a reoccurrence of Hodgkin's convinced doctors that he needed to be treated with chemotherapy. The chemicals coursing through Nelson's body had debilitating effects, like arthritis and a deadening of sensation in his feet. Nelson retired in 1989 and became a broadcaster for the Giants.
Wrestler Jeff Blatnick, who learned he had Hodgkin's in 1982, hoped to conquer the disease with surgery and radiation. Blatnick subsequently won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, but his dream of competing in the '88 Games was dashed when the disease reoccurred—necessitating him to undergo chemotherapy—and he failed to make the team. Now a broadcaster and motivational speaker, Blatnick has been cancer-free ever since.
Lemieux will be monitored closely after the radiation treatment ends. There's a history of cancer in his family. A cousin died of Hodgkin's, and two uncles died of other forms of cancer. With that in mind, he became a spokesman for the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute seven years ago. "I'm going to try to do more of that," said Lemieux. "Maybe I can help people learn that if you have lumps on your body, you've got to get them taken care of."
Last October Lemieux signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Penguins. At the time the investment looked sound for Baldwin, who had spent only $41 million to buy the franchise the previous fall. Even though he must realize that the financial health of the team may be riding on the superstar's return, Baldwin says, "This is not about hockey. This is about a precious human being who is going to recover."