Pitt running back James Conner discovered his Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis on Thanksgiving morning.
Pitt running back James Conner sits next his mother, Kelly Patterson, at Friday's news conference on the South Side.
Pitt's James Conner evades a tackle by Youngstown State's Jameel Smith in the first quarter Sept. 5 at Heinz Field.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For most of the year, the biggest quandary running back James Conner faced was whether he would return to the University of Pittsburgh for his senior season or declare for the National Football League.
A phone call he received Thanksgiving morning made all that seem trivial.
Mr. Conner announced Friday that he has been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. The 20-year-old will start a chemotherapy regimen next week that will last six months, though doctors are optimistic about his chances.
James Conner announces cancer diagnosis
Pitt running back James Conner announces he has been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at a news conference Friday on the South Side. (Video by Matt Freed; 12/4/2015)
Stanley Marks, deputy director of Clinical Services for UPMC Cancer Center, said the average cure rate for a person with Mr. Conner’s diagnosis is between 85 and 95 percent and he is hopeful Mr. Conner can play football for Pitt next season.
“This is a highly curable cancer, and we are optimistic that James will be cured,” Dr. Marks said.
Dr. Marks said on a four-stage scale, with stage 4 being the most advanced, Mr. Conner has “stage 2A” Hodgkin lymphoma, more advanced than stage 1 because multiple masses were discovered in Mr. Conner’s lymphatic system, one in his chest and one in his neck.
When doctors diagnose patients with Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system, they try to determine if the masses are above and below the diaphragm. Mr. Conner’s masses are both above the diaphragm, which plays into his positive prognosis.
“When I heard I got cancer, I was a little scared,” Mr. Conner said. “But fear is a choice. I chose not to fear cancer. We’re going to fight, and we’re going to beat this thing.”
Mr. Conner will begin chemotherapy Tuesday at the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at the Hillman Cancer Center, receiving treatment once every two weeks for six months.
“Obviously, he’s in better shape than a lot of folks, so hopefully he’s going to get through the therapy a lot easier than most people,” Dr. Marks said.
Mr. Conner started having symptoms in early November, most notably swelling in his face when he lifted weights as part of his recovery from a torn medial collateral ligament that cost him virtually all of the 2015 football season.
Mr. Conner got the news last week, and a PET scan Thursday night confirmed the diagnosis, revealing two “significant” masses in his chest and neck, according to Dr. Marks.
Since the announcement, Mr. Conner, who was the 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, has received an outpouring of well wishes from across the country. The Pirates, Steelers and Penguins tweeted their messages of support, and the Mario Lemieux Foundation offered Mr. Conner “best wishes.” Mr. Lemieux had his own bout with Hodgkin lymphoma.
Penn State University’s football coach, James Franklin, also tweeted a suportive message.
“He has all the support in the world,” Mr. Conner’s mother, Kelly Patterson, said. “I couldn’t ask for a better place.”
The rest of the Pitt team was informed of the news at a 12:30 p.m. team meeting, and most were in attendance at the announcement.
“We just talked to the team about how cancer started the fight and James is going to finish it, with all his teammates and coaches involved,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.
Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in December 2014 and was cleared to play this season, and Mr. Conner said he has been inspired by stories of others who have overcome similar diseases.
Before his diagnosis, Mr. Conner spent a lot of time visiting children’s hospitals in Pittsburgh and his native Erie, giving away his game-used gloves to help motivate the young patients.
Now, he will be drawing on support from them.
“I know there’s a lot of young kids who have cancer around this area and all over who look up to me,” he said. “I’m just ready to face this challenge, ready to say I’m a survivor.”
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