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Blake learns to live with cancer

by Dan Rosen

Jason Blake has persevered while dealing with cancer and a new team. Blake video highlights
The word sliced through Jason Blake like a sharp knife.


"Anyone that hears the word … the first thing they think is, 'Oh crap, this is it,' " Blake said.

Blake already was going through a major life change, uprooting his wife and three kids from comfortable Long Island and moving to bustling Toronto, going from the relatively quiet scene around the Islanders and Nassau Coliseum to the media-dominated Maple Leafs. He already had to adapt to new coaches, new teammates, new systems, new fans, new everything.

Now he had to do it all while battling cancer, too?

If it ever has been too much to handle, only Blake or his New York-based sports therapist know. Even through what he calls the most difficult year of his life, Blake has persevered, which is why he is the Toronto chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association's nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

"It is hard mentally – it would be on anybody – but he never brings it up at the rink," linemate Matt Stajan told the Toronto Sun. "He has handled it so well. He is always upbeat and hyper. That's just his personality. You would never know he has it.

"He is deserving of (recognition for the Masterton). He has gone on with his life."

Thanks to a little pill called Gleevac, which Blake takes every morning with his breakfast, he has been able to play in every game this season.

He hasn't put up stunning numbers and the Leafs haven't exactly set the NHL ablaze with their play, but the fact that Blake is living a normal life and still playing at the highest possible level are two victories that mean a heck of a lot more than four points.

"The first day I found out, (my doctor) told me that as long as you stay on the pill … you'll be fine," Blake said. "As time went on and as the hockey season has gone forward, to be honest with you, I forget about it. I really do. I have to take a pill every day, but I just think of it that I have to take my vitamins."

Blake said he regularly takes a drug called Immunocal, which is made for cancer patients and is supposed to help keep weight on. Gleevac caused him to lose eight pounds, but Immunocal makes sure he doesn't lose anymore.

"That was expected when I started the medicine, but I'm getting it back" Blake said. "We had to experiment to find the best thing for me to take to build the weight back up. Michael Peca suggested (Immunocal) to me."

Blake is thankful for all of the medication, even the diagnosis.

He said the cancer likely was forming in his body for at least two years, and he used to feel rundown. Since starting the medication he said he feels great, and his energy level is through the roof.

"The medicine brings everything back to normal," Blake said. "It doesn't matter if you're an athlete or just an every-day guy, you perform better when everything in your body is correct. That's what this pill does. It makes sure everything is balanced.
"People always ask me, 'How do you feel?' To be honest, I feel better than ever."

He's talking in a physical sense.

Blake confessed that mentally he's drained, but that has less to do with the cancer and more to do with how his hockey season has gone.

After scoring 40 goals last season and averaging more than 28 in each of the last four seasons, Blake had scored 15 times this season through Tuesday. The Leafs, meanwhile, were 12th in the Eastern Conference, six points out of a playoff spot with only five games to play.

Blake admits he just hasn't had a great deal of fun.

"I was an All-Star last year, but it's almost like that's what you were on Long Island, but when you come to a new team you're a nobody," he said. "You have to start over and make a name for yourself. I think anyone that goes through transition – it's not as easy as what people think. I'm a goal scorer, and if you're not scoring goals and winning, how can it be a fun year?"

"If I do get through it," Blake continued, "I'll look back and ask, 'How the heck did I get through that?' "

One reason is Blake's semi-daily conversations with his sports therapist.

"We talk quite a bit actually, probably every other day," Blake said. "This has been the worst season offensively for me, and obviously you're on tilt everyday wondering why this isn't happening if it hasn't happened the last couple of years. He tries to settle me down, calm my nerves and put good thoughts in my head. He's someone that is not going to just tell me what I want to hear."

More than five months ago, a different doctor gave Blake the honest truth, the morbid truth. He didn't want to hear the word cancer at that time, but Blake has done the only thing he knows how to do.

Adapt and move on.

"I don't know if I'll be here next year, I just know personally I'll never have a season like this again," Blake said. "I don't know if it can get any more difficult than this.

"It's been a tough year, (so when it's over) I'll feel like I've overcome."

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