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Hockey Fights Cancer

Sittler: Being proactive key in fight against cancer

Maple Leafs Hall of Famer who lost wife, friend to disease, shares thoughts on important battle with

by Darryl Sittler / Special to

Hockey Hall of Fame center Darryl Sittler has long been proactive in the fight against cancer, whether it be through charitable functions, speaking engagements or whatever it takes to spread the word about prevention. As part of Hockey Fights Cancer month, Sittler, 67, shares his thoughts on the heinous disease with 

TORONTO -- I fought it.

I lost my wife Wendy from it.

I lost a friend and one of the most inspirational human beings I've ever met --Terry Fox -- because of it.

So when it comes to the Hockey Fights Cancer movement, it's a cause that's near and dear to me.

Because this is a fight that has affected me on so many levels.

When I retired from the NHL after the 1984-85 season, I used to regularly go jogging with my shirt off. The mentality when you are young is that you get a sunburn so that you have a good base when the skin peels off.

I was about 36 when I noticed a spot on my shoulder. I had seen an article in one of the local Toronto newspapers that was an entire page on melanoma. What stood out to me was that it said it was curable if it was treated early enough.

Not long afterward I was attending a barbecue when a doctor friend of mine pulled in behind me. I spontaneously took my t-shirt off and said: 'Doc, look at this spot. Think I should get it checked?' He said: 'Ya' so I went to see him the next day.

Once in his office, he took a scalpel and took a chunk of skin out of my shoulder. It ended up being stage 2 melanoma. I ended up having surgery, then going in for subsequent treatment and tests at Sunnybrook Medical Centre in Toronto, one of the world's top facilities.

That was my scare with cancer at a young age. Afterward I went back to the newspaper and let them do a story on me so that it would help create awareness among the general public, because if I hadn't seen that original article in the first place, who knows what would have happened?

The thing with melanoma is, even though it starts on the surface, at any point it can grow inwardly. And once that cancer cell has broken through, then your cancer can show up in other parts of your body.

I was one of the fortunate ones who was able to catch it in time.

That was my early brush with cancer.

Then, later in my life, as many hockey fans know, my wife Wendy was diagnosed with colon cancer at the young age of 48, 49. We didn't know much about it until then, but we found out pretty quickly that colon cancer is the No. 2 killer in terms of cancers of men and women in Canada. Yet the irony of it is, it's 90 percent preventable.

We were asked if we wanted to take part in an awareness campaign and we did. At the press conference, I went up and spoke and talked about the importance of being checked.

What I remember the most about that day, however, is when Wendy went up and spoke. She was going through chemo at the time. And in a very emotional way, she said that if she could prevent even one person from going through the chemo, the treatments, the suffering she was going through, then it was worth it.

Wendy passed away in 2001. And to this day I'll always remember her speech and her message.

All these years later, whether I am speaking at a corporate function or a small group around the table, I try to bring up the subject of colon cancer not only to get checked, but to be aware of it.

I've subsequently found out that some of the people I've talked to did get checked, were diagnosed with stage 1 or stage 2 colon cancer, and got treated in time. And, so, I continue to preach Wendy's message.

This month the NHL is featuring Hockey Fights Cancer and I've asked to be a part of it. I continue to pass on the message. 

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The other part of this story is my relationship with Terry Fox. He had such an impact on my life as he did on so many other Canadians. 

For those who aren't aware of his story, Terry Fox was a Canadian athlete, humanitarian, and cancer research activist. In 1980, with one leg having been amputated, he embarked on an east-to-west cross-Canada run to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

During that time, I got the opportunity to meet him and run with him. He lost his leg to cancer, then lost his life to cancer in 1981. He was such an inspiration. 

In his life, instead of sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing, he got involved. And now, as we look back, we see $750 million raised through about 50 countries in the world. He made such a difference. The research, the advancement, the corporate sponsors, the charity runs, the volunteers, it's all part of it.

Again, the message is clear: If you sit on the sidelines, nothing will be done. You don't have to be Darryl Sittler or Terry Fox to make a difference. If you are proactive and you do try to make someone else's life a little better, you'll feel better in other ways. It always seems to come back to you. At least that's what I've found.

As for those guys who are fortunate enough to play in the National Hockey League right now, each one of them have an opportunity. 

Kids look up to them. Adults look up to them. They're the ones in the spotlight. They need to realize that. And I'm sure they do.

They're the Darryl Sittlers, the Terry Foxs of yesterday who can make a difference today. 

To them, I would say: Never underestimate that. Never take that for granted. I think they know that. 

The NHL has so many great players. It cares. And for the League to have programs like Hockey Fights Cancer, I think it's fantastic.

Look at some of the young players in the League right now who have battled cancer. Like Brian Boyle of the New Jersey Devils. Mario Lemieux battled it during his career and bounced back from it.

The lesson here: If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone. A guy like Phil Kessel had testicular cancer at a young age and overcame it. Dominic Moore lost his wife at a young age because of cancer. She was only in her 30s. 

We all think we're invincible. We're not.

That's why it's so important. Every day you get up, you have a choice to make a difference. You have a choice to help. That's what I've tried to do.

You can do it too. And you don't have to be Darryl Sittler to do it.

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