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Carlson fights cancer like he used to opponents

Former North Star still free of disease one year after beating throat cancer

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- Jack Carlson has fought some of the biggest and baddest men to ever play in the National Hockey League. 

Known as one of the game's best enforcers during a professional hockey career that spanned a decade and more than 500 games, Carlson became a fan favorite in the State of Hockey, first as a member of the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association, then with the Minnesota North Stars.

Carlson had 274 penalty minutes in 90 games with the Fighting Saints, playing parts of five seasons in that league before joining the North Stars during the 1978-79 seasons. In 116 games over the next four years, Carlson picked up 251 penalty minutes.

But the most difficult battle Carlson ever fought came last year, when one of the toughest players to ever lace 'em up was diagnosed with throat cancer.

It was February when his wife, Gerri, found a lump on the right side of his throat. Carlson went to his normal doctor, who believed it to be a cyst. A few months later, the lump remained, and Carlson told Gerri he needed to go have it checked.

Even his ear, nose and throat doctor believed the lump was nothing more than a fatty cyst. He had the lump removed on a Monday, and by Wednesday, Carlson received a phone call he wasn't prepared for. 

"'It's not what we thought, Jack,'" Carlson remembered the voice on the other end of the line telling him.

So Carlson went in for another round of tests, results that revealed the cancer at the base of his tongue.

As he had during his playing days, however, Carlson wanted to battle the cancer head on. After his oncologist told him he had a 90 percent chance of beating the disease, Carlson suited up for the battle of his life. 

In a bit of irony, Carlson chuckled when thinking about what the doctor told him.

"'We're gonna kick your butt,'" Carlson said. "I said, 'OK, let's go.'"

The surgery to remove the lump was done on August 22nd. His cancer diagnosis came on August 25th. Carlson was receiving chemotherapy by mid-September.

"You're always gonna go down in a fight," Carlson said. "It'd be easy to throw up your hands and say to yourself, 'Why me?' And I said to myself, 'Why not me?'"

Video: Let's Play Hockey: Jack Carlson

That positive attitude, along with plenty of prayer and the support of family is what got Carlson through the next few months, a stretch of time when the once 250-pound enforcer lost more than 30 pounds. He lost his ability to taste food and was forced to have a feeding tube inserted just to keep on weight.

At Thanksgiving, his wife made a feast. Carlson had one bite of his mashed potatoes and could eat no more.

"You can't eat, you can't swallow, you can hardly talk," Carlson said. "I had to have a port put in for an IV because I couldn't drink. It's hard to even have a glass of water."

The worst part was the constant nauseous feeling he had in his stomach, something that began in early October following his second round of chemotherapy.

"I'm a pretty active guy; I had no energy," Carlson said.

In the first few weeks of treatment in September, Carlson, a USA Hockey referee, was able to skate and stay active. He thought he'd be back reffing games by December. 

All until that second round of chemo.

"When that second one hit me, I was down and out," Carlson said. "I lost 17 pounds in a week and a half."

That's when the feeding tube went in. For several weeks, every meal Carlson had entered his body through a syringe. 

Still, his trips to the doctor reminded him that he could have had it worse. His success rate of 90 percent was much better than those of others he saw on those trips.

"I'd sit there at Minnesota Oncology in Burnsville and I knew I had a fight on my hands," Carlson said. "But so many of the people there, and their attitudes ... they were an inspiration for me. They knew they weren't going to make it. I had a chance."

Carlson had his last round of treatment last November, but had to wait nearly four months for test results to confirm the good news: one of the toughest players in hockey history had beaten one more opponent into submission. 

Carlson has visited the doctor monthly since February to make sure things still looked good. Then last week, another scan was taken to make sure the cancer was gone.

"To me, I kept saying to myself, 'It's not in your hands anymore, Jack,'" Carlson said. "I gave it to the Lord and told him, 'Do what you want with me. You can either cure me, or you won't.'"

Carlson's prayers were answered when he received the results: The former North Star was indeed one-year cancer free. On Tuesday, Carlson celebrated with many of the fans who still remember his glory days on the ice by doing the "Let's Play Hockey" call before the Wild's game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night.

It was a neat connection for him to be a part of a night where the sport that gave him so much joined the fight against the cancer that attempted to take his life.

But like so many on-ice foes before it, cancer couldn't have prepared for the battle it would have with Jack Carlson.

"We all know somebody, either you've experienced it personally in your family or you know somebody who's had it," Carlson said. "Everybody is affected by it; it's not just you, it's your wife, your kids, it's your in-laws, it's everybody. 

"When you're strong in your faith and you have a good family and a lot of good friends, it gets you through. You're dealt some cards and mine turned out pretty good."

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