Eddie Olczyk was ready to give up.
The NHL player turned broadcaster was on his second round of chemotherapy for stage 3 colon cancer, and the effects were so severe that he told his wife, Diana, he couldn’t do it anymore. Diana told her husband to fight for her, their kids and everyone who loved him.
“We had a moment, which probably lasted 30 minutes where all we did was cry,” Eddie Olczyk said. “I needed that. I’ve never quit or bailed on anything in my life. Even if I knew what the end result was going to be, you play to the end. You’re down 7-1 late in the third, you play to the end. So I had never felt anything like that.”
After playing more than 1,100 NHL games, Olczyk only figured out how tough he really was after battling and beating cancer. Now more than 24 months since being declared free of the disease, Olczyk is the NHL’s 2019 Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador and released a book, “Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life” to tell his story.
Olczyk, now 53, hopes to be a cautionary tale about early detection and an inspiration to those fighting cancer that, “If that old broken down hockey player can do it, well, I can do it, too.” He’s not afraid to share the roller coaster of emotions he went through from his diagnosis in July 2017 through to the present, where he’s still scared because cancer could always return.
“You feel less, you feel weak, you feel like you’ve let everybody down — family, friends, employers,” Olczyk said. “I’m way tougher than I ever thought I was because chemotherapy and having the disease really tests your will to live. Not only physically, but mentally and psychologically it takes its toll.”
Olczyk played 16 NHL seasons, coached parts of two with the Pittsburgh Penguins during their down years and went on to become a broadcaster for the Chicago Blackhawks and NBC Sports, working hockey and his other sports love, horse racing. While announcing he was cancer-free, “Eddie O” said “we did it” because of the support all around him.
“You just have a plan and you’ve got to live day to day and you’ve got to overcome some pretty big potholes and adversity,” he said. “But you’ve got to fight and that’s what I was able to do with incredible support from my circle. The hockey community and the horse racing community, it helped me get through.”
Now it’s Olczyk’s turn to help. Already, the wife of Blackhawks security director Brian Higgins got a colonoscopy after Olczyk got sick and was diagnosed with colon cancer, and he has heard hundreds of similar stories since going public.
Olczyk is on top of his facts, too. He points out that the recommended age for getting a colonoscopy has dropped from 50 to 45 since he was diagnosed, and one of the things he’d like to do as part of Hockey Fights Cancer is shed the light on those taking care of patients, like Diana did with him.
“We’re not only in it for the people that are in the battle but also those caretakers and caregivers that are going through a lot mentally,” Olczyk said. “That’s something we’re trying to spread the word on is how important the caretakers and caregivers are because they’re going through a lot themselves. It’s important that people understand that and always look out for them and find out how they’re doing.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press