When I saw the news flash acros the screen this morning that first-year Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was hospitalized with a “serious illness” and would miss at least a few weeks’ worth of games, the first reaction was, “Damn, it must be serious. Coaches do not like to miss games.” And there was also a small voice in my head wondering: “Is it that serious illness? The exact one that just popped into my head?”
A short time later, the reports were in: Pagano has acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL).
It was the exact one.
The reason this was the first “serious illness” to pop into my head has nothing to do with any kind of sixth sense for diagnosing illnesses: APL is simply the main serious illness about which I know a fair bit more than I wish I did, and therefore the one that pops into my head first. The reason: last summer, my best friend spent a month in the hospital with that exact form of leukemia. Obviously I’d wish Pagano – who by all accounts is one of football’s good guys, making this new all the tougher to take – the best no matter what, but hopefully you’ll forgive me if, knowing the diagnosis, I’m just a little bit more personally invested now.
Here’s the (relatively) good news: if you’re going to get leukemia at all, APL is one of the most treatable forms you can have. The reason for this: APL is uniquely susceptible to treatment in the form of all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA). Because of that, and because it sounds like it was caught reasonably early (good thing the Colts’ bye week was so early in the season), one would think Pagano’s chances at remission and an eventual full recovery are excellent.
That’s not to say it’ll be easy. Cancer never is. Pagano will be in the hospital for 4-6 weeks, weeks where no matter how good his doctors and nurses are, he’ll probably wish he were anywhere else. The ATRA (which treats the underlying cause) will probably be combined with chemo to blast the existing bad white blood cells (APL results in the body producing too many of them) out of his body. If you want to get an idea of what the process is like, you can listen to my friend talk about what it was like for him here. It begins at about the 36:40 mark. It’s a little tough to listen to.
But while it won’t be pleasant, it will be worth it, because Pagano stands an excellent chance of being back on the sidelines as soon as possible. It’s impossible to know when exactly that will be – it might be before the end of this season (my friend was back at work about three months after his initial diagnosis), it might not be. But it’s a safe bet that he’ll be back. And when he does come back – well, when my field returned to work, he was grateful for the reception he got from his colleagues, but couldn’t help but note there was no standing ovation. Pagano? He’ll get one, from 60,000-plus people. And it will be spectacular.
Getty photo, by Michael Hickey