Eddie Olczyk on cancer battle: ‘I’m way tougher than I ever thought I was’

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Eddie Olczyk (right) cals a game with Pat Foley at the United Center on Dec. 8. (James Foster/For the Sun-Times)

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Eddie Olczyk was unhooked from the life-giving, body-wracking, soul-crushing chemotherapy for the last time at 9:47 a.m. on Feb. 21, and the congratulations followed immediately.

Pat Foley was among the first. So were Olczyk’s brothers, Rick and Randy. His Blackhawks bosses, John McDonough and Jay Blunk, called. The entire hockey world — teammates, players, writers, broadcasters — sent giddy texts loaded with exclamation points. His wife, Diana, walked into the house carrying an almost comical bouquet of helium balloons — horses and dogs and “You Did It!” and the like.

“She almost flew away,” Olczyk said with a chuckle.

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Olczyk’s family and innumerable friends — just about everyone in the hockey world knows and loves Eddie O — wanted to celebrate. But Olczyk just wanted a quiet moment to reflect on the last seven months, the hardest of his life.

Cancer changes you. Challenges you. It can weaken you physically, but it can strengthen you mentally.

“Anybody that takes chemo is way tougher than they ever thought they were,” Olczyk said. “Look, I played a long time in the league and I’m very proud of my career. It’s hard to play in the NHL. I was never known as a tough player, I know that. But what I proved to myself is that I’m way tougher than I ever thought I was.”

That toughness doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t come naturally. It’s constantly at war with doubt, with fear, with self-pity. There were times when Olczyk wanted to quit, when the chemo ravaged his body so badly that he just couldn’t imagine months more of it. He endured 12 48-hour chemo sessions — hooked up at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Monday, unhooked by a nurse at home on Wednesday, finally starting to feel like himself again by Saturday or Sunday.

Those Mondays were filled with dread. The weeks were filled with pain and sickness. And there were times, Olczyk said, when Diana had to “talk me off the ledge.”

“I can’t,” Olczyk said. “I can’t.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Diana shot back. “I need you to fight.”

“And when your wife’s sitting there crying, and you’re crying, man, it takes your breath away,” he said. “You’re like, OK. I’m fighting for my kids. I’m fighting for my wife. I’m fighting for my family. I’m fighting for hockey. I’m fighting for people I don’t even know.”

Indeed, Olczyk has become a source of strength and encouragement for countless cancer patients and their families — constantly telling his story, relentlessly advocating for early detection, showing up on TV whenever his body allowed so that he could not only lose himself in hockey for a few hours, but also inspire others.

Olczyk never wanted to be Eddie Olczyk, Cancer Survivor. He just wanted to be Edzo, the prolific player and gregarious broadcaster. When he was first diagnosed with colon cancer over the summer and had a fist-sized tumor, 23 lymph nodes and 14 inches of his colon removed, he just wanted to curl up in a corner, take his chemo in solitude and pop back up in the public eye when it was over.

He quickly realized that was not only impossible for a celebrity of his stature, but that it was selfish, too.

“Maybe I can help somebody,” he said. “Maybe somebody gets checked out early and they don’t have to go through what I went through. If it’s one person I helped, I did my job, I achieved my goal. And I’d like to think I’ve helped more than one person.”

It’s not over yet. Olczyk is optimistic, but still terrified of what his April 2 scans and blood work will show. The doctors are confident, and so is he. But the uncertainty still looms.

In the meantime, he’s back to work, once again losing himself in hockey, in his often delirious on-air banter with Foley and Doc Emrick, in the familiar locker room setting where players on all teams greet him with big hugs and friendly chirps. He’s called 17 games this season so far; typically, he’d be around 85 or 90 by now. But he’s resuming nearly a full schedule — “rested and ready for the playoffs,” he said.

He’s moving on. After the last round of chemo, Olczyk cleared out his drawers and closet, throwing out anything that reminded him of the past seven months — clothes, pillows, blankets, whatever. When you’re undergoing chemo, he said, “You feel like you reek of it.” He went to the mall last week to replace everything with a big shopping spree, a new start on the rest of his career, the rest of his life. After he was unhooked for the last time, he told Diana, “It’s the first day of the rest of our lives.”

His cancer will always be a part of him, a part of his story. But he doesn’t want it to define him.

It’s finally time to just be Edzo again.

“I traded in six months of hell for 50 more years,” he said with a smile. “I think I’d make a pretty good general manager if I can make that trade. And there’s no cap restrictions on that.”

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Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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