- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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Denver Nuggets coach George Karl informed his team Tuesday afternoon that he is in another fight for his life with cancer.
Karl, who had been cancer-free since prostate surgery in July 2005, discovered a worrisome lump on his neck about six weeks ago. A biopsy determined that it was "very treatable and curable" form of neck and throat cancer, Karl said, but it will still require an intense program of radiation and chemotherapy that will probably force him to miss some regular-season games.
"Cancer is a vicious opponent," he said. "Even the ones that are treatable, you never get a 100-percent guaranteed contract."
Treatment will consist of 35 sessions over the next six weeks, for what the Nuggets Web site called squamous cell head/neck cancer. The sessions are expected to leave his throat extremely raw, requiring him to be fed through his stomach in the final weeks.
"Keeping up your nutrition is a big part of the challenge," he said.
While the condition is treatable, his doctor, Jacques Saari, said Karl faces a taxing treatment regimen.
He said the chemotherapy was intended to make the cancerous cells in Karl's body more susceptible to the effects of radiation.
Then, he said, "The idea is to really hit it hard with radiation therapy."
But the radiation, to be administered continuously for five days a week for the next six weeks, will take a physical toll on Karl, especially during the latter portion of treatment, Saari said.
"Coach is going to have a tough time," Saari said. "The first three to four weeks, I think he is going to do very well. The last two-and-a-half to three weeks of the therapy will be difficult."
But not the biggest part. "I don't know that I've come to terms with this yet," Karl said of the cancer's return. "I have friends and family praying for me and the whole spiritual aspect is keeping me strong. But I'm not Superman."
His voice breaking at times, Karl addressed his diagnosis Tuesday night with Saari at his side and surrounded by his team and members of the Nuggets organization.
"My desire is to do whatever I can to stay with my team throughout the treatment that I have to go through," Karl said. "The treatment began today and in general it's about a six-week treatment of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
"Basically, my belief is this is a championship team and I want to do anything and everything I can to help them continue in their quest that we all want."
Karl informed his players that he was battling cancer when the team convened earlier Tuesday for its first practice since returning from the All-Star break.
"A situation like that, it's real life," guard Chauncey Billups said. "You take the basketball out of it. You take work out of it. None of us can really be selfish and say, 'Hey, we're going to miss George if he doesn't coach some of the games.' We've got to take all that out of it. Your heart just goes out to him and his family. All we can really do is pray for him."
Saari said he found a large lump on Karl's neck during a routine examination on Dec. 30. Karl said he had been aware of the lump for some time but had assumed it was just fatty tissue. An MRI and a needle biopsy were performed and results confirmed the presence of a tumor approximately 2 inches in diameter, said Saari, adding he informed Karl of the diagnosis at the end of January.
Karl said he expects to miss at least a couple of upcoming games, at Golden State on Feb. 25 and at Minnesota on March 10. He said assistant Adrian Dantley would lead the team when he's absent.
Karl's uncertain future prompted he and Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke to hash out a one-year, $4.5 million extension last weekend directly. Karl chose not to make his condition public until after he finished coaching the Western Conference All-Star squad on Sunday and could return home to break the news to his team. The West lost to the East 141-139 in front of a record crowd of 108,713 in Cowboys Stadium, running Karl's record in NBA All-Star Games to 0-4.
"I'm starting the treatments now in hopes I'll be ready to go once the playoffs start," he said.
The only hint of his new battle over the weekend were gold "Hoops for St. Jude" pins he and the rest of his coaching staff wore on their lapels during Sunday's game. St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is one of the leading pediatric cancer programs in the world. Karl and NBA players Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay, Shane Battier, Danny Granger, Kevin Love and Steve Blake all committed to making $20,000 donations to St. Jude in December.
In 2006, less than a year after Karl had surgery to treat his cancerous prostate, his son Coby was diagnosed with thyroid cancer (at the time, he was a redshirt junior at Boise State). Coby underwent successful surgery and was able to finish his college career, and he has played for several NBA teams since.
The league normally restricts any use of logos or insignias outside of its purview, but commissioner David Stern, aware of Karl's condition, made an exception on Sunday.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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