The Minnesota Timberwolves announced this week that Flip Saunders, head coach and president of basketball operations, has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. The diagnosis came about two months ago when he had his annual exam with the team doctor. He continues to perform his regular duties as he receives treatment for this treatable and curable form of cancer. Saunders is not the first athlete, or former athlete, to be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. National Hockey League Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, the Chicago Cubs’ All-Star Anthony Rizzo, and the Kansas City Chiefs’ All-Pro safety Eric Berry have all been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, specifically white blood cells called lymphocytes, which is part of the immune system. With Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cells of the lymphatic system begin to grow abnormally and can spread outside the lymphatic system. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is named after Dr. Thomas Hodgkin who first recognized it in 1832. It is one of two common types of cancers of the lymphatic system. The other is non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which is far more common. Advances in the diagnosis and treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma have allowed those diagnosed a chance at a full recovery.
Many people are unaware of what the lymphatic system is and how it works. The lymphatic system has two main functions. The first is to help fight infections and some diseases as part of the immune system. The second is to help move fluids in the body. The lymphatic system is made up of lymphatic tissue (lymph nodes and lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell), lymph fluid which carries waste products and excess fluid from the tissues, and lymphatic vessels that are much like blood vessels through which the lymph travels to different parts of the lymphatic system.
Those people suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma may experience painless swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin. They may also be fatigued, have night sweats, experience fevers and chills, and complain of a loss of appetite. Finally, they may have experienced an unexplained weight loss of 10 percent or more of their body weight. Most people diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma are males between the ages of 15-30 or over the age of 55. Those with a family member that has lymphoma of any type are more likely to develop Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A past infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, the virus that causes infectious mononucleosis, increases the risk of being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Finally, a weakened immune system from HIV/AIDS or taking medications to suppress the immune system like those prescribed after an organ transplant may increase the risk of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The treatment options for Hodgkin’s lymphoma depend on the type of lymphoma and how much of the body it is affecting. It may be treated with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, or a combination of these. As with most cancers a cure is the ultimate goal, but the doctor treating the lymphoma will try to use a treatment that minimizes the side effects. For most people treatment can cure the cancer. There will be continued follow up to make sure that the cancer does not come back. Some of the treatments may cause long-term side effects, and those who have had Hodgkin’s lymphoma have an increased risk of several other types of cancers. One of the biggest side effects is infections. Since Hodgkin’s affects the immune system there is an increased risk of infections and in many the immune system does not work properly.
All indications are that Saunders will be on the sidelines once the season starts. He has remained in contact with players on the team, and continues to work on shaping the team’s roster. With the last three overall number one picks on the roster, highlighted by last year’s Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, big things may be coming to Target Center in the near future. For now, Saunders’ health should be the primary concern for all of those involved.
Do you have a question regarding sports medicine that you would like to see addressed in this space in the future? Send your questions to SportsMed@lrhc.org and it may be featured in an upcoming article.