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Eddie Olczyk’s cancer battle was an extended family affair

On Oct. 15, 2012, Eddie Olczyk before the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2012 induction dinner in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Ed Olczyk will ease his way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Starting Wednesday, he’ll be in the NBC studios to offer analysis for the first four days of the NHL’s postseason. On Sunday, he’ll head to Philadelphia to cover the Flyers’ series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and then he’ll head to Toronto on April 19 for the Maples Leafs-Boston Bruins series.

“I want to get back to doing playoff hockey and horse racing,” NBC’s lead NHL analyst said. “I’ll be ready for full-time duty for the conference finals and hopefully I’ll be a well-oiled machine for the Triple Crown and that will take me right into the Stanley Cup Final.”

That Olczyk is ready to tackle such an exhausting schedule seven weeks after he unplugged from chemotherapy for the last time is a testament to his toughness and dedication. In the darkest hours of his battle with stage III colon cancer, he wasn’t sure he’d ever see this light at the end of the tunnel.

“It tests your humility, it tests your strength, it tests your belief,” he said. “It knocks you down to your knees.

“There were times when I just wanted to pack it in because it was just brutal. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t live like this.’ You feel worthless and of course you wonder, ‘am I going to do all this, have to do it again and still die?'”

The first signs of trouble came in late July when Olczyk said he couldn’t go to the bathroom for two days. He awoke on the third day “sicker than a dog,” so he went to a hospital where tests revealed a blockage in his colon that required surgery.

“Forty-eight hours later, I’m having a six-hour surgery to have a tumor removed and remove 14 inches of my colon,” he said.

On Aug. 4, 12 days before his 51st birthday, the phone at his home rang at 7:07 p.m. while he was upstairs watching television with his wife, Diana. The caller ID popped up on the television screen, letting them know it was originating from Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The pathology report was back from the biopsy on his tumor.

“Getting a call on a Friday night from a hospital is not a good thing,” Olczyk said. “My wife said, ‘are you going to answer it? I said, ‘no, I’m not. I can’t.’ I let it ring five or six times.

“When you hear those words, cancer and chemo, you think about death. You think about your family. You wonder how you got it. Were you born with it? Did you absorb it? How will your kids react? How will it affect your family and friends? It’s not just a physical battle; it’s a mental battle. It affects all of the people around you. It’s a trickle down effect.”

Olczyk stayed upstairs initially while Diana delivered the news to his kids, Eddie, Tom, Zandra and Nick. When he called his parents, Ed Sr. and Diane, his brother Rick, the assistant general manager for the Carolina Hurricanes, was staying at their house.

“I was stunned, shocked, in disbelief,” Rick said. “I couldn’t go back to sleep. I just laid there processing it. Eventually, I started crying and then I cried all night.”

Diane Olczyk earned fame when Ed’s NHL career first began He told stories of his mom playing goalie in front of a mattress while he fired tennis balls at her. The anecdote represents the tip of her deep devotion to her boys.

When Ed received the diagnosis, Diane turned to her faith and made a request.

“I spoke with God and I told him, ‘you gave up your son for us but I cannot give up my son,'” she said. “‘If you’re going to take someone, please take me.'”

From Sept. 11 to Feb. 21, Ed endured a total of 12 chemotherapy treatments. The first form of treatment came on Mondays at the hospital, and then he went home where he was hooked up to a port in his chest where the second form of chemo was administered for the next 48 hours.

“The first couple were brutal and I wanted to bail five or six times,” he said. “You’re vomiting, you can’t control your bathroom issues, you have headaches, nosebleeds.

“Those were long days. I’d be in the basement for 35 to 36 hours of the 48. I’d lay there and look at the clock and the calendar, wondering how the hell I was going to get to the middle of February.”

During treatment No. 3 he developed a blood clot in his leg that had to be treated. During treatment No. 10, he developed a hernia near his belly button “the size of a grapefruit.”

Diana urged him to fight for her, for his kids and for his family and friends. Rick, Diane and the rest of the family kept in constant contact. If you know the Olczyks, you know humor was a big component of that contact.

“I would make sure I either called him on the phone or I would text him and just send him something funny,” Diane said. “I had these nicknames I used to call him as a kid so I’d start with those. I’d say, ‘hey, Bigfoot,’ or ‘hey, Bozo.’ At the end, of course, I would say ‘I love you.’

“This kind of thing, it pulls families together. All families have problems; people who don’t like each other or fight or whatever. It’s like all those family get-togethers. When you invite Uncle Louie over for Christmas dinner, nobody wants to sit next to Uncle Louie. No one wants to sit by Aunt Nellie because she’s got the hair growing out of the mole on her cheek. Families have problems but when a crisis hits you all pull together.”

Rick would get a sense of how his brother was feeling in his daily contact. By the response, he’d know whether to tell him he was thinking about him or tell him how much the Cubs stank.

“We laugh a lot as a family,” Rick said. “We love entertaining each other. I think it’s food for the soul.”

To survive the ordeal, Ed set short-term dates to which he could look forward.

In October, he wanted to do a couple of Blackhawks games with his longtime broadcast partner, Pat Foley. In November, he wanted to work the Breeders’ Cup and enjoy Thanksgiving. December featured Zandra’s graduation from Alabama and Christmas. January featured more Blackhawks games and the Pegasus World Cup. February brought the Super Bowl and then he was down to his final treatment.

Along the way, Olczyk said he was literally flooded with cards, letters, emails, text messages and calls from family, friends, fans and well-wishers.

“It was overwhelming and it changed my thinking,” he said. “When I first found out I wanted to hide and not burden anybody with it, but when you’re a public figure it’s hard, so I made it a mission of mine to let people know my story.

“I wanted to make people aware to give them strength and hope. Sadly, people are going to get it and go through it. Hopefully, my story will help them battle every day because it’s not just a battle every treatment, it’s every second you breathe. You’re taking poison to get rid of other stuff. I was so overwhelmed by the response that I wanted to be an example for somebody going through it or somebody who will go through it, and hopefully be an olive branch.”

Olczyk was declared cancer free on March 14. He’ll still go in for check-ups every three months for the first two years, every six months for the next two, and annually thereafter, but there is cause for temporary celebration and reflection.

“Those are the two best words,” Rick said. “Cancer-free.”

As he prepared for his studio appearance on Wednesday, Olczyk came back to the public outpouring of support he has received.

“As Pat Foley told me, ‘A lot of juju and a lot of payback for what you’ve done for people and what you mean to people,'” Olczyk said. “I want to tell people that if you know somebody going through this, please encourage them. Call them, text them, write them, because it helps take them away from this. It’s not being disrespectful. It really, really helps somebody that is going through it and it really, really helped me.”

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