New Bear Adam Podlesh’s cancer fight gives punter fresh perspective
SEAN JENSEN ON THE BEARS August 30, 2011 10:40PM
‘‘I was scared out of my mind,’’ Adam Podlesh says of the tumor discovered in his left cheek in 2010. | Nam Y. Huh~AP
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:30AM
When he needs a reality check, if he catches himself overcomplicating an issue in his life, new Bears punter Adam Podlesh steps in front of a mirror and looks at the 3-inch scar just below his left ear.
‘‘It’s a big part of me,’’ Podlesh says. ‘‘It’s a reminder of a life-changing experience and puts everything in perspective. It takes me back.’’
Engaging and hard-working, Podlesh has endeared himself to his new teammates since signing a five-year, $10 million contract a month ago.
But what many of them and others don’t know about him is what that subtle scar represents.
Adam Podlesh, 28, is a cancer survivor.
The shocking diagnosis
Podlesh isn’t ‘‘just a punter.’’
He’s an athlete, running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, on par with most of the NFL’s skill players. Growing up in Pittsford, N.Y., he played running back and linebacker, and he posted the fastest 200- and 400-meter sprint times in the state as a junior.
A four-time All-ACC selection at Maryland, Podlesh was selected in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
His career cruising along, Podlesh entered the 2010 offseason preparing for his contract year. But his fiancée, Miranda, a registered nurse, pushed him to get a bump on the side of his face checked out by a doctor.
‘‘I never had any pain,” Podlesh says. ‘‘And it’s not like anyone said, ‘Hey, what’s that bump there?’ If I had sideburns, it would be tough to see.’’
The initial diagnosis confirmed it was not a cyst but a tumor, although the expectation was that it was benign.
The CT scan showed calcifications but didn’t provide any insight into the type of tumor.
But the biopsy shocked him.
‘‘My heart basically dropped to the floor when I heard the news,’’ Podlesh recalls of learning the diagnosis: salivary gland cancer. ‘‘Every conversation before that, my surgeon had never said anything about a malignant possibility.’’
He had acinic cell carcinoma, a tumor found in the parotid gland, the largest salivary gland in the human body. It’s rare, with the National Cancer Database identifying just 1,353 cases from 1985 to 1995. According to the Acinic Cell Carcinoma Information Center, studies indicate the 10- and 20-year survival rates to be 83 and 67 percent, respectively.
That Podlesh had it didn’t make sense.
He was healthy, had a good diet and didn’t smoke.
‘‘And a few other things didn’t fit the bill,’’ Podlesh says. ‘‘That’s what made it even more curious.’’
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Podlesh listened intently to his doctor and researched all he could about the specific cancer.
‘‘I needed to do everything, and learn everything I could, so I could make the best decision,’’ he says. ‘‘Granted, I was scared out of my mind.’’
After he informed his parents and fiancée, Podlesh placed a call to his uncle, a maxillofacial surgeon He also notified his closest friend on the Jaguars, kicker Josh Scobee, who didn’t immediately believe Podlesh.
‘‘For a split second, I thought he might be joking,’’ Scobee says, ‘‘because we do mess around with each other.’’
But after realizing Podlesh was serious, Scobee flashed back to when he was 11 and his father was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died within a year.
‘‘That was tough,’’ Scobee says. ‘‘You always hear about [cancer], but you think of someone older. When I found out he had been diagnosed, it makes you think about life and puts things in perspective.’’
Podlesh’s next challenge was to find the right surgeon. It’s a delicate procedure, requiring five or six hours of surgery and treading near the nerves that control the left side of the face. The wrong incision could prevent Podlesh from blinking his left eye, which, in turn, would hamper his depth perception. That’s important for an NFL punter.
Podlesh picked a highly experienced specialist affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and underwent a successful procedure on March 17, 2010. He was told afterward that the tumor was lying right next to the facial nerve.
Podlesh was instructed to avoid physical activity for six weeks, and he consumed a lot of soups, juices and smoothies, given the pain in his cheek. Strain himself eating a hoagie or hamburger and he could compromise the stitches inside his mouth.
When he returned, the Jaguars were preparing for a minicamp — and there were two other punters around.
Podlesh was unmoved.
‘‘Going back to the whole situation, I had told myself that I essentially was fighting for my health and my life,’’ he says, ‘‘so fighting for a job was nothing. Make it fun. That’s all I did.’’
Podlesh ended up having the finest season of his career, tied for the fourth-highest net punt average in the NFL at 39.2 yards.
‘‘That’s what was impressive — how well he played last year,’’ Scobee says.
When free agency started last month, the Bears immediately signed Podlesh to a five-year deal.
There were no hard feelings from the Jaguars.
‘‘He was courageous in his battle with cancer,’’ Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio says. ‘‘He was a good member of our organization while he was here, and we wish him the best.’’
Given his experience, Podlesh wants to push others to be proactive about identifying cancer and being active in the fight against the disease.
During the offseason, although he didn’t have much time to plan, Podlesh wanted to host a fundraiser. A scratch golfer, he organized the Podlesh ‘‘Play for Life’’ Celebrity Golf Classic at the Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla. After expenses, the event raised $20,000.
‘‘We found out that a lot of businesses and sponsors allocate money 10 months before the event,’’ Podlesh says. ‘‘We did it in four. But I was like, ‘You know what? We can do a lot more.’ ”
Podlesh wants to establish a foundation of his own, and he wants to find a local partner, all with designs to share his story and raise awareness.
‘‘I never want my message to be scaring people into thinking everyone can have cancer,’’ he says. ‘‘But at the same time, I don’t want people to take for granted that, ‘Hey, I can’t get cancer because I’m 25 or I don’t smoke.’
‘‘Even now, it still feels weird for me to say, ‘I’m a cancer survivor.’ But you just never know.’’