October 15th, 2010
03:06 PM ET

Human Factor: Football fuels a passion to live

In the Human Factor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to a survivor who has overcome tremendous odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. Be inspired by their successes, as we have been.

To fully appreciate the story of Mark Herzlich, it helps to understand how passionate he is about playing football.

"It's really my lifeblood, to be honest right now," says the Boston College linebacker. "I wake up in the morning, work out, go back, watch film, come out and practice and it's really what I do all fall... all spring, all winter."

But not so long ago Herzlich had a very different daily routine, shuttling between doctors' offices and hospitals. The 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year missed all of last season while he battled Ewing's sarcoma, a rare and often deadly form of bone cancer.

"In January 2009, I felt a small pain in my leg while I was playing squash with my mom," explains Herzlich.

He dismissed the pain at first, thinking it was from an ordinary bruise. But as the months went by, the pain increased. Eventually it became so intense he'd wake up screaming. Doctors couldn't pinpoint the source of pain until after his final exams, when a doctor in his hometown in Pennsylvania decided to do an MRI.

"He put the X-ray up on the board... and my whole left leg was completely white, meaning there was a tumor that surrounded my whole femur," Herzlich  remembers. "And that's where they told me I wasn't going to play football again."

Herzlich's tumor hadn't spread past his leg. That meant he was in a much better position to beat the disease. He immediately began a rigorous treatment schedule: chemotherapy every day for two months and then radiation sessions before and after every chemo visit.

Through it all, Herzlich maintained the same determination that had made him successful on the football field. He focused on only three things: getting better, beating cancer, and playing football again.

"I felt from Day One that it was my goal to get back on the field because I knew that if I got back on the field, then I would have come full circle," says Herzlich.

He wasn't fighting his battle alone. Aside from his family and friends, Herzlich's determination was inspiring people around the world, from his Boston College teammates to strangers as far away as Israel. Their support further propelled him to get through treatment.

"That's where it started to take on the role of not only am I fighting this and they're supporting me but I'm able to give something back to them," says Herzlich. "When you're down and out... and people are relying on you and finding inspiration in you, that gives you even more of a drive to get better and get through every treatment."

The support from others also has taken the form of successful fundraising efforts to benefit Ewing's Sarcoma. By the end of last season, Herzlich and his team had raised more than $200,000 for research. Herzlich already has presented one research grant to the Sarcoma Foundation of America.

But the fundraising, although a proud moment for Herzlich, wasn't what sustained him during his treatment. Throughout everything his singular focus remained playing football again.

"My goal was set for that date, September 4," says Herzlich. "I wanted to get back out on the field. I wanted to play again, be with my team, and really feel like the cancer was behind me."

Despite suffering a stress fracture in his foot and having less than a week to practice with his team before Boston College's season opener, Herzlich was back on the field on September 4. He's played in every game this season. He's the player who leads the team on to their home turf at Alumni Stadium.

And now that he's back on the field, so is his trademark determination.

"I don't want to lose any games, I don't want to lose anything," says Herzlich. "I don't accept losses. Beating cancer – I don't take an "L" for that one either."

Editor's note: For more on Herzlich, watch "The Human Factor" on Sanjay Gupta MD this weekend at 7:30 a.m. on CNN.

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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.