Podlesh kicked cancer, 'little things'

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- There is a brief moment between the time the football leaves his hands to when it meets his foot, explains new Chicago Bears punter Adam Podlesh, that the laws of physics and the uncertainty of the sport take over.

"There's a realm of something I can't do anything about," Podlesh said.

It is a feeling with which he is familiar.

When doctors tell you at 26 years old that the little bump below your ear you thought was a cyst is, in fact, a malignant tumor that comprises less than 1 percent of all cancers, there is a certain helplessness involved.

"I never had any problems, never had any redness, any pain, never any symptoms at all," Podlesh said, still sounding somewhat amazed a year and a half later.

"He had it for some time," remembered Podlesh's then-girlfriend and now-fiancee Miranda Walton, then a cardiac nurse in the heart transplant unit of the Mayo Clinic of Jacksonville, Fla. "I asked him about it, and he said he had it checked and it was just a cyst. I said, 'How about checking into getting it removed?' and he was like, 'Yeah, I'll look into it next offseason.' He wasn't too concerned. But he went in."

The diagnosis was a shock -- cancer of the salivary gland, a specific type that attacks a range of age groups, though the median age is in the 50s.

"I definitely freaked out at first," Podlesh said. "The thing that's crazy about this type of cancer in particular is they have absolutely no idea why it happens. I've never smoked a cigarette in my life, I've never chewed tobacco. This particular type is very, very rare, I'm talking maybe a little over 100 cases a year in the U.S. So they don't have a whole lot to go off of. "

It was February 2010, the beginning of the offseason, and Podlesh, then a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, would have surgery in March after he and Walton, with the help of her mother, who is also in the medical field, networked and found a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I see so many things on a daily basis," Walton said, "that my first reaction was, 'We'll be fine, we'll get through it.' There was never that scared feeling until after the fact."

The first hurdle was checking to see if the cancerous cells had spread anywhere else in his body. Fortunately, it was contained and had not gone through his lymph nodes. The next concern was the surgery, which presented a direct threat to his livelihood.

"It's about a five-hour surgery because all of your facial nerves run through that specific salivary gland that I had the tumor on," Podlesh said. "And if you were to sever that facial nerve, I wouldn't be able to use any part of the left side of my face, which would include blinking my eye, which means no depth perception, and I can't play football.

"So even if we had a successful surgery with that as collateral damage, I still wouldn't be able to play football."

Podlesh was barely conscious after the procedure, when he felt the first surge of relief.

"Most people don't remember getting extubated because you're still under meds," Podlesh said of the procedure in which the breathing tube is removed after surgery. "But I remember it very vividly, and the first thing I did was blink my left eye, and I was like, 'All right, we're OK, I think.'"

Podlesh still reflects on the steady hand of surgeon Bert O'Malley.

"He was telling me nonchalantly, 'The tumor was right on the facial nerve. I was taking off microscopic bits.' Man, that's talent," Podlesh said.

It was the best possible result. Chemotherapy does not work well with Podlesh's form of cancer, but it wasn't necessary and radiation was not recommended because of his age. After about six weeks of recovery time with Walton looking after him -- "It definitely didn't hurt having a nurse take care of me," he laughed -- he was told he will simply have to be monitored with an MRI every four to six months.

While the memory of his experience as well as a faint scar will never leave him, that's not necessarily a bad thing, he said.

"I do not mind keeping it in the back of my mind because in all honesty, I take it as a positive," he said. "I take it as a blessing because there are not a lot of people who have been stricken with cancer who can recover fully and not have to worry about it and can actually live their life.

"I mean, you get the perspective change getting cancer, obviously. But usually you have some sort of collateral damage. And I've been very lucky to be unscathed as of now, knock on wood, and just have the change of perspective."

Somehow no swirling winds or sub-zero wind chills can ever be as daunting. And Podlesh sees it as no small coincidence that last season, his final year in Jacksonville before signing with the Bears as an unrestricted free agent in July, was his best, establishing a team record with his 39.2-yard net average and career bests for gross average (43.8 yards), 26 punts downed inside the 20 and an NFL-low 19 returns.

"The little things in life didn't really mean as much as they did before, including punting," he said. "As far as having a bad punt, it didn't really bother me as much. And having that perspective really was freeing to me.

"I don't think I would have been as successful last year and through these years to come if I didn't have that. It's kind of a blessing in disguise, if you will."

Walton viewed it similarly.

"I think he was on the incline ... approaching his prime, so I think it was already in the works," she said of last season. "But there is a lot of pressure in his job, a lot of stress. And they always say it's not just whether you're talented enough but can you perform when the lights come on?

"[His illness] helped him understand that this isn't everything, that 'Yes, it's my job but I just beat cancer. I can do this.' It is not life and death pressure. He's a little more relaxed now, and he's just able to focus on his talent and let the mental pressure of the game kind of fall away."

Walton will begin work on her master's degree in January. In the meantime, she is in the process of applying for her Illinois R.N. license to practice nursing here. The couple will continue the wide-ranging charitable work in Chicago that they were known for in Jacksonville, with perhaps an added emphasis on cancer research.

They have tentative plans for a March wedding.

The timing just feels right.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.