Skip to main content

The cancer that has afflicted Saku Koivu is non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and the Montreal Canadiens captain has begun chemotherapy.

The National Hockey League club made the announcement in a two-paragraph news release yesterday.

Donald Beauchamp, director of communications for the Club de Hockey Canadien, said Koivu requested that little information be made public.

"He's really hoping that the media and the public will respect his privacy so he can concentrate on the treatment," Beauchamp said.

The news that the 26-year-old Finnish star had cancer was revealed at a press conference last week, which was televised live. Doctors then said Koivu had a cancer of an unknown origin, and could not provide a prognosis until more tests were completed.

Now that a precise diagnosis is available -- intra-abdominal B-cell lymphoma (non-Hodgkin's) -- they are not commenting.

One oncologist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the diagnosis "is bad, but it could have been worse." Based on published information, he put the player's odds of surviving the next year at about 50-50.

It was initially believed Koivu had pancreatic cancer, which is almost untreatable. There was some hope that he had Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that is among the most treatable.

Two other NHL players, Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins and John Cullen of the Tampa Bay Lightning both had Hodgkin's disease, and have made full recoveries.

Koivu has a far more serious form of cancer. Non-Hodgkin's disease is dangerous because it tends to spread to vital organs, and does not respond as well to treatment.

Yesterday he started chemotherapy, a cocktail of drugs used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. The standard treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a four-week cycle of chemotherapy, repeated six times.

The length of treatment makes it virtually certain Koivu will miss the entire hockey season. He will not be available to the Finnish team for the 2002 Olympic Games.

If the cancer does not respond to chemotherapy, Koivu might require a bone marrow transplant. He is unlikely to undergo radiation therapy or surgery, because the cancer is not localized.

Dr. Vincent Lacroix, a Canadiens' physician, said earlier that Koivu's youth and the fact that he is in superb physical condition makes him an ideal candidate for beating cancer.

The chemotherapy drugs, however, have some serious side effects. The most obvious are hair loss and nausea, but the most lasting is a fertility problem. Young men are often encouraged to bank their sperm before undergoing treatment.

According to the Lymphoma Foundation of Canada, there are about 7,100 cases of lymphoma annually in this country, of which 6,200 are non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The cause of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is unknown. It is probably due to a genetic factor, but likely requires some kind of environmental "trigger."

The loss of the captain is a devastating blow to the Canadiens, who suffered a record number of losses last year. It will also hurt the Olympic medal hopes of the Finnish team.

Only weeks before his diagnosis, Koivu signed a contract that would pay him $3.3-million (U.S.) this year.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct