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Panthers LB credits positive attitude with defeating cancer

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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KIRKLAND -- It was Aug. 19, and Mark Fields was about to make a short jog that would complete a yearlong journey.

As the Carolina Panthers defense was being introduced at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., the linebackers came out in a group. Fields, the former Pac-10 defensive player of the year from Washington State University, was flanked by Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon.

Fields stood out for more than the obvious reason on this Thursday night when the Panthers were playing host to the New York Giants in their preseason opener.

Just 367 days before, Fields had been told he had Hodgkin's disease.

"That was tremendous," Fields said yesterday of the final step in his comeback. "When that moment happened, it was just a real exciting moment not only for myself, but I think for a lot of people in general that are battling cancer.

"It's a tough deal, and for a person to come back and play in the National Football League, it's a pretty good deal."

Fields hasn't just come all the way back. Sunday, he's coming "home" when the Panthers play the Seahawks at Qwest Field.

It's a must-win game for two struggling teams. The Panthers are 1-5 and have lost four in a row. The Seahawks have lost their past three games to slip to 3-3.

But games, and records, and on-field accomplishments don't seem all that important when you've been through what Fields has in the past 14 months.

"There's a lot of adversity in life," Panthers coach John Fox said. "Sometimes when you get on a four-game or a three-game losing streak, you think the sky is falling. When you see something like that, what happened to Mark last year, it keeps things in perspective and teaches you to just keep plugging forward.

"Mark did that, and he was a huge inspiration to everybody around him."

Like Lance Armstrong, the six-time winner of the Tour de France, Fields hasn't just met cancer head-on; he's gone beyond it to reclaim his life.

It might not be a cure, but the power of Fields' positive attitude and reliance on his athletic background proved to be effective aids.

"Being an athlete, we are kind of programmed in our brains to play through pain," he said. "For me, I tried to act like nothing ever happened. Like that never happened to me."

Still, Fields had his brief moments of doubt and even a twinge of self-pity.

The initial shock was enough to slap the ever-present smile off his face. Fields had gone to the doctor because a cut on his thumb wasn't healing and had become infected.

Expecting to receive some antibiotics and a bandage, he got the most sobering moment in his life.

"The doctor came back and it was just a moment of silence. I knew right then, this was not going to be good," Fields said. "He didn't say Hodgkin's. He just said cancer. When you hear that word, automatically you're like, 'OK, how much time do I have?'

"You're healthy, you're young, you're coming off a great season and you're ready to go, and they come in there and tell you something like that. I mean, it's a heckuva blow."

Instead of being part of a Panthers team that won the NFC championship last season and lost to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, Fields became part of a program in which he got chemotherapy and radiation.

It was a difficult transition for a player who had led the team in tackles (127) and set a club record for forced fumbles (seven) in 2002. It also was a journey that has made Fields a better person and a more appreciative athlete.

"You're going in there and getting that stuff pumped in your body, and then you've got to go to radiation and your bones are hurting," Fields said. "Of course you get your down moments, but that's where the positivity has to come in. Because that's what happens to a lot of people with cancer, they get real down and that overcomes them."

Not Fields. Not then. Not ever.

"When I first heard it last year in training camp, my first reaction was that I was sad because I love the guy," said Seahawks center Robbie Tobeck, who played with Fields at Washington State. "On the other hand, I said, 'You know what? If anybody kicks it, Mark Fields does.'

"That's the way he is. I guarantee, he was bringing other people up -- his wife, or his mom, or whoever. That's the way he is. He's always been that way, and you are who you are."

For Fields, the transition continues. He has missed three games this season with a back injury.

"As far as me coming back all the way," he said, "I think it's going to take a few more games just to really get it back to where I need it to be."

Sam Mills, Panthers linebackers coach, also was diagnosed with cancer last year and underwent treatments along with Fields.

"How ironic is that?" Fields said. "You can't even really describe it. You had to kind of be over here in our facilities to get the whole blunt of it."

The Panthers, with the blessing and urging of club president Mark Richardson, have a link on the team's Web site on which "Keep Pounding" wristbands can be purchased for $1. The proceeds benefit the Carolina Medical Center for Cancer Research.

Keep pounding. That's what Fields did, and continues to do.

"I can't complain," he said. "Literally, I have no complaints."

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