During the Chiefs’ game at Oakland last Thursday night, Chiefs Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry felt some chest discomfort.
After a weekend of testing, team doctors and those at the University of Kansas Hospital determined Berry has a mass on the right side of his chest, and the leading consideration is that Berry has lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, Chiefs head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder said Monday.
Berry, of Fairburn, Ga., went to Atlanta on Monday and will have further evaluation at Emory University Hospital by Christopher Flowers, a doctor who specializes in lymphoma.
Burkholder said Berry, 25, probably will have a biopsy of one of the lymph nodes or of the mass. Burkholder added that Berry is “about 75 percent done with the testing” and it’s too early to say what stage the illness may be.
Burkholder said that Berry, who missed five games this season because of a high ankle sprain, didn’t complain about chest discomfort before the Oakland game.
“That goes along with his toughness mentality,” Burkholder said. “Everybody gets a physical in June, and everything checked out then. I’ve obviously been with him a lot this season, and he didn’t complain about anything until the ballgame.”
Berry informed his teammates of his condition before practice Monday morning. The club placed Berry on the non-football illness list, which ends his season.
Coach Andy Reid said Berry was hopeful when he addressed the team.
“We know it’s going to work out for Eric,” Reid said. “He’s a beast. He’ll attack this.
“He doesn’t like to do a lot of talking, but he felt like the team needed to hear it from him, that he’s OK, and he’s going to get after this and get it fixed.
“There were some guys who were shocked by the information and understandably so. These guys love him. He’s a big part of this football team, not only as a player but also as a person, a leader. There were some guys who were shaken up, but with his strength and being able to talk to the players, they felt a comfort.”
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt also spoke to Berry.
“He sounded upbeat … and very positive … his mindset was very much of tackling this,” Hunt said.
Berry issued a statement that was released by the Chiefs:
“I am truly thankful for all of the support from family, friends, coaches, teammates and the entire Chiefs kingdom,” Berry said. “At first I was in shock with the diagnosis on Saturday and did not even want to miss a game, but I understand that right now I have to concentrate on a new opponent.
“I have great confidence in the doctors and the plan they are going to put in place for me to win this fight. I believe that I am in God’s hands, and I have great peace in that. I know my coaches and teammates will hold things down here the rest of the season and until I am back running out of the tunnel at Arrowhead.
“I am so thankful and appreciative of being a part of this franchise and playing in front of the best fans in the NFL. I will be back!”
Berry received his initial workup over the weekend at the University of Kansas Cancer Center, where he underwent MRI and PET scans before receiving the preliminary lymphoma diagnosis. Joseph McGuirk, the director of hematology oncology at KU Hospital, was optimistic Monday about Berry’s prognosis.
“I think things look very favorable. I’m very bullish on this young man,” said McGuirk, who wasn’t directly involved with Berry’s care.
Berry is young and in excellent physical condition, McGuirk said. “Those things pay big dividends when you’re fighting cancer. In a young person like this, any lymphoma doc would say, ‘OK, we’re going to get it.’”
Lymphoma is a group of cancers of a part of the immune system called the lymph system. The cancers fall into two main types, Hodgkin disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Hodgkin disease, which accounts for about 10 percent of lymphoma cases, is highly curable in young men, McGuirk said.
Non-Hodgkin lymphomas include many kinds of cancers that involve different cells. Their prognoses vary, but are “also highly treatable and increasingly curable,” McGuirk said. “For a lot of people, we get it the first time around.”
Houston Texans offensive tackle David Quessenberry, 23, is fighting non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which was diagnosed in June. He also is on the season-ending non-football injury list.
Standard treatment for lymphoma is chemotherapy. Hodgkin disease patients also sometimes receive radiation therapy.
The mass in Berry’s chest probably is made up of lymph node tumors and will shrink as he receives treatment, McGuirk said. The tumors will not require surgery, he said.
McGuirk said he expected Berry to receive a definitive diagnosis in a day or two. Chemotherapy would start almost immediately. Treatment usually involves a round of chemotherapy every three to four weeks for six months.
While McGuirk couldn’t say for certain whether Berry would be ready to play next fall, “I wouldn’t be surprised, with the kind of determination he demonstrates.”
A number of Chiefs on Monday voiced their support for Berry on social media, including Twitter.
Backup quarterback Chase Daniel wrote: “I can’t begin to explain how much love this Chiefs team has for our leader Eric Berry … we are behind him always. We fight together!!”
Defensive end Mike DeVito tweeted a Bible verse from Psalms 30:2.
“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. #BerryStrong,” DeVito wrote.
Hunt was asked how equipped the organization is to deal with a situation like this. Almost exactly two years ago, the Chiefs were stunned by the murder-suicide of linebacker Jovan Belcher.
“I don’t think you’re every really equipped, necessarily, to handle what life throws at you,” Hunt said.
“In terms of any kind of programs, we really haven’t gotten that far. The news is too new. But I would say the important thing for us to do, as an organization, as a family, is what Andy mentioned, what the team is doing right now — which is just to tell Eric we love you, we’re thinking about you, and we hope that you have a quick recovery.”
Berry’s agent, Chad Speck, released a statement conveying a similar message.
“At first I was in shock — I had just seen Eric on Thursday night in Oakland playing against the Raiders,” he wrote. “As the news sunk in, I immediately just began to pray for Eric and his family.
“Eric is as strong and courageous as anyone I know and when I spoke to him that night I felt his strength and faith through the phone.”
If Berry is definitively diagnosed with cancer, he won’t be alone in his battle. Besides Quessenberry, New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich overcame Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, while at Boston College.
Berry has had an injury-riddled season. Berry battled a dislocated finger, in addition to heel and ankle injuries in training camp, but still started the season opener against the Tennessee Titans and made 15 tackles.
Berry suffered a high ankle sprain the next week against the Denver Broncos and missed the Chiefs’ next five games. He returned against the New York Jets on Nov. 2, making six tackles, and has 16 tackles in the three games since, all starts.
For the year, Berry had 37 tackles and two pass deflections. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2013, when he racked up 74 tackles, 10 pass defections, 3 1/2 sacks, three interceptions and two touchdowns.
Football statistics weren’t important Monday.
“If I said it once today, I’ve said it a bunch of times, this is about Eric,” Reid said. “You put the Oakland Raiders to the side for this period here, and you put Denver aside and football isn’t as important as him getting himself better. That’s the way the players approached it, and we’ll move on. That’s how life goes. We’ll move on with his spirit in hand.”