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D.C. United’s Chris Odoi-Atsem is hoping to make comeback from cancer

The soccer pro said the hardest part wasn’t chemo, but fear over his career

When 14-year-old Freddy Adu made national headlines as the youngest American to sign a major league professional contract in any team sport after he was chosen by D.C. United as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, young Chris Odoi-Atsem dreamed of one day walking in Adu’s shoes.

Born and raised in Mitchellville, Maryland, Odoi-Atsem made a name for himself on the high school and club circuit. After four stellar years at the University of Maryland, his MLS dream would be realized in 2017 when D.C. United selected him with the 12th overall pick. But just as Odoi-Atsem’s career was taking shape, a cancer diagnosis would rock his world. After months of treatment, including eight sessions of chemotherapy, he is cancer-free. He reflects on his journey, as told to The Undefeated’s Mark W. Wright, and his renewed passion to get back on the pitch.


I knew in my heart that something wasn’t right. You never think anything like cancer, but yes — that happened to be the case for me.

For pretty much a year before I was diagnosed in October of 2018 with stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a form of cancer, I had been experiencing different and abnormal symptoms (mostly muscle fatigue and muscle weakness) that just didn’t seem right.

I knew something was wrong, and it was hard when I would try to tell everybody, ‘Something’s not right, something’s not right.’ Doubt would creep in my own mind.

Waking up in the middle of the night last September with chest pain and shortness of breath was scary. As athletes, you know your body: I knew something was wrong right away. I went and told my mom, Pamela. I said, ‘Mom, I think I have something wrong with me — a little shortness of breath and stuff.’ And my mom, being the cautious woman that she is, was like, ‘All right, let’s go to the health center and check it out.’

By this point, I hadn’t been training — I’d been shut down until we got some definitive answers about my condition. We had done some medicinal blood work and some pulmonary, cardiovascular and neurological testing, and all those results came back normal. Part of me was happy to hear that everything was normal, but another part of me was like, ‘If everything’s normal, why do I still feel like this?’

We arrived at the urgent care center, and the radiologist took an X-ray. After the X-ray, the doctor came back and said, ‘Ah … the X-ray is not completely normal … there’s a little hazing in there.’ The person who actually did the X-ray told the doctor that it’s probably nothing and that I should be fine — but that doctor felt a bit unsettled and said: ‘No, let’s be safe and let’s get an actual CAT scan.’

 

“Getting the diagnosis, even though it was cancer, was the answer I’d been looking for.”

When that CAT scan came back, it showed the tumor in my chest. That doctor — I have to give Dr. Kraig Melville his props — definitely did his job. When he saw the mass in my chest, I think he knew immediately what it was, but he didn’t want to say it was cancer right away. He definitely pushed for the next step in the process to figure out conclusively. He said it could be either a benign or malignant tumor. He prepared us.

Your first reaction is supposed to be shock when you hear that you’ve got a mass growing in your chest. There’s a mass in my chest? How could that be? I couldn’t really feel anything there. But strangely enough, shock quickly turned to relief. Getting the diagnosis, even though it was cancer, was the answer I’d been looking for. It was a relief to find out, to finally know, after basically a year of more questions and no answers. At least now I could finally take a step forward, and say, ‘This is what it is. I can finally get rid of this, now that I know what’s going on with my body.’

When the doctors explained everything to my mom, she wasn’t too emotional, at least not in front of me. That’s the thing about my mom — she never tries to show too much emotion.

My mom is a boss. She works two jobs: one as a part-time Realtor for Keller Williams, and she also works at SEEC, an organization that helps displaced people find jobs. Helping people is what she does, and as a breast cancer survivor — nine years now — she didn’t hesitate to act. I’m sure she was probably thinking about our family history with cancer too. That same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer, two of her sisters were diagnosed with breast cancer as well, and my mom’s mom passed away from breast cancer in 1964, when Mom was 8.

Chris Odoi-Atsem (left) works with kids at a Soccer for the Future event. D.C. United drafted the defender 12th overall in 2017.

Courtesy of DC United

I just can’t say enough about my family, and her. They had my back.

I have two brothers, Sowah and Steven, who’s my best friend. He lives in Ghana with my father and jumped at the opportunity to be by my side. Steven owns a business in Ghana, and so does my father. When he came, my dad took on the responsibilities of my brother’s business as well as his own. Every time he talks about it, he says, ‘No problem. Just get your health straight.’ I always appreciate them for doing that, because I definitely needed my brother here with me: driving me to Bowie, to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital every other Monday for four months, and raising my spirits when they were low.

I tell people all the time that that was the hardest part of this whole ordeal. Not the eight rounds and four months of chemotherapy. Not hearing the doctor say that I had a 7.5-centimeter mass growing in my chest. It was the pre-diagnosis, the months and months where we just didn’t know what was wrong — plus fearing that I couldn’t play and perform to my ability or even play soccer again.

Odoi-Atsem heads the ball during a scrimmage at Maryland in 2018. He will miss D.C. United’s 2019 season opener as he recovers from Hodgkin lymphoma.

Courtesy of DC United

‘A PLATFORM THAT’S BIGGER THAN JUST MYSELF’

I do wonder if my body was giving me signs even before my diagnosis. I had been having a bad spell with injuries. I battled bone spurs in my ankle and had some issues in my calves. And, of course, the constant fatigue. I’m in my early 20s and I’m a professional athlete — I’m not supposed to be having these types of issues, was my constant thought. We will never know if those issues were related to my diagnosis, but I’m convinced that my body was telling me that something’s wrong with me.

I’m a different guy now because of this diagnosis. I now have a platform that’s bigger than just myself. I knew, even while I went through chemo and had good days and bad days, that I would do what I could to drive awareness to Hodgkin lymphoma and hopefully create some type of change. I’m working my way back. That’s my focus now, and I’ll be working with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society throughout the year to raise awareness and money for the fight against blood cancers.

I know I’m not alone. Other professional athletes, like [Pittsburgh Steelers running back] James Conner and [retired U.S. national team soccer star] Charlie Davies, have been where I am. Just seeing their stories inspired me in a positive way. I knew while I was going through this that I would be able to help others. I believe everything happens for a reason, and this happened so I could reach others. I believe that.

March 3 will be a bittersweet day, I can’t lie. I won’t be on the field with my D.C. United teammates when they host MLS champions Atlanta United at Audi Field. But, at the same time, I’m excited to get back in the swing, training and working to get back to where I was. Even though I’m not on the field with my teammates, I can already tell that my spirits are higher just being around them. I know I have a few hurdles to overcome before I can get the all-clear, but until then, I’ll be in the lab training and working my way back, counting down to the moment I make my return.

This experience will make me a better person, but hopefully a better player too.

Born in the UK and raised in Jamaica, Mark W. Wright is a writer and director of special projects at The Undefeated. A quick glance at his work and it’s safe to assume that soccer – and coverage of Historically Black Colleges and Universities – are among his passions.