Friday, January 30, 2004

Private Mills goes public with illness

Keeps coaching while battling cancer

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Carolina linebackers coach Sam Mills (right) and linebacker Mark Fields have inspired the team by discussing their battles with cancer.
(Associated Press photo)
HOUSTON - Other than with a handful of local reporters who cover the Panthers, Carolina linebackers coach Sam Mills had not discussed his five-month fight with cancer of the small intestine publicly.

But on Thursday morning - less than 24 hours after completing his every-other-week chemotherapy treatment in Charlotte, N.C. - Mills stepped from behind a blue Super Bowl backdrop, stared into the TV lights and gave the world's most hyped sporting event a welcome dose of perspective.

"When they are pumping this stuff into your body, it can be very tough on you," said Mills, looking through a pair of dark-framed reading glasses. "You have your good days and your bad days."

And, say people whose businesses are raising awareness and treating cancer, Mills is doing some good by using the Super Bowl stage to talk about his bad fortune.

"When his story hits the headlines, people might think that if it can happen to an athlete, it can happen to anybody," said Lisa Maitre of the Southwest Ohio Region of the American Cancer Society. "They might pay more attention to preventative things."

Accompanied by Panthers linebacker Mark Fields, who missed the 2003 season after a Hodgkin's disease diagnosis, Mills said that the Panthers' Super Bowl run has inspired him.

"It has been great watching this team fight back," he said. "It basically sends a signal to us and what we need to do in our lives is keep fighting back regardless of the situation."

Mills, a married father of four children who turned 44 in June, was diagnosed in August. A rock-solid, 5-foot-9, 225-pound former linebacker for the Saints and Panthers for 12 seasons, Mills experienced a loss of energy. He could not run or lift weights. His body itched all over. He was surprised by the medical verdict because he had been given a clean bill of health a few months earlier. He had completed a physical and a colonoscopy, an examination of the large intestine.

But cancer of the small intestine, where most of the digestion of food occurs, usually reaches an advanced stage before it is detected.

"There is not a screen for it," said Dr. Andrew Lowy, chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology at University of Cincinnati Hospital and an expert on intestinal cancer.

Mills' news - told to the Carolina players just hours before their preseason finale Aug. 30 - was the second blow of a one-two punch to strike the Carolina organization. A few weeks earlier, Fields, now 31, a ninth-year starting linebacker, had told the team about his illness.

Fields said he has completed his chemo treatment and plans to return to the field next season.

Still, the news that two long-time, popular Panthers had been stricken hit especially hard.

"It was like, what's going on?" Panthers' wide receiver Steve Smith recalled Thursday. "People say, 'The beat marches on.' It didn't march on. We put these guys in the front of the line and let them show us the way. They showed us the way by showing us that football is just a game."

Said center Jeff Mitchell, "Everybody's rallied with a sense of urgency. This may be Sam's last chance to go to a Super Bowl."

Mills, though he played only three seasons with the Panthers, is one of two members of the organization's hall of fame. He and Mike McCormack, its first president, were honored with life-sized bronze statues outside of Bank of America Stadium.

The Panthers, without wanting to trivialize what their teammate and assistant coach were going through, took inspiration from Mills and Fields.

Panthers players wear white T-shirts bearing Mills' No. 51 and Fields' No. 58 under their jerseys. Fields said when the team wears its white jerseys, players' sweat causes the black tribute numbers underneath to show through.

Fields and Mills flew into Houston from Charlotte Wednesday night. Mills normally missed work Monday through Wednesday during weeks he received treatment.

Carolina coach John Fox gave Mills the latitude to set his own schedule. Mills wanted to continue to work.

"As long as I have the power, I'd like to continue coaching," he said.

The surprising Panthers were unexpected winners of the NFC South and have won three playoff games in a row.

"They became an inspiration to all of us," Fox said of Mills and Fields.

Mills has worked on the sideline for all 19 games. He initially thought he should work from the press box.

"But I needed him on the field," said Carolina defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, who wanted to send Mills to his sixth Pro Bowl as a gesture of thanks and appreciation.

Mills made five as a player.

"I went to our players a couple of days before Christmas. I needed some money to do it," Trgovac said. "Within three hours I had $6,000. I gave it to Sam. He cried."


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