“Well, we can schedule the surgery for next Tuesday.”
The doctor said it just like that.
And I was like, “Wait … what? So … do I have it?”
“The scan shows a five millimeter by five millimeter lump in your testicle. It’ll be a routine procedure. Once we take it out and do a biopsy, we’ll know more about the type of cancer. But you’re young, and we caught it early.”
So, yeah. Three months ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Crazy, right?
I’m usually not the most outspoken guy in the world, and this is a tough thing to open up about….. so please bear with me.
When I heard the news, I was still kind of in shock. Everything happened really fast. We had gotten knocked out of the playoffs a lot sooner than we expected. But then a few days later, I had the opportunity to join Team Canada at the Worlds — so everything was really a blur. I remember me and Jonathan Marchessault getting to Slovakia and sharing a hotel room with twin beds, literally about three inches apart. Marchy and I got really close during that tournament, and we went on a nice run all the way to the final. And even though we lost a heartbreaker to the Finns, that tournament was so much fun.Three months ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
I was finally ready to come home and relax after such a crazy few months.
And then … my whole life changed in the blink of an eye.
I was walking to the locker room right after we got our silver medals, and this guy in a suit grabbed me and said, “Hey, Shea, please come with me.”
You always know what that means. Random drug test. It’s no big deal, usually — but I was kind of surprised, because I had already taken one a few games before. Two in one tournament is pretty unusual. The guy walked me back into this little room, and there were four other guys in suits sitting there, waiting for me. That’s when I thought, O.K. that’s weird.
Then they told me the news.
I’d failed the drug test that I’d taken before the quarterfinals.
All I could think was, That’s actually impossible. I’ve never taken anything. This is a nightmare.
I broke out into a cold sweat. They were saying all these words and terms, and all I could think was, How is this possible?? What weird protein shake did I drink?? Am I dreaming??
They explained to me that the hormone that triggered my specific failed test was called hCG, and that it’s usually only found in women during pregnancy. But then they explained that in some cases, hCG can be a sign of testicular cancer.
Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports
I guess at that point, I should’ve been really scared. But honestly, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t have any emotion except confusion. I just wanted to get back home and see my doctor and figure out what was going on. My agent did a really great job of keeping me calm, because he had been through something similar with Phil Kessel. He just kept telling me that even if they did end up finding something, I was really young, and I was going to be O.K.
When I got back home and was finally was able to go in for blood tests, the results were confirmed. My hormone levels were high. At that point, I wouldn’t even say I was scared. Everything was just happening really fast, you know? Almost too fast to process. The doctors sent me to get an ultrasound scan to look for tumors….. and I’ll tell you what — it didn’t play out like in the movies. When they sat me down for the results, there was no dramatic music. No dramatic pause.
My doctor was just super calm and straightforward about it. Which should have made me calm, I guess — but when you find out that you have cancer, nothing can prepare you. Now I was scared.
And now it was time for the toughest part: having to call my girlfriend and my parents to tell them the news.
Those were very emotional conversations, especially the one with my girlfriend — because she has nearly lost family members to cancer. It’s touched my own family as well. My grandmother beat breast cancer because of early detection, and my grandfather has beaten both kidney and prostate cancer. As hockey players, we’re taught from a very young age to always be stoic — to never show any emotion or pain. Anything that happens, you think, “I got it. I can deal with it.” But I think the first time it all felt real was when I had to tell my family.
And the truth is, my teammates are part of my extended family, too. I really mean that. So telling them was equally tough. And between us, I have to admit — I went about telling them in the most hockey player way possible.
The emotional stuff….. we’re not exactly the best at it, you know? And the thought of calling up every guy on the team and telling them what was going on — I really just couldn’t deal with it.
So my girlfriend and I came up with a plan to tell our friends and teammates in Vegas. In Vegas, we’re extremely tight. Not just the players, but the wives and girlfriends and family members, too. If you think about it, it’s a pretty unique situation, because you had 23-plus guys and their families all moving out to a new city at the same time, just trying to figure everything out. It was almost like everyone was a freshman in college. We’re close in a different way than most teams. We actually have this massive group text for all the wives and girlfriends, and it’s really like its own news organization. If anything happens, or anyone needs something, it’s on the chat within five seconds.
We figured that if we told everyone the news on the chat, it might soften the blow a little bit, and people hopefully wouldn’t freak out. Which might’ve been wishful thinking, in hindsight. I remember sitting on the couch, and my girlfriend pressed send — and literally within 10 seconds, I was getting a FaceTime from Jonathan Marchessault. I’d actually just worked out with Marchy that morning, and I didn’t say anything, so I think he was a little stunned.
He said, “Dude, how could you not tell me? Are you going to be O.K.? I mean …. Cancer?”
Jeff Bottari/NHLI/Getty Images
I don’t know how it’s possible, but during that expansion draft and our whole time in Vegas, our organization brought in first-class, quality human beings. Those guys mean so much to me, and I didn’t know how to talk to them about it. I didn’t want them to look at me like I was sick. I just wanted everything to feel normal.
Luckily, I had such amazing support from everyone. The week before my surgery, I had one of my closest friends from Canada fly down for a few days and we went boating on Lake Mead. It really helped me take my mind off the intense anxiety and uncertainty of everything. It’s kind of funny, in retrospect, because I went to play golf at Shadow Creek a few days before the surgery — and who do I run into on the course, of all the people in the world?Who do I run into on the course, of all the people in the world? Phil Kessel.
Can you believe that?
I guess you’d think that I’d have told him what I was going through, and asked him a million questions about his surgery and recovery — but I actually didn’t say one word to Phil about it. I just said what’s up, and we talked for a bit….. and he couldn’t have been nicer. But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what was going on.
Now, I won’t lie to you, the night before the surgery, I was a bundle of nerves. I was just a mess. My girlfriend and I tried to watch a movie to take my mind off everything, and I genuinely could not tell you what movie we watched that night. I don’t remember anything. I was completely up in my head, consumed by anxiety.
The next morning, I got a text from a random number. It was Phil. My agent had told him that I was going in for surgery, and he sent me a really nice text wishing me luck and telling me that everything was going to be O.K.
To hear that from somebody who had been through it himself, and come out the other side not just healthy, but a superstar player in this league, it meant so much to me.
A big source of my anxiety was getting put under for the surgery, because believe it or not, in 20 years of playing hockey I’d never had to go through that before. Thankfully, it could not have been easier. If anyone reading this has a surgery coming up that they’re feeling anxious about — there’s no need to stress about going under. They put that mask over your nose….. and it’s lights out.
I woke up like I’d just taken a really good nap, and the doctors told me that the lump was successfully removed. I felt O.K., but the only problem was that it really, really hurt to laugh. All I wanted to do when we got home was watch Superbad or something funny, but every time I let out even a little chuckle, it was like a hot knife going into my side. I kept telling people, “Don’t text me anything funny!”
And by the way, if you thought I was exaggerating about the first-class guys we have on the Knights, Max Pacioretty and his wife had a three-day meal service sent to our house so I didn’t have to worry about anything while I was stuck on the couch. Really appreciated that.
After everything I’ve gone through this summer, I just can’t wait to be back doing what I love. I truly want to enjoy every single moment this season. Every practice, every game, every plane ride….. all of that could have been taken away from me. Honestly, it’s kind of a miracle that things worked out the way they did.
After the surgery, when the doctors were able to do a biopsy on the mass in my testicle, they found that it was a mixed germ cell tumor: embryonal and seminoma, stage I. While the embryonal component can be very aggressive and spread to abdominal lymph nodes, mine was caught early because of the comprehensive blood testing they conduct at the Worlds.
The whole butterfly effect of what happened is pretty mind boggling, honestly.
If I had not taken that test, and then if the cancer had gone undetected for a few more years..… I don’t even want to think about how differently my life could’ve turned out. Whether or not you believe everything happens for a reason, what happened to me really feels like a miracle.
Currently, I’ve made a full recovery and of course I’ll be followed closely for any signs of recurrent disease by my surgeon.
Now, I wake up every single morning and I’m just happy that I get the chance to put on my skates and do what I love, and see the people that I love, and laugh with the boys. These are the things that you can’t help but take for granted when you’re 24 years old. You never think that something like this could happen to you. But the reality is that testicular cancer actually has an out-sized effect on my age group. Every year, about 9,500 men are diagnosed — and most commonly seen in men aged 20 to 35.
Debora Robinson/NHLI/Getty Images
I know how fortunate I was to be able to come through this experience with my health, and be able to continue playing the game that I love. What I went through is nothing compared to the kids that I’ve met who have to go through chemo and radiation to fight their cancer. They’re far more brave than I am. But I hope that at the very least, my experience can bring more awareness to an issue that young men don’t typically like to talk about.
Look, I get it. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell Phil. I was so worried to let the boys know what was going on with me. We’re not the greatest with emotions, are we? We’re not the greatest at taking care of ourselves if something isn’t obviously broken. But if you’re reading this article and you’re a young man, I can’t stress it enough:
At your next checkup, you should ask your doctor if you notice anything. There’s no reason whatsoever to be embarrassed. Just DO it — because early detection is SO important. Early detection saved my hockey career. And who knows… if it had spread? I don’t even want to think about that…
When I think about what could’ve happened if I hadn’t gotten on that plane to Slovakia….. I get overwhelmed with emotion.
As young men, as hockey players, we don’t always like to be vulnerable. Even with stuff as serious as cancer, we like to put on a brave face and pretend everything is normal. That’s what we’re good at. The big stuff, life and death — it’s almost too much to process. But for me, everything gets real when I think about all the little things that could’ve been taken away from me.
It’s only been a few months since we’ve all been away, and I gotta say…..
I miss the boys.
I miss the fans.
I miss standing outside the locker room right before we’re about to hit the ice at the Fortress….. Being able to feel the energy from our fans pounding through the tunnel, and knowing we’re just a few seconds away from getting to play another game in the National Hockey League.What I went through is nothing compared to the kids that I’ve met who have to go through chemo and radiation to fight their cancer.
I miss it all, and it’s only been three months. Imagine if it had been forever.
To our incredible fans, to our organization, and to the hockey community who has supported me through this difficult time: THANK YOU.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
I hope my story helps bring awareness to a subject matter that a lot of men aren’t comfortable talking about and helps encourage early detection and screening. I will be working with the Golden Knights and the Golden Knights Foundation to support this cause and look forward to being an ambassador and advocate for such an important issue.
See you at the Fortress soon,
Shea will donate to early detection causes for every point he tallies during the 2019-20 season. The Vegas Golden Knights Foundation will match Shea dollar for dollar. If you are interested in making a donation to bring awareness to early detection, please donate to the Vegas Golden Knights Foundation and designate your donation to Shea Theodore and/or Early Detection.