Tackles Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
by Laura Shipp
Joe Andruzzi is the classic tough guy from Staten Island. His father was a detective in the New York police department. And all three of his brothers are New York City firefighters, all three involved in rescue efforts on 9/11. Joe jokingly refers to himself as the “black sheep” of the family for choosing a career in the National Football League rather than in public service.
During his 10 years in the NFL, Joe won three Super Bowl Championships with the New England Patriots, facing off against some of the toughest, most aggressive defensive linemen in the league. But none of them could compare with the aggressive form of cancer he battled in the summer of 2007.
Just after being released by the Cleveland Browns in May, Joe was working out at a local gym, hoping to be picked up for an 11th season in the NFL. But he soon began experiencing troubling symptoms. “It started with a stomachache,” Joe reveals in an interview with Coping® magazine, “and it proceeded to get worse every day.”
That stomachache, as Joe later learned, was actually a symptom of Burkitt lymphoma, a highly aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But Joe has never been the kind of person who is easily intimidated by a tough opponent – not even cancer. After the initial shock of his diagnosis, Joe’s first thought was, “How am I going to beat this thing?”
I’ve fought a lot of tough battles on the football field, but nothing was more of a battle than my battle off the field with cancer.
Two weeks later, he started an equally aggressive chemotherapy regimen. The chemotherapy devastated his immune system, causing infections, high fevers, rashes, mouth sores, and numerous hospital stays. The 6’3”, 312-pound offensive guard was left bald, weak, and more than 40 pounds lighter.
To put it in perspective, Joe says, “I was training to go play my 11th year in the NFL, and a month later I couldn’t even get out of bed. I’ve fought a lot of tough battles on the football field, but nothing was more of a battle than my battle off the field with cancer.”
He still experiences some residual side effects from the chemotherapy – chemo brain, neuropathy, fatigue. And he never made it back on the field for that 11th season. But Joe is in remission. His cancer is gone. And that’s much more important to him than the game.
“When I was lying in the hospital,” he says, “my Super Bowl rings didn’t mean anything to me.”
What matters most to Joe is family. “My wife and my kids are my life,” he says. “I enjoy every bit of time I get to spend with my four kids. Whatever sport they play, I coach it. I coach Pop Warner, soccer, flag football. They grow up so fast. You don’t want to miss any of it.”
When he’s not spending time with his family, Joe does whatever he can to make the fight with cancer a little easier for someone else. While he was in the hospital, his wife, Jen, started the Joe Andruzzi Foundation to provide financial assistance to families facing cancer. Joe now uses his platform as a well-known cancer survivor to promote the Foundation and to support those facing the same battle that he fought four years ago.
“Time is more valuable to me now, and we only have so much time on this earth,” he says. “When you spend a little bit of your time to help someone else, it goes a long way.”
To learn more about the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, visit JoeAndruzziFoundation.org.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2011.