George Karl: Prostate and Squamous Cell Head and Neck Cancer

GKCoachYearI had a lot going on when I was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005. The day before I got diagnosed, I was getting my team ready for its first playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs. I had also started a second life with a new family and had a six month old. I was 52 at the time and scared: I didn’t know a lot about cancer.

Obviously, prostate cancer kills people, but for many, including myself, the treatment was more or less navigating options: potential side effects and outcomes. Was my sexual function going to be impacted, for example. I didn’t have to make any immediate decisions, but I ended up having surgery to remove it.

I don’t think even the best doctors explain the whole cancer journey—the ups and downs that come after treatment is over. Most people rely on their inner fortitude and emotional toughness to heal. I wonder what would have happened if I’d had a more aggressive form of cancer or more debilitating side effects. As it was, my experience inspired me to start my advocacy to help people understand the arc of their journey, using a more integrative approach.

The second time around in 2010 was harder on me. I was pissed off. In between 2005 and 2010, my son Coby was diagnosed with cancer. It shook my spirit.

Treatment for neck and throat cancer is not easy. I was weakened physically, lost coordination and weight, had a rash on my face and ate with a feeding tube. I didn’t feel like a human at times.

Meanwhile, we had a great team in Denver that year. I thought I might be able to work through my treatment, to stay with them. When our season ended with a game six loss, I was in intensive care. I thought I was tough, but I was scared. Yet I remember seeing patients in the waiting area at the hospital being treated for all kinds of other cancers. Those are the tough guys. They were braver than I was in facing the disease.

GKKelciKaciWhen cancer changes you physically, your family and friends don’t know how to treat you. What can friends say when they see a rash on your face? Or what did my young daughter think when she saw the IV in my arm?

My treatment definitely put a strain on the relationship with my partner Kim. But she became stronger throughout the process. She was my cancer angel, handling our finances and communication to the outside world in such a classy way. She took a lot off of my plate, so I could focus on my recovery.

What helped me a great deal was using an integrative approach. Instead of just nuking the disease, we’ve got to think holistically about how we’re treating our bodies with both exercise and, more importantly, diet. It’s interesting—in America, we have higher numbers of people with prostate cancer than elsewhere in the world, and I never found out any good reasons why that is.

On the other hand, bringing better nutrition to the healing process is almost dismissed by the medical community—as if it doesn’t matter. What, when, how fast and why we eat are important considerations, along with paying attention to how we feel when we’re not eating the right stuff.

Cancer changed me as a coach. Instead of being some crazy dude or a dictator who had to control every single aspect of the game, I had to delegate and learn balance. I don’t know if cancer was solely responsible for that because I felt I was shifting to a more professorial role as I was getting older anyway. But cancer definitely helped me move beyond the need for total control.

GKSacramentoMy staff was strong. My easing up gave them an opportunity to be better coaches. We improved that year and every year after in Denver. I actually had the most fun as a coach that year, despite the Melo trade, and I thought we played better basketball.

The guys on the team were supportive and compassionate, but they weren’t really aware of the difficulties because they’d only see me two to four hours a day. Our winning helped too, so things never got negative.

There were days when depression, anger and fatigue all set in. But as only one of 30 coaches in the NBA, you have to be confident; I was searching for confidence professionally and personally. When I started to find it and was making progress with my treatment, I started getting more energized. It’s amazing what happens when you can find courage and belief.

During the times when I was down, little things, like a call from Karl Malone—who I didn’t even really know that well—or a note from Gregg Popovich, made a huge difference. They helped to bolster my inner strength, which is what everyone needs in the end to overcome the disease.

George is an 11-year prostate cancer survivor and six-year squamous cell head/neck cancer survivor.

One thought on “George Karl: Prostate and Squamous Cell Head and Neck Cancer

  • I went through the same two cancer you did. Prostatectomy at 54 years old and Head and Neck four years later. It brought about changes in my life also. Couldn’t work. Can’t believe you tried to continue in the high stress job you had.
    Here’s hoping we both lead long fulfilling lives.

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