DC United's Chris Odoi-Atsem opens up on fight with Hodgkin's lymphoma

Chris Odoi-Atsem close up

Chris Odoi-Atsem's fifth round of chemotherapy began just as the four prior had, with a physical check-up by Dr. Philip Cohen.

Since Odoi-Atsem was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October, his routine had become familiar and predictable every other Monday: A check-up, three hours of treatment accompanied by his brother Steven – who selflessly flew in from his home in Ghana to be by Chris' side throughout every session despite having recently started his own business – a little bit of energy on Tuesday preceding overwhelming fatigue on Wednesday and Thursday.

Except on December 17, Dr. Cohen told Chris (and Steven, of course) to wait in the lobby for a bit before heading to chemo session No. 5 as he was imminently expecting test results. Fifteen minutes later, the brothers received the news they've been waiting for since doctors first discovered a 7.5-centimeter mass growing in Chris' chest: The tumor is gone.

"I still wanted to make sense of it," Chris told MLSsoccer.com. "Does that mean I'm really in remission? He said 'yeah, you're doing well!' It was great news to get."

It was fitting that Steven was alongside Chris, as the brothers shared a moment that will last a lifetime.

“My brother has been my biggest help," Chris said glowingly. "When he heard the news, he wanted to come here and help me. It was going to be for a few weeks, but he has been here throughout the whole treatment by my side. If I’m feeling sick or something, he’ll try and help me in any way possible. He’ll lift my spirits, he’s a funny guy. He’s been the most impactful person to help me through this. ... It’s meant everything to me, it’s a real selfless act just to help me. It shows the type of person he is." 

When Odoi-Atsem's diagnosis was announced, he said "there is no doubt" he'd beat it. That resilient mentality served him well throughout the last four months, something he said he owes his parents for.

“That’s just the way I’ve been raised," Odoi-Atsem said. "Everything is not going to be perfect throughout your life, you’re going to have ups and downs. My parents always taught me it’s how you deal with those downs. ... I really believed it was only a matter of time before I got through it. Staying positive is a big deal. Cancer can test you physically but mentally is well."

Odoi-Atsem never wavered in his belief that he'd beat cancer and hasn't really made excuses. The 23-year-old speaks matter-of-factly about it all and talks casually about hurdles that would trip up even the strongest among us.  

“The real effects I get are only two days throughout the week, so it’s really not too bad," Odoi-Atsem explains. "There’s a little bit of nausea, especially with the earlier ones, but I’ve gotten used to that. It’s not fun, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s not too bad.”

It's not too bad? Without crucial context, you might think Odoi-Atsem had come down with a common cold if judging solely by his words and absence of complaining. 

“I’m stronger than I originally thought," Odoi-Atsem said he learned about himself throughout the last four months. "I can always look back now: Wow, I really beat this thing. I feel like I handled it well, but it was hard for me to tell people because I didn’t want them to worry about me too much. I knew I’d be good. Having people worry about me wasn’t a fun feeling, I was trying to show everyone that I’d be okay. A couple months later, I am.”

D.C. United report for preseason on Jan. 21, Odoi-Atsem hopes to re-join the club not long after his eighth and final round of chemo on Jan. 28. The No. 12 overall pick of the 2017 SuperDraft is focused on reviving his promising professional career. Odoi-Atsem made nine appearances at right back in his rookie year while fighting injuries and figured to grow his role in 2018 before his diagnosis. 

Throughout chemo, he has been able to get some cardio and lifting done, mostly during the weeks between treatments, to retain muscle and a baseline of fitness. At every turn, his club has been there to help in any way they can, from organizing massages and acupuncture sessions, something that helped him with nausea. 

“D.C. United helped in every way, I really appreciate that," Odoi-Atsem said. "Anything I needed they said never hesitate to ask, and it’s been from top to bottom: Whether it’s teammates, staff, fans, coaches, front office. … I hope I can repay them by making it back on the field.”