At first, Dahrran Diedrick was afraid of dying. When a doctor diagnoses a rare form of lymphoma, fear takes over — it’s only natural.
But those thoughts quickly dissipated. After all, Diedrick was a professional athlete, a non-import running back with the Alouettes. He was in the prime of his life. There was no history of cancer in his family. There was no reason for him to become one of the deadly disease’s many victims.
“Every day, you watch the news and hear about someone who died from cancer. I know it’s something that takes people’s lives, especially what I had. It’s all about your attitude and how you go about it. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, that was my philosophy. Being afraid isn’t going to change it. Being afraid of something doesn’t make it not be there,” Diedrick told the Montreal Gazette, one of the rare times he has publicly discussed what he overcame.
Prior to the 2014 Canadian Football League season, his last with Montreal, Diedrick’s family doctor advised him his white blood cell count was low. But further tests detected nothing. He was having a productive season when he sustained a concussion that August in Winnipeg and was placed on the six-game injured list.
Further tests, while injured, showed Diedrick’s hemoglobin count was low — this after a bone-marrow biopsy was conducted. He was advised to have a liver biopsy. Coincidentally on the day he was cleared to play, a doctor called Diedrick 30 minutes later. His spleen was enlarged and was killing him.
“I was told to prepare for the worst time of my life,” said Diedrick, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Toronto. “It was like in a movie. The doctor was talking and I was in a bubble, not hearing him. He was talking and I was totally just not there. I was almost not believing him. I was thinking there’s no way. This can’t be true. This is impossible.”
The spleen, Diedrick was told, weighed 12 pounds when it was removed in August 2015. In a healthy adult, it usually weighs around 4.5 pounds. In February 2015, the Als announced Diedrick wouldn’t be returning because of personal reasons. Following the procedure, Diedrick was unable to keep food down and lost 40 pounds from his 220-pound frame.
Doctors tried interferon therapy at first. Then they put Diedrick on two rounds of chemotherapy. Nothing worked. He sweated profusely at night, forced to change clothes at least five times. He slept with a tuque to absorb the sweat, but never got continuous sleep for more than 30 or 60 minutes.
“That was the worst part,” he said. “I was sick and couldn’t get any sleep at all.”
There are incidents, quite by coincidence, that stand out in Diedrick’s mind; ones that tested his resolve and courage.
On the day he received the lymphoma diagnosis, he returned home and watched the NFL Network on TV. They were discussing Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bears running back who died in 1970, at age 26, of embryonal cell carcinoma, an aggressive testicular cancer. He succumbed within a month.
Or the time Diedrick crossed paths with Toronto mayor Rob Ford. He had been diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer that arises in fat cells in deep soft tissue. Diagnosed after Diedrick, Ford succumbed in March 2016 at age 46.
Diedrick believed he would be next. “I asked God to give me courage,” he said. “I didn’t pray for the cancer to go away. No matter what was going to happen, it was going to happen. Being scared wasn’t going to (change anything). Being scared wasn’t going to make me get better.
“My prayers came through. One week after feeling I might die, it turned around. I believed I was going to be fine. That was my mentality.”
The CFL’s a small league and a tight-knit community. It didn’t take long for word to spread throughout the inner circles that Diedrick was in the fight of his life — and the odds didn’t appear promising.
His only hope was a stem-cell transplant; the only perfect match was his 20-year-old daughter, Dominique. The transplant, which cost US$720,000, was performed on June 30, 2016, at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.
Fifteen months later, there are no signs of Diedrick’s illness. He has regained his lost weight and his hair grew back. Always in peak condition when he played, he looks like a stud again. He is stronger, and was told by doctors that his bone-density actually increased after the transplant. Diedrick is one of two full-time strength and conditioning coaches with the Toronto Argonauts, reunited with Jim Popp and Marc Trestman, his former general manager and head coach, respectively, in Montreal.
Life is good at age 38. Diedrick still sees his doctor once a month for blood work. His medication has been drastically reduced and his immune system is returning to normal.
“Other people had cancer and they survived, why not me? I put that in my head,” Diedrick said. “Cancer doesn’t kill everyone. I’m not going to be the one that it kills.”