Just a few months earlier, months that may very well have felt like decades, MacDonald finished up his junior season of college hockey at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. That year, the gritty winger led the Engineers with 16 goals and 36 points in only 37 games to garner team MVP honors. Compared to the surprises that waited ahead, though, that was easy.
MacDonald had begun experiencing back pain in January of the 2004-05 season, pain that he hoped treatment would aid. Instead, by season’s end, the pain was so bad that he could hardly sleep at night.
On April 5, 2005, MacDonald was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
One week later, the then 21-year-old underwent an orchiectomy at the Albany Medical Center Hospital to remove the malignant testicle. A few days later began the first of four rounds of chemotherapy. But that was only the beginning.
By the end of September, MacDonald had suffered through three more surgeries in Vancouver in a span of two months due to several complications. First was a nine-hour procedure to remove a mass in his abdomen. Then, a surgery to repair an incision that ripped open after getting infected. After that, another surgery to remove a bowel obstruction in his small intestine.
When it finally came time to put down the knife for good, MacDonald had been in the hospital for 65 days. He weighed a mere 130 pounds, almost 80 pounds shy of his playing weight.
MacDonald spent much of the 2005-06 season at home in western Canada, wishing he was playing hockey. To his dismay, but with his full understanding, the doctors wouldn’t allow it. So he sat out the year with a medical redshirt, prolonging a triumphant return in 2006-07. MacDonald picked up right where he left off, leading the Engineers in both goals and points, only this time without the pain, and was named the U.S. College Hockey Online Unsung Hero.
Now 26, MacDonald is healthy and on the verge of an NHL contract. His cancer scare is history. Away from the game, however, it’s a memory that he relives every time he takes his shirt off.
“I think about it quite a bit. I’ve got a road map on my stomach for a scar that makes it hard to forget about it,” MacDonald said with a laugh. “For me, it’s almost kind of a motivational thing. You’re so bad at one point, and things look so grim. You know, I know a lot of people, including the doctors and nurses, didn’t think I’d even get back to playing hockey when I was at RPI, let alone being where I am now. So every day I’m trying to just, even talking in hockey terms, keep getting better and better.
“You almost make yourself forget how bad it is. I remember everything and how bad it was, but at the same time, your body almost doesn’t let you remember the actual feeling of how awful it was. I remember the throwing up and the surgeries and how painful it was, honestly never thinking you’re going to get out of the hospital. But I think, now that I’ve been through it, it sounds stupid, but it’s a positive.
“I look at it as a positive thing, like I’m better for it rather than thinking ‘woe is me, I had cancer.’ Well, you know what? I beat it, so there’s no sense dwelling on it. I think it’s something that’s made me stronger and it’s made me a better hockey player. Before that, maybe if I wasn’t feeling great, I might not go work out. Now, I never skip a workout in the summertime. It’s not that bad to suck it up and put a couple hours into the gym every day as opposed to what could have been.”
What could have been is the unfortunate reality that countless people are stricken with every day. Because of that, MacDonald is thankful for the many organizations that are constantly raising money for cancer research.
“It’s almost gotten to the point where there’s so many that it never stops,” said MacDonald of the numerous events all over the country. “You have the Jimmy Fund and the American Cancer Society, Relay for Life, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, any of these things that are out there. There’s so many, and they’re all going to cancer research and looking into getting cancer care for patients and helping patients who can’t afford care, get care.
“You have your Relay for Life somewhere, but they’re going on all over the country. You have the Jimmy Fund for two days in Boston, and that’s raising millions of dollars. The Lance Armstrong Foundation and his cause, he’s out there all the time. You can say it’s only once a year, but there are so many people doing it that it’s all the time. It’s pretty amazing that people are willing to step up and donate money and donate their time and help people out. It’s something that affects everyone. I know the stats. Odds are that everybody’s family is going to get cancer at one point in their lifetime and the more things out there that are raising money, the better, so that nobody has to lose a family member.”
Last week’s ninth annual WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon raised a remarkable $3,060,322 from people across America to support the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Since 2002, the event has raised roughly $24 million to support research and care for cancer patients.
When MacDonald was in college, his cancer scare provoked a series of events at RPI and in the local area that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research, including the school’s first Relay for Life, which took in $125,000 alone. MacDonald was on the committee for the event, one of many that he had a personal hand in organizing.
Though years have passed since his own battle, MacDonald is thrilled to continue doing his part. On Oct. 29, the Providence Bruins will be hosting their first annual Pink in the Rink Night at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, with five dollars from every ticket sold going toward fundraising efforts for the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation. With their tickets, fans will be receiving pink T-shirts. MacDonald and his teammates also will be wearing pink in their jerseys. They may even sport pink sticks, tape or laces.
Like anything else surrounding cancer, MacDonald supports the cause. Since his experience, he sees the world in a more positive light, a practice he most certainly preaches.
“I tell people to be positive and do everything in your power to get better,” MacDonald said. “Most of the time you put everything in your doctor’s hands, but know as much as you can about what’s happening to you. Maybe there’s something you can eat in your diet to help the medicine better? I remember doing everything, including trying supplements and crazy herbal medicine that I thought might have helped. Who knows if it helped or not, but I thought maybe it would help me feel better while I was getting the chemo, so I tried it.
“You just have to stay positive. What I got diagnosed with wasn’t that good either, and I got better, and I’m still here playing. So no matter how bad it is, you’ve got to hold out hope. My friend’s mother was given something like a 10 percent chance to live a couple months, and that was 20-odd years ago. So if you’re positive and you do everything you can, that’s all you can ask for.”