Paul Henderson was dying of cancer when he journeyed to Maryland in August of 2012 to try an experimental drug.
“I was down to 160 pounds from 184,” he said. “I had a growth the size of a grapefruit in my stomach. My spleen was enlarged to three times its normal size. My bone marrow was 86 per cent cancerous.”
Fifteen months after that journey, Henderson has regained nearly all the lost weight. He has returned to vigorous exercise and is ramping his speaking schedule back up.
“I don’t know if I would call it that,” said the 70-year-old hero of the 1972 Summit Series.
“It’s one of those things I have no answer for and there are so many things in my life I have no answer for why they happened. Right on top of that is scoring the winning goal in three straight games (in 1972). I would have never believed that could happen 1,000 years.”
Henderson was diagnosed with lymphocytic lymphoma chronic leukemia during what should have been a routine examination in November of 2009. Doctors told Henderson he could have three or four years of fairly good health if he took chemotherapy but that the disease would then probably dramatically worsen.
Henderson instead embarked on a rigorous exercise and organic food regime but his health began to plummet last spring and summer. Henderson was considering chemo when word reached him of an American trial program built around a drug called Ibrutinib that was attracting positive press in medical journals.
After a rigorous set of tests, Henderson was admitted into the program through the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland in August of 2012.
He takes two tablets of the drug per day. He initially took three but on the advice of doctors cut back with the onset of a serious skin rash.
“My latest tests from October showed between five and 10 per cent of my bone marrow to be cancerous,” Henderson said. “When you go there they administer 63 different blood tests. I had 53 fails. In my latest examination I had 55 passes.”
Henderson’s cancer routinely impairs the lymph nodes and created disfiguring swelling in his groin and neck. The growths have all but disappeared with the drug treatment.
Ibrutinib has not yet been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration but has moved into an advanced testing stage.
“It’s not a cure,” Henderson said. “I still have the cancer and it’ll get me at some point. The whole secret is to live long enough for them to find a cure but my wife Eleanor and I are thrilled about the progress so far.”
Henderson’s story is remarkable piece of Canadiana. He was born in sleigh on Lake Huron during a January whiteout as his mother Evelyn tried to reach hospital in Kincardine from their home in the small town of Lucknow. Henderson narrowly made it to the hospital before the cold killed him.
Henderson grew to be a driven athlete who made himself a very good two-way NHL player, first with Detroit and then for seven years as a Maple Leaf. He was coming off a career high 38-goal season with the Leafs when he was selected to play for Team Canada in their historic series against a team from the Soviet Union.
Canada won the last three games of the series in Moscow, the last on Henderson’s goal on a goalmouth scramble with 34 seconds left.
Back in Canada, Henderson struggled with his newfound fame and bristled at the cruelty of Leafs owner Harold Ballard.
“I met a man named Mel Stevens and for two years I asked him question after question about Christianity,” Henderson said.
Henderson re-embraced Christianity in 1975 and since then has been built a dynamic ministry that began with three men meeting in a downtown Toronto hospital in 1985 and now, as Leader Impact Group, operates in 45 different cities in three countries. He even wrote Ballard a letter apologizing for speaking poorly of him. The letter went unanswered.
Henderson’s friends said he remained stoic even as the disease worsened.
“There was no question that Paul was very sick but the thing that impressed me was how he kept a positive attitude through his illness,” said Mark Osborne, an ex-Leaf and longtime friend of Henderson.
“There was lots of courage and lots of prayer there,” said his Ron Ellis, Henderson’s linemate with the Leafs and Team Canada. “He knows he’s not out of the woods yet but we’re all hopeful the news will continue to be good.”
Henderson laughs when it’s put to him that he is playing on house money. In the last year he has authored a new book, The Goal of My Life, seen his name ensconced on the Canada Walk of Fame and received the Order of Canada.
“I’ll be 71 in January. I’ve got no complaints,” Henderson said. “I can’t think of anyone who has had a better life than mine. Because of my faith I have hope. When you have hope and peace you can handle anything.”