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Partner's blog provides window to Karl's cancer recovery

Waves of web support wash over Nuggets coach


When cancer is the enemy, everyone else is an ally.

That is clearly evident from the words of support and encouragement that are posted on Nuggets coach George Karl’s web page at mylifeline.org.

The messages come from close friends, compassionate strangers and fellow cancer survivors from all parts of the country. It is a cyber-landscape that transcends borders and team allegiances.

“Hey coach. I am a Duke alum from Salt Lake City, nonetheless, I love you man,” reads one post. “Hang in there.”

When Karl, a North Carolina alum, and his life partner Kim Van Deraa started their web page – mylifeline.org/George Karl – nearly three weeks ago, the goal was to provide friends, family and Nuggets fans with regular updates on the coach’s battle with throat and neck cancer.

With 18 pages (and counting) of messages from registered guests, the response has been both inspirational and overwhelming.

“George being a public figure, there’s people out there that don’t know him but think they know him,” Van Deraa said. “Anybody in the NBA family would have an interest. I’m glad to help other people understand what he’s going through. It’s obviously been very helpful for people to know how he’s doing.”

Karl publicly announced he had squamous cell carcinoma on Feb. 16, and the response of letters, phone calls and e-mails began almost immediately. With Karl facing an aggressive 45-day treatment of radiation and chemotherapy, Van Deraa looked into launching a blog and the first update was posted March 14.

At that point, Karl had breezed through the first three weeks of treatment, missing only one game. After staying behind for a four-game road trip March 10-15, he returned to the bench for a home game against the Washington Wizards on March 16.

That’s when the reality of his fight kicked in.

After most victories, Karl typically celebrates with a Coors Light poured into a paper cup. (“Drinking beer after a win tastes like champagne, he likes to say.”) But beer is off-limits during his recovery, and even if it wasn’t on the list of banned substances, the sores in his mouth made swallowing painfully difficult.

Emotionally drained and physically spent, Karl headed home to Van Deraa and their 5-year-old daughter Kaci Grace. His message upon walking through the door was succinct.

“Don’t let me do this again right now,” he said.

Karl has not coached since that night, and his return to the Nuggets bench remains uncertain. Denver has six games left before the playoffs begin in a couple weeks.

“What he said to the doctor is, ‘I need to take care of myself,’ ” Van Deraa said. “There’s a lot of people who have warned him about how tough it is. In your mind, you don’t really know how tough it is until you go through it. Then you say, ‘Now I know what you mean.’ "

Karl, 58, has lost roughly 20 to 25 pounds and his diet is limited primarily to liquids delivered through a feeding tube in his stomach. He is physically able to talk, but the process is painful – which seems to be the case with many things he used to take for granted.

“George has said this is the toughest thing he’s gone through pain-wise and fatigue-wise," Van Deraa said. "He knows he has to take care of himself. With the team struggling, he would love to be there, but he knows he has to take care of himself. He can’t exert all his energy because then he won’t have any energy to get better.

“He can’t make any promises, but I’m sure he’s going to try to get back to the team as soon as possible, while also making sure he takes care of himself.”

Van Deraa has been instrumental in Karl’s path to recovery, driving him to and from the hospital almost daily, distributing his pain medication and managing a household. Between tasks, she finds time to update the blog, a exercise that has been somewhat therapeutic.

“For George, it probably has gone very slow, but for me it seems like it’s gone so fast because my days are filled with things to do and things to think about,” she said. “When you’re busy, your days just go faster. If you ask him, he might say it feels like forever. I know we’re all very happy he’s almost done.”

Karl was scheduled for his final radiation treatment Friday, and his last chemotherapy session is set for Wednesday April 7. The lump found on his neck three months ago is no longer detectable by feel, giving more cause for optimism going forward.

The post-radiation recovery is expected to last a few weeks, but doctors have told him his energy should return gradually. Van Deraa said Karl has not watched many Nuggets games over the past three weeks; Denver is in a tight battle for the No. 2 or 3 seed in the Western Conference.

“Watching it all the time, it would stress him out,” Van Deraa said. “There hasn’t been a lot of NBA basketball on our TV.”

In the days after he went public with his cancer diagnosis, Karl told his team that winning would be as vital to his treatment as radiation and chemotherapy. The Nuggets are trying to do their part.

“Like always, just tell him that we miss him,” point guard Chauncey Billups said. “Don’t worry about us. Don’t worry about basketball situations. Worry about getting back healthy and we’ll be here when you get back.”

Based on the responses posted at Karl's website, Billups and his teammates won’t be the only ones.