Alaska hockey star’s diagnosis is a reminder to take health symptoms seriously

SPONSORED: Evan Trupp is young, healthy and in peak physical shape -- so he almost ignored the lump that turned out to be cancer.

Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

It happened when Evan Trupp least expected it.

Last winter, the Anchorage-raised hockey player was living in Germany, playing professional hockey for the Dresdner Eislowen, and feeling better than he had in years. Trupp, who helped the Alaska Aces bring home the Kelly Cup in 2014, had just spent his pandemic lockdown completing a 30-day challenge designed to build healthy habits. He cut out alcohol, paid careful attention to his diet, meditated, journaled, and took a daily dip in a cold tub.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more healthy in my life, to be honest,” Trupp said.

So when he noticed a lump in his neck, his first instinct was to ignore it.

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“I didn’t know what that was,” Trupp said. “I thought it was maybe a muscle I had never noticed or a bone I had never felt before.”

Then Trupp made an offhand comment about the lump to an athletic trainer at work. The next thing he knew, he was scheduled for blood tests and scans. The lump was removed and sent for analysis.

On March 23, he got the news that would change his life.

“When the results came back, it was definitely not what I was expecting,” Trupp said “They said it was Hodgkin lymphoma, and I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that is.’”

An unexpected diagnosis

Also known as Hodgkin disease, Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer that starts in the white blood cells of the lymphatic system. While it can be fatal, the disease has a five-year survival rate of 87 percent with treatment. In cases that are diagnosed in early stages while the cancer is limited to one area of the body, that number jumps to 91 percent.

“I was very fortunate that that trainer was able to immediately get me into bloodwork,” Trupp said. “I know that it’s important to seek treatment right away, before it spreads throughout other areas of your body. There’s obviously an urgency with my type to get it done sooner than later.”

Studies indicate that men are more likely than women to put their health on the back burner, delaying preventive care and avoiding getting symptoms checked out. While there may be any number of reasons for this, experts say that stereotypes about traditional “masculinity” likely play a role; men are more likely to feel that they should “tough it out” rather than seek help for what might seem like minor issues.

There’s a price to those delays. Research indicates that behavioral causes, including skipping preventive medical care, contribute to almost 40 percent of U.S. deaths, and Alaska Native people are already at increased risk for many cancers. Early diagnosis can lead to better outcomes for patients with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and many other conditions -- including Hodgkin lymphoma.

Trupp acknowledges that, if that trainer hadn’t intervened, he would have been one of those guys who put off getting his symptom checked out.

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“Especially as a hockey player, I should say -- I don’t know if it’s a male thing too -- you’re kind of taught to brush things off: ‘You’re fine, play through it,’” Trupp said. “‘Just tape it up’ -- that’s usually how it works.”

But at the professional level, teams are heavily invested in making sure players are healthy enough to do their jobs well. In Trupp’s case, that meant he was pulled out of the lineup as a precaution while his lump was checked out. Meanwhile, his team was trying to make a playoff push, and Trupp wanted to be on the ice as badly as his teammates wanted him there.

“It was frustrating, because I felt fine,” Trupp said. “I missed two or three weeks or whatever it was -- until I finally found out. Once they told me the news, I was like, ‘Whoa -- now I don’t feel so bad that they were erring on the side of caution.’”

In hindsight, Trupp said he recognizes how lucky he is that his lymphoma was caught early. Along with the benefits of quick intervention, Trupp’s early diagnosis meant he had time to come back home to undergo his treatment at Alaska Native Medical Center and recover with support from his parents, siblings, and childhood friends.

“I keep saying it was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I haven’t spent more than a week and a half at a time, over the last 16, 17 years, in Alaska. Being able to be up here with family over the last couple months has been nice.”

A new direction

Since completing his course of chemotherapy this summer, Trupp has been focused on rebuilding his strength. Chemo was draining, he said, and even when he started to feel better, he had to learn to pace himself.

“I think I handled it very well mentally and physically for the most part,” Trupp said. “I had to be very careful with what I put in my body and how I treated it. It was tough to stay off the ice.”

As much as he wanted to get back to playing hockey after finishing treatment, Trupp listened to his doctors, who explained that he needed to allow his body to focus on healing.

“If you get a bruise or a scrape, that means your body has to go aid that (injury),” Trupp said. “It’s more that your body has to deal with.”

Even once he is fully recovered, he added, between his brush with cancer and his age, he’s considering the possibility that it might be time for a career change.

“I don’t know if I’ll play hockey again professionally or not,” he said. “I don’t think I will this year. I’m kind of at that point in my life -- I’m 34 years old now -- so this might be pushing me in a different direction.”

That direction could lead toward coaching. During his time in Anchorage, Trupp joined the coaching staff of the Anchorage Wolverines junior hockey team, and he has enjoyed experiencing the sport from a new perspective. And he has been overwhelmed by the “amazing” swell of goodwill that he has felt from the communities where he has played hockey.

“The amount of people that reached out and wanted to support (me), and friends and family here in Anchorage, was actually astonishing,” he said. “It was very heartwarming -- people from all over Germany, and North Dakota, where I went to school.”

On Nov. 11, Trupp got another piece of life-changing news: He is officially cancer-free. And he’s ready to embrace his new life with gratitude for his health.

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“Now (I) kind of realize how -- I don’t know if fragile’s the right word, but maybe fragile is the right word -- how fragile life can be,” he said.

Trupp is just as health-conscious as he was before his lymphoma diagnosis -- possibly even more so -- but now, along with diet and exercise, he’s added a new element to his healthy living practice: being proactive about seeking medical treatment when something feels off. It’s a “the more you know” thing, he explained: When it comes to your health, you want to have all the information so you can take the best care of yourself.

“If you have a lump, get it checked,” Trupp said. “Don’t just assume it’s nothing.”

Cancer can affect anyone at any age. Learn more about risk factors and recommended screenings at cancer.org.

This story was sponsored by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ANTHC. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.