THE BLOG
10/15/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Hockey Fights Cancer: My Story

Jamie Sabau via Getty Images

As someone with a deeply personal connection to the cause, I did not want to let the opportunity pass to acknowledge the important awareness and fundraising work that the NHL and NHLPA do in their joint Hockey Fights Cancer initiative. October is hockey's official Hockey Fights Cancer month with special awareness nights held in every NHL arena.

I am sure many of you already know my story as a survivor of Stage 3 colon cancer. Contrary to what a former NHL boss of mine once cruelly claimed about me -- that I try to turn my experience as a cancer survivor into a money-making opportunity for myself -- I tell my story frequently as a way to help others. I do not do it for attention.

The biggest thing I want to impart to everyone is that it is crucial to get screened and, if destiny has it that you are stricken, to never give up on the fight for survival. Do it for your family and other loved ones if you won't do it for yourself. Be a referee of your own life, and make the right judgment call.

Back in 1998, the NHL participated in the Olympics for the first time. During the League's schedule break, I was at home early one morning watching the Today show with my wife, who was nine months pregnant with our first child. Show host Katie Couric was talking about how she had lost her husband to colon cancer. As part of the story, she mentioned various symptoms. As she listed the warning signs, I realized that most -- but not all -- were things I had been experiencing.

My wife prodded me to go to a doctor and get checked. I did.

On Feb. 22, 1998 at 11 p.m., my son McCauley John Stewart was born. It was far and away the happiest day of my life up until that point. The next morning at 9:30 a.m., I had an appointment with my doctor and was informed that I had Stage 3 colon cancer. There was a large malignant tumor and a secondary tumor at my liver.

The doctor told me that had I waited even another few weeks to get checked, the chances of my survival would have been virtually zero. As it was, I would face surgery and chemotherapy, with a significant possibility that I would not make it five years, if that.

I am not going to make any cliched analogies to this fight being tougher than anything I experienced on the ice as a player or referee. In those instances, there was always a choice involved. Here, there was no other choice. It wasn't a game. I had to fight the cancer to be alive for my baby boy and for my wife. That was the one thing I focused on at the times I felt too sick to lift my head off the pillow. Giving up meant death. It meant my family grieving and my son not having a father. Plain and simple, those were non-options to me.

On June 10, 1998, I underwent surgery to remove the tumors. I hemorrhaged heavily, losing three pints of blood, and went back in on June 12th. The situation was grave and I was given last rites.

All I could think about the whole time was my three-month-old son and my wife. I couldn't leave them like this. Through the grace of God, I pulled through the surgery and the aftermath. However, the following year, I had to be hospitalized again. I had developed seven hernias from the incisions, which took multiple procedures to correct.

Let me stop the story here for a moment. I want to tell you all something about a side of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman that rarely -- if ever -- gets mentioned in the media or in the public discourse about him. I know that Mr. Bettman often gets demonized by people outside hockey and by some players but I believe in my heart that you should judge a person by how he or she treats you, and not by what others say.

When I was very sick and no one was sure how long -- or if -- I would live, Mr. Bettman treated me with incredible kindness. Not for the sake of publicity. Not for any personal gain. He did it from the heart that beats beneath what people in public or from the other side of a negotiating table get to see.

Gary Bettman was one of the first people to call me. He told me that, no matter what happened, he would personally make sure that my family was taken care of. He told me not to hesitate to ask if there was anything I needed. I never saw a single bill for my cancer treatments, because Mr. Bettman made sure every cent of it was paid.

Gary Bettman is a man to whom I will be forever grateful, whatever my differences with the League about certain rules and the handling of aspects of officiating. It meant a lot to me that he was in attendance at the game in New Jersey on Nov. 13, 1999, when I made my NHL refereeing return.

Being able to resume my refereeing career from 1999 to 2003 and officiating my 1,000th career game in my hometown of Boston were things that I often did not think would be possible during the worst stretch of dealing with cancer. I felt blessed just to be alive for my family. To make it back to the NHL -- and it took plenty of hard work to be healthy and reasonably fit enough again to do so -- was another blessing.

Here we are now in late 2014. I am alive with two wonderful sons. I I appreciate each and every day I have and try to make the most of it.

I am an ordinary man who has gotten to live out my dreams. What I hope you take away from my story as a player, referee and as a human being who has survived cancer is just that if I can battle the odds and beat adversity time and again, so can you. Believe it.

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Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC..

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart's writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.