“But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.”
— Second Corinthians 15, verse 7.
JP Flynn sits at his locker and armors himself for practice. Flynn, a rookie offensive lineman on the 49ers’ practice squad, wraps his wrist with black adhesive tape and a pink, rubber wristband. As he does this, he reveals a tattoo of that bible verse on his right arm. The verse sits underneath a tattoo of a pink ribbon and the word “Survivor.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month in the NFL. But every month is Breast Cancer Awareness month for Flynn.
“I try not to put on a show about it,” he says. “You won’t see me decked out in pink. I keep little reminders, like this tattoo I got for my mom. The bible verse was her bookmark whenever she went to treatment.”
Flynn’s mother, Ruth, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. She was 40. J.P. was 11.
“We were all pretty young at the time,” Flynn says. “We didn’t understand what was going on. And then, slowly you see things develop. My mom loses all of her hair, which is a weird thing. In a kid’s eyes, mom is the most beautiful woman in the world. Seeing her struggle every day, seeing how weak she got, her having to put a wig on, having to do whatever she has to do in order to make herself confident, it was hard to bear.
“Her treatment was rough. Chemo and radiation. That typical ordeal. The thing about radiation, it makes a human extremely tired. So, starting your day off and expecting your mom to hop out of bed and her not being able to get out of bed to greet her children, it’s rough to look back and think upon. It was a long process. It took over a year. And then she was in a remission for almost 13 years.”
Flynn’s mom runs a special-needs daycare center in Bettendorf, Iowa, and she runs a bakery out of her own house.
“Best cookies I’ve ever had in my life,” says 49ers linebacker Brock Coyle, whose locker is one to the right of Flynn’s. Coyle is listening to the story while he ties his shoelaces and puts on his uniform.
Two years ago, Flynn’s mom found a lump on the inside of her cheek.
Her doctor said the lump was nothing serious. But it turned out to be a rare form of carcinoma — mucoepidermoid carcinoma. She was diagnosed this past March.
Ruth doesn’t know if the radiation she endured to treat her breast cancer caused this carcinoma. “They don’t tell you that specifically,” she said over the phone. “But, other doctors that I’ve talked to, they do say the other radiation can cause this kind of cancer. They call it an auxiliary cancer caused by radiation or other types of chemo.”
Only five doctors in the world treat mucoepidermoid carcinoma.
One of them works at the Mayo Clinic in Cleveland. He performed the surgery to remove Ruth’s tumor, which required a cut from behind her ear all the way down her neck. She spent six weeks at the Mayo Clinic. She recently finished treatment and had a checkup, and says she’s doing well.
“We’re hopeful,” her son says. “The worst thing is she has a bunch of nerve damage, because that tumor was ingrained in her nerves. It looks like she had a stroke. Her mouth doesn’t move on one side and she has trouble blinking and moving her eyelid. She just wants to smile again. We’re trying to figure out a way to get her smile back.”
Flynn says these episodes have changed his mother. “Oh, God, you can see she lacks some things aesthetically, but she is an incredibly confident woman. She is the strongest woman alive in my life, and these ordeals have made her even stronger. What she has done, she knows she can accomplish anything now. Whatever she wants to do, she can do it. She can take the world on. And we all know that. We support her.”
Flynn says these episodes have changed him, too. “It’s just motivation every day. The NFL season, it’s a grind. That’s a fair thing to say. That’s why I keep these reminders.” He snaps the rubber wristband against his arm. “Whenever I’m having a bad day, I just look down and remember things could be a lot harder.”
Since 2009, the NFL has raised $18 million for the American Cancer Society by selling pink merchandise such as that wristband Flynn wears. But Breast Cancer Awareness month is not limited to the NFL. It’s an international initiative.
“(This month) is very effective in how we promote awareness and how much is donated to make women aware of what is needed for themselves,” Ruth Flynn said. “If I wasn’t aware of myself and what I was doing to take care of me, I would not be here today.
“All the testing that I had done previous to my diagnosis for breast cancer, nothing was ever diagnosed. I am the one that went back in and said ‘Pursue this further’ and found the lump and things that needed to be diagnosed.
“This whole NFL thing way new to us. I’m adjusting to having a son in the NFL. It’s still kind of surreal. People say, ‘Oh, your son plays for the 49ers.’ I’m like, ‘Umm, yes. He does.’ I’m very much in awe of my son and what he has done.”
Not as much as Flynn is in awe of her. “She is my hero. I don’t know how else to put that into words. She’s my hero.”
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.