CLEVELAND — Some of the toughest days for LeBron James over the last year had nothing to do with basketball. It was a gut-churning period when he waited to make sure he didn't have cancer.
In his first interview on the subject since surgery to remove a tumor from his jaw area in June, James said there were several jittery days last January after he had a biopsy on the growing lump under his right ear.
“It was a nerve-racking experience, but I knew at that point I had to get it done,” James said. “I was on edge for those few days. I was lucky the season was going on and we were playing really well so I could concentrate on basketball. My family was nervous.”
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic found a growth on James' parotid gland, which produces saliva. Those sorts of tumors are somewhat rare, on average there's usually around 2,500 cases each year. It represents only about three percent of all discovered tumors and just six percent of tumors found in the head and neck area.
The better news for James was that between 70 and 80 percent of such tumors are benign. That is what the doctors told him, trying to set him at ease.
“I was working with some good professionals,” James said. “They were telling me they didn't think it was cancer, but we had to be sure, of course.”
The news turned out to be good; the mass wasn't cancerous. But if it was allowed to grow it could become malignant, and so James made plans to have surgery to remove it as soon as possible after the season ended.
It didn't cause James much pain, unless he was hit directly on the right side of the jaw. It happened a few times when he was fouled driving to the basket. In those instances, James was sometimes slow to get up, leaving some to believe he was milking the hits for the referees' benefit. Some of the time he was just suffering in silence, never discussing the tumor with the media.
The surgery date arrived faster than James wanted. He went under the knife on June 3, just two days after the Cavs were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It wasn't an easy or simple procedure.
James was told that the surgery, performed by Dr. Frank Papay at the Cleveland Clinic, would last between two and three hours. It was James' first experience under anesthesia, the first time in his life he'd been put to sleep for a medical procedure, which made him uneasy.
James woke up more than six hours later, the operation taking twice as long as expected. To get the tumor, which by that time was large enough that it raised an obvious bump that fans began noticing when James was at the foul line or doing interviews, Dr. Papay had to make a large incision from the side of James' head and around the bottom and to the back of his ear. That area is filled with nerves and muscles that control the face, making it delicate and time-consuming to perform.
“I wasn't scared,” James said, “but it wasn't something I was comfortable with.”
There is now a thin, half moon-shaped scar around James' ear, though the surgeons did a good job of hiding it.
He couldn't work out for a few weeks this summer, but in the end that might have been a good thing.
“I just stayed in bed for a week or so. I could talk and eat, but I didn't really want to do much,” James said. “I just relaxed and got some of the best sleep I've had in my life.”