TAMPA — Almost five months after he finished radiation treatments, and three weeks since his latest tests confirmed his cancer is in remission, John Tucker still cannot taste.
It is a by-product of the treatment, which, five days a week for seven weeks in May and June, was directed at the malignancy at the back of his throat and base of his tongue.
Tucker's fried taste buds are expected to rejuvenate, maybe fully, by June. Given the alternative, he said not being able to taste a taco is no big deal.
"I don't miss anything," the former Lightning star said. "I'm just happy it's gone the way it's gone. This is just another life lesson."
Tucker, 45, explained all this for the first time Saturday before the Lightning's game with the Sabres, sitting in a suite with wife Lynn.
He talked about how because his father died of prostate cancer at age 58, "We've always been on the watch." So when he detected a cancer indicator, a swollen lymph node in his neck, one April morning while applying shaving cream, he was in a doctor's office within two weeks.
Sixteen days later he began radiation treatments at Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center.
There was weight loss, 28 pounds off his playing weight of 203. Even now, he said, his radiation-burned throat hurts when he swallows, and he has perpetual dry mouth, which makes his voice raspy, all of which is expected to slowly improve.
Then there are those non-functioning taste buds, and the wonder of how someone who never smoked or chewed tobacco could get throat and tongue cancer.
"When you find out, you're pretty upset, and in that scared-to-death phase you're searching," Tucker said. "I'm on the good side of things now."
Indeed, Andy Trotti, a radiation oncologist at Moffitt who designed Tucker's treatment, confirmed his patient is in remission with "no signs of cancer. … He's going to do great."
Tucker also found out Tuesday a salivary gland tumor, removed Oct. 19, was benign.
Tucker, who played 12 years in the NHL, was an original member of the Lightning with 49 goals and 131 points in 253 games from 1992-96. He, Lynn and their kids, Paige, 15, and Jack, 9, live in Odessa, and Tucker is president of the Junior Lightning youth hockey club, and a coach.
"Lynn and I lived a lot of our lives in the public eye, but we chose from the start to treat it almost like an injury, put your head down and get through it," Tucker said. "We kept it pretty close to the vest."
They did seek the counsel of Charles Slonim, a Tampa opthalmologist and friend, who has been a team physician for the Lightning since its inception. He also is a survivor, having beaten lymph node cancer in 1988.
"He explained it all to us when we had no clue," Lynn said. "He held our hands and said everything was going to be okay."
"John is a rock," Slonim said. "He's not a complainer. If you're a complainer, the first thing you do is tell everybody and try to get people to feel sorry for you. That's not John."
In fact, Tucker said he plans to get involved with those fighting the disease, whether they be patients or caregivers, whom Tucker called "angels on earth."
He said he will write anyone who e-mails him at [email protected] He plans to speak to groups when he can, and will be at the Lightning's game with the Senators Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum to help greet the 4,000 individuals from the area's cancer community expected to attend Tampa Fights Cancer Night courtesy of the Yerrid Foundation.
"You take it all for granted when you're living your life and going about your daily thing," Tucker said. "But this makes you get involved. You have to contribute something. You have to do something."
He can taste it.
WRIGHT TO PLAY: Left wing James Wright likely will play his 10th game for Tampa Bay against the Senators.
"Nobody has told me any different," coach Rick Tocchet said.
The benchmark allows Wright's season to be counted when calculating his years toward free agency, even if he is ultimately sent back to juniors.
NO NEWS ON RANGER: Tocchet said he could provide no new information on defenseman Paul Ranger, who was granted an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a personal issue.
"We'll go through the process and see where it goes," he said.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]