Dressed in gym shorts and a T-shirt, Maryland running back Michael Anderson sat on the couch in his family's Capitol Heights home yesterday and talked about playing football again, as if the disease that has invaded his powerful body was nothing more than the 24-hour flu.

But it isn't. Michael Anderson has leukemia.

A 5-foot-10, 186-pound DeMatha High School graduate who was expected to challenge for a starting tailback position this season, Anderson has listened to doctors tell him that his disease, which affects the blood-producing organs of the body, is nearly always fatal. The diagnosis is "chronic myelogenous leukemia," and he has been told he can live with it for years. Exactly how long is difficult to say. And now, Anderson, 20, is fighting back.

"For me," he said, "it's business as usual, a temporary setback. The prognosis is real good, the cure is there. God, my family and my friends are praying for me. I have no reason to be scared."

Aside from the interferon treatments Anderson will begin early next week at the University of Maryland Cancer Center in Baltimore, the Anderson family is trying to help beat the disease with the power of positive thinking.

"We've always spent a lot of time together, but we've tried not to overemphasize what it means," said Anderson's father Norman, a middle school guidance counselor. "We realize what this could mean in the end, but we're looking forward to a complete recovery. We are optimistic people, and that type of attitude is very important when you're dealing with an illness such as this.

"You're always afraid, always concerned when the word leukemia comes up. But then you sit back and try to put everything in perspective. You realize what you have going for you and you look at it in a different light. You look on the positive side because it's the only way you can look at it."

A complete recovery would be very rare, according to Dr. Edward Lee, who is treating Anderson. Anderson's form of cancer has two phases: acute and chronic, Lee said. In the acute phase, a patient's condition deteriorates fairly rapidly. The chronic phase -- which eventually leads to the acute phase -- can last for a decade, he said.

Bone marrow transplants, which carry their own risks, can be used to cure the disease, but that procedure would be much less feasible in Anderson's case because he is an only child, Lee said. The odds against finding a nonrelated donor with the same tissue type would be 5,000 to 1, according to Lee.

While a search is made for a suitable donor, Lee said he will use interferon. Although the drug has not been proven to cure cancer, Lee said that, in a few cases, it has helped retard or suppress the development of leukemic cells. Other treatments, Lee said, only treat the symptoms, which include weight loss, low-grade fever and bone pain.

"The average is 3 1/2 years," Lee said of the time before the shift from chronic to acute. "There are clearly people who live 10 years in the chronic phase and do fine. They work and have families and do everything they want to do. They see a doctor periodically and they wait for the other shoe to drop.

"On the other side of the coin, I've seen a couple patients in the last several months who have been presented with this same disease and turned acute in the space of a couple months. It's a spectrum . . . There's no way to know how long he's had it and no way to know when things are going to change."

The disease was found almost by accident. Anderson, an All-Metropolitan player in 1983 and 1984, and other Maryland players attending summer school were given physical examinations on July 10. After his exam, Anderson said the nurse told him he was fine.

"On the way out the door, I told her I was feeling great, except that I had had anemia for five years," Anderson said. "She said she didn't have a record of that, so she insisted I go to the lab to have a blood test done so they could have it on record.

"{A university doctor} called that night and mentioned that he wanted me to come in for another test because my white blood count was high. He didn't know if there might have been a lab error."

There was no error.

"It was quite a surprise," Anderson said. "I had no idea. I still feel fine, and I never had any symptoms. It was a total shock to me that I had any type of disease."

He underwent further tests, spending about a week in Doctor's Hospital in Lanham, then was referred to Lee. He is home now, and it has not been determined whether he will be hospitalized for the first few days of what will be daily interferon injections.

"I told all my friends and the people who were real close to me," Anderson said. "I didn't want them to hear it on the street. I want everyone to know that I feel fine. Everyone came to see me and it never gave me a chance to let my spirits get down."

Coach Joe Krivak and the other Maryland staff members also visited Anderson in the hospital. Said Krivak, "Michael is still part of the football program."

"Coach Krivak has been great the whole time," said Anderson, who also received a call from Krivak's predecessor, Bobby Ross, who left last year for Georgia Tech. "He came to the hospital five times. He told me that everybody is in my corner. He told me to not worry about football and concentrate on getting better, keep a positive attitude and beat this disease. He knows I'll beat it. After I beat it, everything else will fall into place."

Anderson is even holding out hope of playing this season, though his doctor has recommended against it. Practice begins Aug. 15; the Terrapins' first game is scheduled for Sept. 5 at Syrcause.

"I'm keeping an open mind and doing everything I need to do to get ready," Anderson said. "I'm still running and lifting, just like I was doing. I just won't be able to do contact drills. If the season starts and I can't play, I just get a medical redshirt and play two more seasons. But I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."

Lee is against Anderson's playing football this year. "In essence, the white {blood} count mirrors the spleen," Lee said. "If the white count is high, the spleen is enlarged. It is an organ that, when enlarged, can be damaged. And if damaged, it could be a medical emergency, requiring emergency surgery. If he were playing and tackled . . . he would be at risk of rupturing his spleen."

If he does miss this season, Anderson said, "It wouldn't be the end of the world . . . I'm not putting all my eggs in one basket."

An economics major, Anderson will take the same courses, still go to practice and make an appearance at a party or two.

Whether he ever plays again, Anderson clearly has gained a bit more perspective on his priorities.

"I'm still going to beat this," he said, "but it makes you realize that life is more important than football. Your family is more important, and your health is the most important thing, behind God.

"You do put things in perspective more. Instead of worrying about football, you have to worry about getting healthy. But it hasn't changed my goals. I want to be successful, maybe play pro football, or be successful in whatever I do."