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Washington’s Ron Rivera diagnosed with cancer, plans to keep coaching

For the first time at practice Thursday, Ron Rivera wore this extensive head-and-neck covering. Hours later, he revealed his cancer diagnosis. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera was diagnosed with cancer, the team announced late Thursday night.

“I was stunned,” Rivera, 58, said in an interview with ESPN, which first reported the news. “But I was angry because I feel like I’m in best health I’ve been in.”

The disease is in the early stages and considered “very treatable and curable, providing a good prognosis for Coach Rivera for a full recovery,” according to the team. Rivera’s cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, can be of the skin or of the head and neck, and it’s unclear which form Rivera has. The Mayo Clinic warned any form of SCC can be “aggressive” and, if untreated, cause “serious complications.”

Depending on the origin of the cancer, Rivera could have a number of options for treatment. If he has surgery and immunotherapy, he could realistically coach, said Trevan Fischer, a surgical oncologist at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. Immunotherapy works by “unlocking the brakes on your immune system,” Fischer said, so it can recognize the cancer and attack. There are generally minor side effects, such as fatigue, but they’re usually not as severe as those with chemotherapy.

“I’m planning to go on coaching,” Rivera told ESPN. “Doctors encouraged me to do it, too. They said: ‘If you feel strongly, do it. Don’t slow down. Do your physical activities.’ But everyone keeps telling me by week three or four, you’ll start feeling it.”

He added: “I'm going through the proper treatment. This will be fine."

Rivera reportedly discovered a lump on his neck in early July. When the lump didn’t go away after a few weeks, he visited a doctor. He learned he had cancer two weeks ago. Nothing since seemed out of the ordinary with Rivera as he regularly led practices and met with the media via Zoom.

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After the diagnosis, Rivera consulted with several doctors and specialists to determine a treatment plan with an outside specialist. While he’ll remain the coach for the time being, there is a “Plan B” in place. The only coach on Washington’s staff with previous head-coaching experience is defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who led Jacksonville (2003-11) and Oakland (2015-17).

Not long before he announced the diagnosis publicly, Rivera reportedly gathered his players in a big circle after their evening meeting to tell them of the news.

“Some were stunned,” Rivera told ESPN. “A bunch came up and wished me well. I said, ‘I’m going to be a little more cranky, so don’t p--- me off.’ ”

At first, Rivera told ESPN he was diagnosed with lymph node cancer. The team later gave various reports before saying in a statement he had “SCC located in a lymph node.” Lymph nodes are small structures that filter out harmful substances, according to the American Cancer Society, so for that reason, it’s common for cancer to start elsewhere and spread to them.

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Shortly after the announcement of his diagnosis, support for Rivera poured out on social media. Jason Wright, the team’s new president, tweeted his “prayers for health to the innate strength and deep resilience in [Rivera’s] body, mind, and Spirit.”

The team’s Twitter account wrote it was with Rivera; his wife, Stephanie; his son, Christopher; and his daughter, Courtney, who is a social media producer with the team. And in keeping with his reputation as a loyal and respected “players’ coach,” one of Rivera’s former players took to social media to share words of surprise and encouragement.

“Praying for Coach Ron & the Rivera family . . . sending y’all love, know Ron gonna beat this,” Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson tweeted.

In the first two weeks of training camp, players have praised Rivera’s progress in changing the team’s culture and setting a new standard. Hours before the announcement, defensive end Ryan Anderson said, “I'd run through a wall for him."

Previously, Rivera has been involved with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network because his older brother Michael, nicknamed Mickey, died in July 2015 after a nearly two-year battle with the disease. Rivera, then coaching Carolina, missed a few days of training camp to attend the funeral.

One year after Mickey’s death, Rivera told reporters he still carried lessons from his brother’s life.

“That no matter what my situation and circumstances were, as long as I have my health, I’m okay‚” Rivera said at the time. “That’s the biggest thing I learned from that.”

Five years later, in the team’s statement, he thanked team doctors, athletic trainers and the health care specialists who will assist him during his treatment plan.

“In addition,” the statement read, “Coach Rivera wishes to extend his heartfelt thanks to the Snyders, coaches, players, staff and fans of the Washington Football Team, as well as his family for their love and support during this time.”

Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.

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