Steelers RB James Conner was told he 'had about a week' to live upon cancer diagnosis if left untreated

James Conner burst onto the NFL scene last season, filling the void left by Le’Veon Bell with the Pittsburgh Steelers to claim a Pro Bowl nod in his first chance as a starting NFL running back.

Conner had a standout college career at Pitt, earning ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2014 as a sophomore and tallying 1,394 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns two years later as a senior.

But after playing sparingly behind Bell as a rookie in 2017, he remained a relative unknown among NFL fans before Bell’s season-long holdout gave him the opportunity for his star turn.

As football fans and fantasy managers got to know Conner the football player, they also learned his remarkable off-field story.

Conner’s stunning cancer diagnosis

Following his breakout sophomore campaign at Pitt, Conner played just one game as a junior after tearing his ACL in the season opener. While Conner received medical attention for the ACL tear in 2015, doctors discovered that he was suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

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James Conner through his career
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James Conner through his career
FILE - This May 21, 2019, file photo shows Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) making a catch during an NFL football practice in Pittsburgh. Conner doesn't have to answer questions about Le'Veon Bell anymore. He is firmly entrenched as the starter entering his third season but welcomes the chance to share the load with Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell Jr. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
James Conner of the Pittsburgh Steelers arrives at the 8th Annual NFL Honors at The Fox Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, in Atlanta. (Photo by Paul Abell/Invision for NFL/AP Images)
James Conner of the Pittsburgh Steelers arrives at the 8th Annual NFL Honors at The Fox Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, in Atlanta. (Photo by Paul Abell/Invision for NFL/AP Images)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers in the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) runs away from Cincinnati Bengals strong safety Shawn Williams (36) in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) celebrates his touchdown against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) runs as Denver Broncos strong safety Darian Stewart (26) pursues during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Denver. Conner fumbled on the play and the Broncos recovered. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, left, scores a touchdown in front of Baltimore Ravens free safety Eric Weddle in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) acknowledges fans as he leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, in Pittsburgh. v(AP Photo/Don Wright)
FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2018, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) celebrates with wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) after scoring a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh. Amid the distractions - from Le'Veon Bell's extended absence to the seemingly weekly turmoil around Antonio Brown - the Pittsburgh Steelers are about where they expected to be in mid-October: chasing another AFC North title. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, left, takes a handoff from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers franchise tagged star running back Le'Veon Bell still hasn't shown up for any practices, so it looks like Roethilsberger will continue to be handing off to Conner when the Steelers start the regular season against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back and University of Pittsburgh alumnus James Conner, left, gives some direction to Pittsburgh defensive back Jordan Whitehead (9) before he runs the 40-yard dash during the NCAA football team's annual pro-day, Wednesday, March 21, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Pro Day is intended to showcase talent to NFL scouts for the upcoming draft. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Steelers rookies James Conner, left, and T.J. Watts wait to participate in throwing out the first pitch before a baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Arizona Diamondbacks in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (4) and Wisconsin running back Corey Clement (2) watch offensive linemen run the 40-yard dash at the NFL football scouting combine Friday, March 3, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) walks off of the field following their win against Syracuse in an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.(AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) drives the ball against Northwestern defensive end Xavier Washington (56) during the first quarter of the Pinstripe Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) reacts following a touchdown by his teammate against Syracuse during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.(AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) runs in for a touchdown against Syracuse during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.(AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) runs the ball during an NCAA college football game against Duke in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) runs for yardage as Clemson safety Van Smith (23) and Dorian O'Daniel (6) defend during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) and Jaryd Jones-Smith (55) celebrate a 37-34 win over Georgia Tech after a NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) reacts after running in for a touchdown against Marshall during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)
Pittsburgh's James Conner (24) runs against North Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) lines up for a play during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Villanova in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
University of Pittsburgh junior running back James Conner accepts his 2015 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team trophy at the Shadyside Boys and Girls Club in Pittsburgh, Pa. on Tuesday, Sept. 15 after being named to the esteemed team for the positive impact he has made on others and in the community. (Ed Rieker/AP Images for Allstate)
Pittsburgh running back James Conner (24) runs in for a touchdown in an NCAA football game between the Pittsburgh and Youngstown State, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
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Conner received treatment and announced the following spring that he was “free of cancer” before going on to his standout senior season and eventually becoming a third-round pick by the Steelers.

It’s an exceptional story, one that would be compelling even it didn’t involve a 24-year-old who had already suffered and beaten cancer to become one of the most productive players in the NFL.

Conner revealed he caught cancer just in time

Conner recently opened up about his battle with cancer in an appearance on Mike Seander’s podcast “Ya neva know: You know what I mean?”

And it turns out his 2015 prognosis was more dire than previously divulged.

Conner told Seander around the 13:35 mark of his interview that his doctor told him that had he not been diagnosed and started receiving treatment when he did, he would have had around a week to live.

“My doctor told me I’ve got about a week left,” Conner said. “He said you’ve got about a week — if you didn’t get this treated, you had about a week, at the rate it was growing.”

Sleep trouble prompted testing

Conner told Seander that he was having trouble sleeping as he rehabbed his damaged knee with the intent of returning to the field before the end of his junior season.

His doctor suggested a round of testing, and that’s when he received his diagnosis.

"I'm rehabbing for that, trying to make a comeback before the season ends. And then I'm rehabbing and s--- night and sweats, bro. I'm getting like 15 minutes of sleep a night, like going through it. Sleep, who don't love sleep? That's the worst s--- in the world, when you can sleep — ever.

“I get some tests done, and I got tumors surrounding my heart. I got tumors growing all around it. You’ve got two main veins in your chest — Hodgkin's Lymphoma.”

Conner credits knee injury with saving his life

Conner has previously credited his knee injury with saving his life, telling USA Today in 2016 that shots to his chest on the football field could have cost him his life had his condition remained undiagnosed.

“If I never had this knee injury I would've been on the field and I probably would've been feeling out of shape and that I’ve got to work even harder,” Conner said. “I’d be taking shots to the chest. I could've died on the field.”

Conner is prepping now for his third NFL season and his second as the starting running back for the Steelers. With Bell now suiting up for the New York Jets, there are no questions about who the top back is in Pittsburgh.

It’s only been four years since Conner received the potentially devastating news of his unexpected medical condition. That he’s come this far this fast from the brink of death is remarkable.

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