GORDON WHITE: Cancer Survivors: Athletes Set Excellent Examples
Jon Lester was a Boston Red Sox rookie pitcher with considerable promise when he was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma in August 2006. Thus began the long, uncomfortable series of chemotherapy treatments that could sap the strength of a bull elephant, let alone a once husky 22-year-old major league southpaw.
With considerable determination, lots of good medical treatment plus the invaluable moral support of family members and teammates along with the prayers of Red Sox fans, Lester persevered to become one of millions of cancer survivors instead of a sad statistic.
As a result, just 14 months after learning he had cancer, this native of Tacoma, Wash., was the starting and winning pitcher in the fourth and final game of the 2007 World Series when the Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies last October.
Then, to really top off his comeback, this amazing young athlete hurled a no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals 20 days ago before a wildly enthusiastic, capacity crowd at Fenway Park in Boston, May 19.
Lester is another impressive cancer survivor.
Fortunately, there are hundreds and thousands and even millions of impressive cancer survivors from coast-to-coast and all around the world. To say impressive about a cancer survivor is to be redundant.
We who have survived cancer are rather impressive -- to ourselves most of all. We impressed ourselves and others when we pulled through the initial shock of the first cancer diagnosis, then endured chemo and/or radiation treatments and, in many cases, surgery. Finally, after all that, cancer survivors are able to celebrate being alive as never before.
Lester simply stands out as a shining example of what is happening in cancer treatment and what powers there are in the morale boost from friends and family. Like many other athletes, coaches, executives and others in the world of sports, Lester survived cancer to perform again at the top of his profession.
Men and women in the world of sports, from executive positions to coaches and managers to the players who become heroes like Lester, are no different from the people in any other walk of life. They are susceptible to cancer. Like others, athletes survive more often than not in this day and age of ever-improving cancer treatments. But athletes, like actors and politicians, are always on stage. When they get sick they make headlines the way Senator Ted Kennedy made the front pages recently with his malignant brain tumor.
When athletes, actors, politicians or other celebrities survive cancer and continue to perform in their chosen fields, they set excellent examples showing that once a person is diagnosed with cancer it does not mean that individual has suffered a mortal wound.
One day a year has been set aside as National Cancer Survivors Day to celebrate the life these folks once feared they might lose. For years the cancer survivors of the North Carolina Sandhills and environs have joined in this celebration of life with a big soiree hosted by FirstHealth of the Carolinas.
This annual Cancer Survivors Day happy time will be held this afternoon at the Pinehurst Fair Barn when all cancer survivors and their families are welcome to join in the festivities starting at 3 p.m. This affair is expected to draw more than 400 cancer survivors from around the region.
Palmer Is Spokesman
Four famous persons in golf who are cancer survivors and familiar to many if not all citizens of the Sandhills are Arnold Palmer, Paul Azinger, Judy Rankin and David Fay.
Palmer, who has played in Pinehurst and Southern Pines many times and designed three golf courses in the Sandhills, is a prostate cancer survivor who continues to play golf and is the nation's most prominent spokesman urging men to have regular PSA tests. Palmer was on hand last Tuesday when the United States Golf Association opened the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History, an addition to its golf museum in Far Hills, N.J.
Azinger is this year's U.S. Ryder Cup team captain. He won the 1992 Tour Championship on Pinehurst No. 2 and a year later underwent chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He returned to the PGA Tour and won the 2000 Sony Hawaiian Open.
Rankin, a champion golfer who is in the LPGA Hall of Fame, has been a superb TV golf commentator for years. As such she walked the fairways of Pinehurst No. 2 and Pine Needles to report for NBC TV at two U.S. Opens and three U.S. Women's Opens. She was found to have breast cancer in May 2006, underwent chemotherapy and returned in time to cover the Women's British Open for television in August of that summer. She was back in good spirits and excellent voice to report on last year's U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles.
Fay, the executive director of the USGA since 1989, is a long-time cancer survivor who has continued to oversee the U.S. Open, U.S. Women's Open, U.S. Amateur and management of the USGA each year before and after his bout with cancer.
Other famous golfers have survived cancer, including Gene Littler, the 1961 U.S. Open champion, who was stricken with cancer of the lymph system in 1972. Following surgery and chemotherapy Littler returned to the PGA Tour and won five more times. He later won eight times on the Champions (Senior) Tour.
Billy Mayfair was stricken with testicular cancer two years ago. Two weeks after surgery to remove one testicle, Mayfair shot a 69 in the opening round of the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club in Illinois.
On the Ice
The Stanley Cup was won by the Detroit Red Wings last Wednesday night when they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins for the fourth time in the National Hockey League's best-of-seven final series. Maybe the Penguins wished they still had Mario Lemieux playing for them. Possibly the Penguins' greatest player in team history, Lemieux is now an owner of the Penguins. Midway through his 16-year NHL career that was plagued with back, hand, hip and other injuries, Lemieux came down with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1993.
He returned to the ice after two months of radiation treatments, scoring a goal in Philadelphia the very day of his final treatment. He finally retired in 2006. The Hall of Fame hockey player created the Mario Lemieux Foundation to fund medical research.
Phil Kessel, a center for the Boston Bruins, survived testicular cancer two years ago and is playing in the NHL again.
Two prominent figures in athletics from Connecticut, Jim Calhoun and Dorothy Hamill, have been recently diagnosed with cancer. For Calhoun, the University of Connecticut basketball coach, it is an ongoing matter of diagnosis and survival as he announced last month he had surgery for skin cancer. This is the second time he has been treated for skin cancer in recent years. Calhoun, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last year, is also a prostate cancer survivor. Following treatment for the prostate cancer, Calhoun led his Huskies to the NCAA championship in 1999 and again in 2004.
Hamill, the 1976 gold medalist in both the Olympic and World Championship Women's Figure Skating, began breast cancer treatment last January. Long a resident of the Nutmeg State, Hamill continues to skate in professional shows around the world.
Scott Hamilton, four-time World Men's Figure Skating Champion and the 1984 Olympic gold medalist, survived a 1997 attack of testicular cancer and seven years later surgery for a benign brain tumor. He also continued figure skating in shows after his cancer treatment and is currently a TV commentator for his sport.
The list of athletes, coaches and managers who survived cancer goes on and on and includes baseball personalities such as Joe Torre, former manager of the Braves, Cardinals, Mets and Yankees, who survived prostate cancer and is now the Los Angeles Dodgers' manager.
Mel Stottlemyer, former Yankee pitcher and then Yankee pitching coach under Torre, is now the Seattle Mariners' pitching coach. He survived the blood cancer, multiple myeloma, in 2000. Andres (Big Cat) Galarraga, a Venezualan first baseman for seven major league teams over a 20-year career during which he won batting and RBI titles, underwent lengthy chemotherapy in 1999 for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He returned with the Atlanta Braves in 2000 and won the National League's comeback player of the year award.
Mike Lowell, the Boston Red Sox' third baseman who had testicular cancer in 1999 when a member of the Florida Marlins, was one of Jon Lester's teammates who was there to support the young pitcher during his cancer ordeal two years ago.
Josh Bidwell, one of the best punters in the National Football League, missed his entire rookie season in 1999 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. He returned to action in 2000 to become one of the premier kickers in NFL history.
Probably the most highly publicized athlete to survive cancer in recent years is Lance Armstrong, the world champion cyclist from Texas who suffered testicular cancer that metastacized to his lungs and brain. He underwent surgery for the brain tumor and had chemotherapy, October-December, 1996.
Then, as a cancer survivor, Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France for seven years in a row, a record that might stand as long as or longer than Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
Armstrong created a foundation which is called Livestrong.
This name comes from something Armstrong said about being a cancer survivor: "Before cancer I just lived. Now I live strong."
Two other Hall of Fame college basketball coaches are cancer survivors -- Jim Boeheim of Syracuse University and Kay Yow, the N.C. State women's coach who is going through her second struggle with breast cancer. Boeheim, like his friend Calhoun, coached his team to the NCAA championship in 2003 after surviving prostate cancer.
I know many of these sports figures I mention here, and I have shared cancer surviving experiences with them.
Joe Torre gave credit where it so often belongs when he said, "I was numb when I got the cancer diagnosis and I don't know what I would have done if Ali (his wife) hadn't been there to get me through it all."
I had the same experience and her name is Jane.
Arnold Palmer said, "I guess most of us would rather not discuss cancer because we are all afraid we might be told we have it But just get your regular check-ups and PSAs and, if you're diagnosed, do everything you can to eradicate the disease. In the final analysis you need to do what it takes to get rid of the cancer and get on with your life."
Palmer, who was 67 when stricken with prostate cancer in 1997, played in the Masters and 13 events on the Champions Tour that year, starting eight weeks after surgery.
Many others who are getting on with their lives will celebrate that second or third or even fourth chance at life today during Cancer Survivors Day. We can't all pitch a no-hitter like Lester or play in the Masters like Palmer. But each man, woman and child hit a grand slam when he or she became a cancer survivor.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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