Thoughts on John Farrell, Robin Ventura, and My Own Cancer Scare

I am not a fan of Boston Red Sox. That’s not to say I dislike them, but I’ve certainly held them at arm’s length since they finally broke through and started winning titles. I’ve no doubt any non-Cubs fans are going to feel the same way about us when our team does the same. Actually, we’ll probably be the most insufferable bunch of jerks this side of North Bronx. But that was neither here nor there when I heard the news of John Farrell’s cancer diagnosis yesterday.

It’s easy to dismiss the cursory relationship, if it’s even fair to call it that, one develops with professional athletes and the men who manage or coach them. Our approval of them typically has a direct correlation to their winning percentage, our interaction in most cases conducted through third parties only. So maybe it’s a bit strange to feel moved by the announcement that a man I’ll never meet has lymphoma.

But I don’t think so. Regardless of how you feel about the salaries and idolatry of professional athletes, they’re very public figures and we see their faces and hear their names with a frequency not afforded “normal” folks. As such, we feel as though we know them to some degree, and they have a much greater power to impact a great many people with their words or actions.

My first thought when I heard the news about Farrell was, “I’m glad they caught it and that it’s curable.” My second thought, however, was “I hope this serves as a means to raise awareness for this disease.” Maybe that sounds a little odd though. I mean, it’s not as though people don’t know about cancer and that Farrell’s plight will finally shed light on this unknown blight. What I was hoping, though, is that men and women out there might pay a little more attention to their own bodies, might get themselves checked.

That’s exactly what White Sox manager Robin Ventura did recently, as evidenced by the bandages on his nose and neck that could be seen during the broadcast of the Cubs/Sox game Saturday. While it was part of team protocol, it’s obvious that the news of his old college teammate struck Ventura.

“Yeah, I mean, just the way they caught it, you feel real fortunate and lucky that they found it when they did, that something happened to him before that so they could find it,” the taciturn skipper said. “You know, we always get it done in spring training and then once during the year. You’re always protective of putting sunscreen on and everything else, but when you’re a kid, you probably didn’t put it on as much as you should.”

Oh, man, ain’t that the truth. I remember being younger and taking pride in not really needing sunscreen to brave the harsh, direct sunlight of Indiana. I wasn’t afraid of getting burned all back then, but it’s exactly that kind of bravado that can get any of us into trouble. I thought nothing of it at the time, but my moles presented a much larger danger when it came to skin cancer. That changed when my girlfriend (now wife) noticed something odd about a rather large mole on my back.

As a result of her prodding, I scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist and had him take a look and do a quick biopsy. If I recall correctly, it took about a week, maybe two, for the results to come back. Turns out I had melanoma in situ, Stage 0 though, thank God. Still, this was something that had to go. It was a bit comforting to know that the doctor wasn’t concerned enough to have me in for an immediate procedure, but I can’t say I was really happy to wait two weeks, either.

You know what’s almost scary looking back on it though? I wasn’t really anxious in the least. And to be honest with you, I’m still not sure if that was naivete or hubris or just my general laid-back demeanor. I’d like to think it was the latter, but a combination of the former options is probably closer to the truth.

In any case, the date of my appointment finally came around and I was led back to a little room in the back of my doctor’s office and was made to lie face-down on a table. The physician’s assistant made several injections of a local anesthetic, as I was told they’d have to cut relatively deep in order to remove the tissue in which the bad cells had sprouted. Mind you, this was in the middle of my back, right between my shoulder blades, so I was already imagining how uncomfortable it would be once the novocaine wore off.

So there I am, shirt off, waiting for the numbing drugs to work so the doc can come back and do his thing. He eventually comes into the room and gives me some spiel about how quick and easy it’s going to be and how I’ll be out in no time. If you’ve ever had a mole removed or had any other procedure performed under local anesthetic, it’s really strange. You can feel pressure, but no pain, so it’s as though you’re anticipating something that never really comes, despite the fact that you know it’s happening.

That’s how it was when the doctor went to work. I knew he was back there, but I didn’t really feel anything. Until, that is, he asked for towel and I felt one wiping across my back.

“Nothing major, we just clipped a blood vessel. Just need to clean this up and get the cautery pen real quick.”

Wait, what? Dude, you just nicked a blood vessel and now….agh! What was that?! I spasmed and tensed up just after I heard the buzz of the instrument that was supposed to be stemming the flow of blood issuing forth from my back.

“Sorry about that, must’ve hit a nerve there.”

You see, a cautery pen works by heating a filament at the tip in much the same manner as a lightbulb or soldering iron. Ideally, it will quickly coagulate tissue and arrest bleeding, but in my case it served to bring to a head the anxiety that I’d been packing away for the last couple of weeks.

After that first little miscue, I had an immediate involuntary reaction each time I heard the buzz of that little pen or gun or whatever it was and I swear I almost bit my tongue off once. As a result of my jumping around, it took a few tries to get it right. They were eventually able to get me cleaned up and stitched back together, but I can tell you I’ll never forget that little ordeal. Maybe not quite as big as my kidney surgeries, but I was awake for this one, not to mention old enough to remember it.

It took another week or so to get the results back and I was finally able to exhale completely upon hearing the news that they had found no abnormalities in the surrounding tissue and that I’d need no follow up, at least not on that particular spot. I’ve since had several other moles and spots checked and removed, all proactively.

I know there are many others who are going through far worse experiences than mine, that there are survivors who have fought much harder battles than I can imagine. And I know there are far too many who have been taken too early by this awful disease that cares little for human life. But I also know that there will be many more in the future, and it’s my hope that stories like John Farrell’s or Robin Ventura’s, maybe even mine, will encourage someone to get checked out.

Farrell got lucky; his cancer was discovered when he went in for hernia surgery. I got lucky; I’d never have seen it there in the middle of my back had my girlfriend not spotted it. It’s true that sometimes it’s better to be luck than good, but I don’t want you to be lucky. I don’t want you to have a story about how something was discovered by accident. Not only does this blog need all the readers it can get, but that bastard of a disease doesn’t need any more notches on its bedpost.

Cancer sucks, man. Trite as that might be, it’s no less true. Please put on sunscreen, please check yourself for any changes in moles or freckles you have, and please check your loved ones as well. And if you see anything even remotely odd, please see a dermatologist immediately. If being made fun of for having a band-aid across your nose is the worst thing that happens to you, consider yourself blessed.

I know you come here for Cubs-related material, so I apologize that went off-topic here for a while and that I did so with a fairly high word count. But I hope you’ll forgive me this little indulgence. If I can encourage even one person to get checked for skin cancer or to put on a little extra sunscreen, though, I feel I’ve done my job.

I’m also going to think of a way to get a creative fundraiser going, maybe $x per share or for each person who schedules a check-up. Your ideas on the topic are welcome and I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.

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