Cancer survivors have made their way back into the lineup Butler, Radinsky, Spehr are still playing

June 18, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Brett Butler knows what Eric Davis is going through. He had surgery to remove an inflamed tonsil last year and woke up to find out that he had throat cancer.

The diagnosis was not a death sentence. Butler underwent successful treatment and is back in the Dodgers' lineup, a member of a growing list of major-league players who have survived cancer to play again.

Reliever Scott Radinsky found out in 1995 he had lymphoma, but returned from chemotherapy to re-establish himself as a quality pitcher. He's now a teammate of Butler's in Los Angeles.

Journeyman catcher Tim Spehr was found to have testicular cancer that same year but made a full recovery and is with the Kansas City Royals. Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk also made a successful comeback from testicular cancer but has since retired.

Of course, the most important thing is that they all returned to good health and were able to resume their lives -- and their careers -- after enduring the horror of a life-threatening illness.

"Eric isn't thinking about baseball right now," Butler said by telephone from Los Angeles last night. "He's thinking, am I going to live? He's thinking about his future. He's thinking about his family.

"The first thing that went through my mind when I heard the word cancer was, 'I'm going to die.' Once you get over the initial shock, then you go through some things and you start to analyze some things. You start to deal with it."

Butler hopes he can help Davis with that. Soon after he heard about Davis yesterday, he had Dodgers officials contact the Orioles to try to set up a phone call with the Orioles right fielder -- who played alongside Butler in Los Angeles in 1992 and '93.

nTC "I want to talk to him," Butler said. "I know what he's going through. I've been in his shoes. Your reaction is, 'How can a healthy athlete get cancer?' but nobody's immune to it. I think I can be helpful because there really aren't that many people who can really relate to what he's feeling."

The situation with Butler was surprisingly similar, even though he was found to have a different form of cancer. Doctors tried to treat his swollen tonsil with antibiotics, figuring that he was suffering from an infection, then found otherwise when they removed it.

Davis' doctors are optimistic that they got all of the cancer when they removed one-third of his colon on Friday. Tests showed no cancerous cells in his lymph nodes, which is considered a positive sign. Butler's cancer had spread to one lymph node by the time it was diagnosed, and he underwent months of radiation treatment to eradicate any remaining malignant cells.

"Eighty percent of my kind of cancer comes back in the first year if it comes back," Butler said, "and I just passed my one-year anniversary, but they say you've got to go five years before they give you a clean bill of health.

"I think once you have cancer, you have it. It kind of comes back to the forefront every time you have an ache or a pain, and whenever you're scheduled for another checkup, you start thinking it again. Right now, for me, everything looks all right."

Butler, 40, is back in the Dodgers' starting lineup. The long illness may have weakened his body temporarily, but it did not diminish his desire to play baseball. He wanted to return just to prove that he could do it -- even though he had reached an age where retirement would have seemed like the more logical choice.

"It was a motivating factor that the doctors told me I wasn't going to come back," Butler said. "I said I'm going to show you I can play this year. Eric has to go through the process before he gets to that point. He's got to deal with the situation. I think your attitude and outlook have a lot to do with it."

Butler's story is a combination of faith and determination, much like that of former San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky, whose battle with bone cancer in the 1980s inspired a book and a screenplay. He returned to pitch again, but the cancer recurred and eventually forced amputation of part of his pitching arm, but he has turned his misfortune into a Christian crusade to help others like him.

Dravecky heads a Colorado Springs, Colo., ministry called Dave Dravecky's Outreach of Hope, which ministers to amputees and victims of other disabling diseases and injuries.

Butler said throughout his ordeal that his faith in God allowed him to handle the worst-case scenario. He said he hopes that Davis can draw on the same kind of faith to help him through the fearful days ahead.

"I know Eric believes in God," he said. "I don't know where he stands on salvation, but I hope that is something we can discuss."

Pub Date: 6/18/97

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