It's really OK for outfielder to play Health: Advances in regimens, local physicians say, mean different reactions to chemotherapy. Oriole Eric Davis' excellent physical conditioning is a huge plus, his doctors say.

September 23, 1997|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Since Orioles outfielder Eric Davis' dramatic return to baseball last week following cancer surgery, fans have both marveled at the fact he is playing again so soon and wondered about the prudence of that move.

Davis, 35, is back in the Orioles outfield just three months after his operation for colon cancer -- a third of his colon was removed on June 13 -- and currently in the middle of a six-month course of chemotherapy.

Davis' treatment consists of three six-week sessions of drug therapy. He receives two drugs -- 5-Fluorouracil, also known as 5-FU, and Leucovorin -- once a week intravenously. According to his wife, he also drinks a tea which she prepares from several herbs -- she has not identified them -- to help combat potential nausea caused by the chemotherapy.

The baseball player's determination to resume his daily life has brought national visibility to the subject of cancer therapy.

The following is a brief discussion about cancer treatments based on interviews with Davis' surgeon, Keith Lillemoe of Johns Hopkins Hospital, and other area oncologists. Because of patient confidentiality, Davis' own oncologist, Ross Donehower, would not discuss his case but confirmed the treatment.

Can you explain the kind of treatment Eric Davis is receiving?

"Eric is getting adjuvant chemotherapy designed for people who have had their tumors removed. It is to kill any cancer cells that could have been potentially there that were not detected at the time of therapy," says Davis' surgeon, Lillemoe. "This is one of the most common cancer therapies given. It is a less toxic form of treatment than the chemotherapy given to people with leukemia or lymphoma or cancers which have not been removed."

Roughly 50 different chemotherapy drugs are designed to treat many different types of cancer, says Gary Cohen, director of the cancer center at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

"Our treatments are aimed at particular cancers. So when someone says they're on chemotherapy, people should remember that that particular individual's treatment could be very different than the therapy of the person who lives down the street. We treat many cancers on an outpatient basis. More than 90 percent of our patients are working and doing their normal activities.

"There are toxicities to chemotherapy but there is a great variation among individuals and how they tolerate them," Cohen says. "A lot of people can get the kind of treatment Eric Davis is getting and have relatively few side effects."

What side effects could this treatment produce?

Two common symptoms are nausea and fatigue, physicians say. Other possible side effects are diarrhea and mouth sores, which can also be treated.

"Chemotherapy is not what it used to be," says Owings Mills oncologist Samuel Zygler. "Even though we use many of the same medications, we use them more effectively and have reduced side effects. We now have medication to control nausea either completely or very well in 60 to 75 percent of the patients.

"The better you are going into treatment, the better you do in treatment. We encourage our patients to maintain a level of physical activity and to participate in physical exercise programs. Two things Eric Davis has going for him is that he was in excellent shape when he became ill and that the chemotherapy he's getting does not have a severe side effect profile."

Is there any physical risk to resuming this level of activity?

Not as long as Davis has fully recovered from his abdominal surgery, physicians say. When the athlete returned to the active roster last week, surgeon Lillemoe said he had healed sufficiently to resume play.

What about the herbal tea he is taking?

Although physicians do not know precisely what kind of tea Davis is drinking in conjunction with his treatment, they say it is common for cancer patients to supplement chemotherapy with herbal teas, various vitamins, food supplements and other forms of alternative medicine.

"There are a number of herbal medications which are said to lessen the side effects of chemotherapy," Cohen says. "Half the people who have cancer try these things at some point.

"What bothers me as a physician and scientist is that when you ask for the studies [on such treatments], there aren't any. As long as something could not adversely affect the benefits from chemotherapy, however, I tell my patients I don't see any way that sort of thing can be harmful.

"The bottom line here is that chemotherapy is not what it used to be. We're constantly fighting the image people have about what we do. Even some physicians, our own colleagues, don't understand how far oncology has come."

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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