Early in count, Robinson fights off prostate cancer

August 30, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Frank Robinson got the news on May 3.

Cancer. Prostate cancer. The same cancer that recently afflicted three of his baseball brethren -- Bob Watson, Joe Torre and Tom McCraw.

"Nothing I can do about it," Robinson thought. "I can't say, `Poof, get out of there.' "

But in a sense, the baseball Hall of Famer already had done something about it. By taking a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test, Robinson enabled doctors to detect his cancer early.

"They said it was the lowest grade of cancer there is -- non-aggressive, all within the prostate," said Robinson, the former Orioles player, manager and executive.

"They said I had anywhere from two to three months to have it taken care of -- through radiation, or by having it removed. And they recommended having it removed."

Robinson, who turns 64 tomorrow, did just that, undergoing surgery three weeks ago. On Saturday, he will return as an analyst for Fox Sports, working a game in Texas.

"He's doing very well. He's very positive, optimistic. Very lucky," said Robinson's surgeon, Donald Skinner, the chairman of urology at University of Southern California's Norris Comprehensive Care Center and Hospital.

Lucky that his cancer had not spread.

"The African-American community has the highest incidence of prostate cancer," Skinner said. "And that's the community that probably has the most limits in the way of screening.

"The majority when they're detected have the disease much more advanced, when it's difficult to deal with. The PSA gives you a lead time, so you can detect the disease, and cure it."

Each year in this country, more than 317,000 men are found to have cancer in the prostate gland, according to the American Cancer Society. Each year, the disease causes more than 41,000 deaths -- one every 13 minutes.

The incidence is higher than any other cancer found in men, including lung and colon cancer. It also is 32 percent higher in American blacks than American whites, and the disease develops earlier in blacks as well.

The good news is, prostate cancer is among the most treatable forms of cancer if detected early. Robinson took the PSA test at the suggestion of Brent Petty, his doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. His first alarming result led to a biopsy, then a 90-minute surgery. Robinson left the hospital after two days.

"I had six or seven people call, wish me well and say, `Maybe I'll get my prostate checked, but I'm afraid to do that,' " Robinson said. "I'd say, `It's only a blood test.' And they'd say, `It is?'

"A lot of people are not educated, not aware. If Dr. Petty hadn't talked me into having my PSA years ago, I would not have kept up with it. You're supposed to have one a year. I have two."

But as health-conscious as he is, Robinson still endured a difficult year physically, starting with the hip-replacement surgery he underwent at Hopkins in November.

He spent two weeks recuperating in Baltimore, one in the hospital, one in a hotel. His wife, Barbara, and daughter, Nichelle, accompanied him. Robinson said he underwent his cancer surgery in Los Angeles to lessen their inconvenience.

At this stage of his life, it is not lost on him that players from his era are passing. Robinson was a rookie with Cincinnati in 1956, Pee Wee Reese's last big season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Reese, 81, died of lung cancer on Aug. 14.

"My time's going to come," Robinson said. "That's why it's so important to enjoy life when you have it. Enjoy today. There are no guarantees tomorrow.

"But the main thing is, when you get over 40, you have to take care of yourself physically. That doesn't mean you just go work out. You have to take physicals, eat healthy. Your body is not able to react and recover the way it did.

"I was very fortunate. When I was playing and young, the only injuries I had were related to injuries on the baseball field. Other than that, I didn't have any physical problems until after I got out of baseball.

"It's like someone said, `We looked out for you when you were playing, blessed you, but now you have problems, buddy, and you've got to deal with them.' But I can deal with them. I dealt with the hip. I dealt with my back [surgery in '89]. I can deal with this."

Torre and Watson called, advising Robinson to perform his prescribed exercises. Robinson said he also received a letter from Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss, and a call from Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP.

One week from today, he plans to report for his second season as commissioner of the Arizona Fall League, a position he normally assumes in mid-August. Former Oriole Eddie Murray will manage the Scottsdale Scorpions, a prospect that Robinson described as "very intriguing." What if he needs to fine or suspend Murray?

"If I do it, I do it," Robinson said, laughing. "Ken Griffey Sr. told me last year, `You're not going to get me.' But I got him [fined him] the next-to-last day.

"I protect my umpires. I'm serious, I do. One thing I tell the managers is that I'm not going to put up with it. If you have a beef, you have a beef. But don't harass the umps, get all over them. You're out here to learn. You can't learn how to be a manager in the clubhouse."

And you can't be a commissioner if you're not healthy.

"Nothing to do with the PSA test is painful -- that's what people don't understand," Robinson said. "And if you catch it early enough, you can recover and have a full, healthy life.

"I didn't talk about it publicly before. I didn't have cancer. The PSA test is very, very important. I can't emphasize it enough."

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