Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt says outstanding care from Mass General was a source of hope and healing during his journey as a melanoma patient.
Mike Schmidt says melanoma was a tougher challenge than any he faced as an athlete.
Mike Schmidt says melanoma was a tougher challenge than any he faced as an athlete.

In August of 2013 I had a biopsy come back positive for melanoma. It began a challenge tougher than any I ever had as an athlete. With my family history, light skin, a lifetime of sun exposure mostly without sunscreen, I knew I was a high risk for skin cancer.

It was amazingly lucky this lesion was even found. I was in Florida on business for two days, had a small irritation on my hand and decided to call my dermatologist for a quick look. For no reason, he offered to look at the rest of my body. He found a mole on my back he didn’t like, sent it for biopsy and the diagnosis came back melanoma. I often wonder if I’d still be alive now if I hadn’t had that irritation on my hand, or if he’d simply treated that and sent me on my way.

My Florida dermatologist immediately contacted an expert in the field, Dr. Abe Schwarzberg (who had trained at Massachusetts General Hospital). Dr. Schwarzberg scheduled a consult immediately upon my return to Rhode Island with Dr. Keith Flaherty, director of the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies at the Mass General Cancer Center. My journey as a melanoma patient was about to begin at the Mass General Cancer Center with the best docs in the business.

The World of Chemotherapy

In early September, I had my first consult with Keith and Dr. James Cusack, a surgeon. The docs wanted to remove the lesion immediately, but I insisted on golfing in the Rhode Island Senior Amateur Championship that Tuesday and Wednesday, so the surgery was scheduled for Thursday.

Mike Schmidt was a star third baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1972 to 1989.
Mike Schmidt was a star third baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1972 to 1989.

After being prepped for surgery Thursday morning, while I was lying in the operating room, Dr. Cusack asked me how I did at the tournament. I started to tell the story about how I won, and I woke up in recovery.

The next year was filled with experiences I could write a book about. The second surgery was to remove 33 lymph nodes under my left arm as the cancer had spread into that system. After a couple months of recovery, my wife, Donna, and I traveled back to our Florida home, and I began a month of radiation therapy.

In mid January of 2014, I began a month of daily infusions of Interferon, which exposed me to the world of chemotherapy. Every day for 30 days, I went to the infusion center for an IV and sat with people in bad shape, people whose entire hope of staying alive depended on their body’s response to the chemo. My final infusion was Valentine’s Day 2014. It took another month for me to regain my normal life.

A Doctor’s Promise

About a month later, my first post-surgery treatment scans showed 12 lung nodules. An ensuing lung biopsy showed melanoma had spread to my lungs. Thanks to medical research and drug trials, a new immune therapy drug called Yervoy gave me hope. You don’t know how important the availability of FDA approved drugs, like Yervoy, can be until your life depends on them.

How Targeted Therapy Makes a Big Difference.

In early May I was experiencing low-grade headaches. I had always been a headache sufferer. For some reason, stress, posture, sun or something seemed to manifest itself in headaches, but I decided to report this to Dr. Schwarzberg, who immediately scheduled a brain MRI. It showed seven small nodules, so first the lungs, and now the brain. None of the nodules were large, with the biggest in either area the size of a pencil eraser, so luckily they were discovered early.

My life was now pretty much out of my hands and in that of God, modern medicine, Dr. Schwarzberg and Dr. Flaherty. Enter Dr. Kevin Oh, neuro-oncologist, who joined my team, along with numerous nurses, medical assistants and my wonderful wife. During my first consult at Mass General in Boston after the lung and brain diagnosis, Dr. Oh did something I’ll never forget. He pulled a stool up in front of me and said, “I’m going to take care of your brain.”

From the left, Mike Schmidt, his wife, Donna Schmidt and MGH President Peter L. Slavin, MD
From left, Mike Schmidt, his wife, Donna Schmidt, and MGH President Peter L. Slavin, MD

Praying for Good News

He actually eased the tension and gave me confidence that what I was facing was not new to them, and they treated these kinds of brain lesions daily. A couple days later, I was fitted with my halo and scheduled for two gamma knife procedures to radiate all seven lesions. With these treatments and the final Yervoy infusions, all that was left was to wait for them to work.

On June 24, 2014, about as anxious as people could be, Donna and I sat in Dr. Flaherty’s office waiting for scan results. I can tell you there’s nothing like waiting on your doctor to enter a room with information that is life-changing. As a former athlete, I was used to being in control, in general, of everything. Never was my health and life in jeopardy. Now nothing seemed to matter except what Dr. Flaherty was about to say.

We hoped and prayed he would be smiling when he opened the door. I was pacing, Donna was sitting, and we both were praying silently. Here’s what the medical report of those scans stated: brain is stable, lungs demonstrate a clear response, and there are no new lesions.

Our prayers were answered. Donna and I have never known such joy. It’s hard to put into words what goes through your mind. I’ve chosen to be reserved with my joy, knowing that there will be other scans and other anxious moments waiting on doctors with results. I’m a cancer patient who will live with scans and the results for a long time.

Mike Schmidt was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.
Mike Schmidt was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.

Giving Thanks for Survival

The body is one thing, the lungs are of course a red flag, but cancer in the brain is a whole different ball game. It gets your attention big time. I remember praying more often and thinking seriously about dying. It was a wake-up call to so many things, but mostly how was I going to handle the decline in health and my final days, was my faith real and was it strong enough? My quiet time thoughts were very scary.

This experience taught me never to take one healthy day for granted. It also taught me more about love and friendship than I could ever have imagined. My wife became my angel, my nurse and my strength. She convinced me to stay positive, that we were in this together, and that with our faith in God and our doctors, I would return to health.

Then there was my circle of friends, those in my current circle as well as many I hadn’t talked to in years. So many called or stopped by the house and offered love and prayers. Love and friendship are so powerful. Combined with modern medicine, the best doctors and the facilities at Mass General, I had what I needed to get well.

As of this writing I’m blessed that my recent scan results were clean. I pray that others going through this same challenge will gain strength from my experience, and I thank God for those who dedicate their lives to making people like me have a chance of survival.

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