Broncos' Thompson Fights Cancer

Jan. 19, 2005

By Brian Witter
The Santa Clara

After being diagnosed last spring with Hodgkin's disease, a rare form of lymphatic cancer, junior infielder Michael Thompson is expected to make a full recovery and start for the Bronco baseball team this upcoming season.

"I think that the most challenging part of the ordeal was that I couldn't play baseball for so long," Thompson said. "Obviously I was scared, but at the same time, I was concerned about how long the treatment was going to take. I just really wanted to get back out on the field."

Plagued with fatigue during some of his games in March and April, Thompson figured his exhaustion was due to lack of sleep. Soon thereafter, he discovered a lump on his neck, which became inflamed to roughly the size of a walnut and concerned both him and the doctors at Cowell Health Center. Thompson was sent to Kaiser Permanente Hospital where additional tests were conducted, including a biopsy.

In late April 2004, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer that starts in the lymphatic tissue responsible for many of the body's immune and blood-forming systems. Hodgkin's disease enlarges this tissue and often causes pressure on surrounding structures. It is an uncommon ailment which accounts for less than 1 percent of all cancer cases in the United States. Currently, there have been no conclusive studies done on what exactly causes Hodgkin's disease in both children and adults. Fortunately, Thompson caught it early enough and his doctors gave him a 96 percent chance of survival.

"When I overheard the doctors talking about chemo, it hit me then," Thompson said. "I thought to myself how very real my situation was and that I was going to have to be strong in order to beat it."

After his diagnosis, Thompson had to come to grips with the reality of telling his coaches and fellow teammates about his condition. Bronco Coach Mark O'Brien had known about the lump since before the doctors' conclusion, but it wasn't until Thompson gathered the team together that O'Brien learned of the cancer.

"I knew something was fishy even before Mike told us he had Hodgkin's," O'Brien said. "I certainly don't think I'll ever forget that day when we stood in the corner of right field and shed tears along with him. All he ever asked of us was just to be there for him, but I didn't have any doubt that our team was going to go above and beyond in being supportive."

Following the announcement to the team, Thompson received an overwhelming amount of support from the other members of the Bronco squad, University administrators and the college baseball community.

During his treatment, Stanford Cardinal Head Coach Mark Marquess offered his best wishes to Thompson while the Loyola Marymount baseball program sent him a card in show of support for a quick recovery. Mario Prietto, S.J., director of Campus Ministry, called often to check in and give encouraging words to him.

"We all felt awful about what had happened, but [Thompson] made it clear to us not to change our demeanor towards him at all," senior outfielder Ryan Chiarelli said. "It's really tough when it's your friend and teammate going through this but we wanted to respect that request."

Initially, Thompson was scheduled to endure six months of chemotherapy and about two months of radiation therapy in order to eradicate the abnormally growing cells in his lymphatic tissue.

Thompson's first chemotherapy session came after the May 11, 2004 game at Stanford. After that he accompanied Coach O'Brien to SBC Park in San Francisco where he was allowed to attend a Giants practice. He tried to play in the Broncos' next series against Pepperdine but pulled himself out because of extreme nausea.

From then until the end of August, Thompson underwent chemo about every two weeks. It left him drained and sick to his stomach.

"It was pretty uncomfortable," Thompson said. "When I drank water, it felt like I was swallowing razor blades whole. The nausea was overpowering and it was hard to tolerate most of the time, but I got used to it eventually."

The process of chemotherapy usually entails one or more powerful drugs being administered to the body in an effort to kill cancer cells that could become problematic or spread from the original tumor. The specific combination of drugs with different actions work together to destroy the cancer and reduce the chance that the patient may become resistant to a particular chemotherapy drug.

After three weeks of undergoing follow-up radiation treatment, a procedure which is more tailored to treat the area where the cancer first began, Thompson's doctors were optimistic about a full recovery.

Hodgkin's disease does not lie dormant once treated, so once it's cured, there is no threat. The fact that the illness was discovered early on coupled with the fact that Thompson was in otherwise good health and was physically fit is almost certainly why he was able to beat back cancer.

Thompson's cancer never worsened beyond Stage 1B, a rating which indicates how far the cancer has spread. Stage 1B signifies that the infected cells have spread into soft tissue which contains nerve connections and blood vessels. Thompson still cannot grow hair on his chin where the warning lump once was, but is happy to be in remission.

"Now I'm very confident I'm going to be back for this season." Thompson said. "I've been working out with the team lately and getting back into the routine. There probably will be some fatigue at first since I haven't played in so long, but it's going to feel so great to be back."

Even with missing some of the final games last season, Thompson still had stellar figures with a .321 batting average, in addition to being third on the team in both RBIs and hits on the year.

"There were so many nights where I called my parents crying and asked them 'Why is this happening to me?' but I soon realized that praying and leaving my situation in God's hands, it might dawn on me that there's a reason for all of this," Thompson said. "I've learned to better appreciate life and not to take everything for granted."

Thompson has begun practicing with the Broncos on a regular basis and looks forward to getting back into the starting lineup. Both Bronco baseball players and coaches alike are overjoyed to see him back on the field in a uniform.

"It seemed like everyone was coming up to me on the first day he was back saying the same thing. 'How great is this, coach?'" O'Brien said. "I wouldn't ever bet against someone like Mike and I fully expect him to have an impact this season."

The 6-foot-4 communication major from Mission Viejo, Calif. aspires to play professional baseball someday and says that his experience with cancer has inspired him to share his story with others who may be going through the same thing. His teammates feel that Thompson's encounter has shaped their lives as well.

"This is one of those things that bring a team closer together," Chiarelli said. "You wake up one day and this happens and you're given a reality check. Maybe striking out or losing a series isn't the worst thing that could happen. Baseball shouldn't control our lives."

It remains to be seen what kind of effect Thompson will have on the field this season for the Broncos; but, if nothing else, Thompson has made a lasting impression on Bronco athletics.

"I almost feel like I have an edge now both on the field and off because I came out of this on top," Thompson said. "Everyone was there to support me and never made me feel like an outcast or like it was my fault. I'll never be able to fully explain to everyone how much I appreciate it."