February 14, 2005

Not Only Surviving, He's Thriving

Feb. 14, 2005

By Tom FitzGerald
San Francisco Chronicle

Baseball is all about playing the percentages. So Michael Thompson, the strapping 6-foot-4 third baseman for Santa Clara University, liked his chances. On his Internet searches, he found success rates of 90 t0 95 percent.

You immediately look for survival numbers when cancer hits you. You want to hit back, preferably with the biggest bat possible, and if you have Hodgkin's disease, the numbers can help you lift that bat.

He was batting .320 near the end of April, right after a three-hit game against Stanford, when he decided to have the swelling in his neck checked. "I was getting more fatigued at practice,'' he said. "Things didn't seem right.''

A campus doctor referred him to the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, which ran a few tests, including a biopsy. Thompson and coach Mark O'Brien thought he had an infection, so he accompanied the Broncos to Washington for a three-game series against Gonzaga. With stitches in his neck from the biopsy, he felt sore and tired.

"On the last day, I prayed for the strength to get through the game,'' he said. He turned to shortstop Mike Lange after the first inning and said, "I don't know if I can do this today.'' He mustered the strength to collect three singles and a homer in an 11-2 rout. "There definitely was a greater strength with me that day,'' he said.

Thompson, 20, had other factors in his favor in his battle against Hodgkin's disease, also known as Hodgkin's lymphoma, one of two common types of cancer of the lymphatic system. He was healthy -- his dad says he'd never been sick -- he was young, and the disease had been caught early.

Hodgkin's was named after British doctor Thomas Hodgkin, who first described the disease in 1832. It's not nearly as common (nor as deadly) as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. First baseman Andres Galarraga, who played for the Giants in 2001 and '03, missed most of the 2004 season recovering from non- Hodgkin's lymphoma for a second time. Galarraga, 43, recently signed with the New York Mets.

Thompson's oncologist, Dr. Minggui Pan, says there are 9,000 new cases a year of Hodgkin's in the United States, compared with 30,000 cases of non- Hodgkin's. Dr. Pan says somebody like Thompson has a 77 percent probability of being cancer-free in five years. He said the survival rate is close to 90 percent in five years.

Those hopeful numbers didn't soften the shock of the diagnosis for Thompson, his family or his teammates.

A couple of days after that Gonzaga trip, the doctors summoned his parents, Rick and Dorris, from Mission Viejo (Orange County). Dr. Pan gave them all the bad news at the same time. "If you're going to get cancer,'' Thompson said, "he said it's one of the better cancers to get.''

They promptly went to Buck Shaw Stadium, where O'Brien interrupted batting practice and was shocked by what Thompson told him. He also was amazed by the player's attitude. "Here's how it's going to be fixed,'' Thompson told him, "and, by the way, I'm playing this weekend.''

All the encouraging statistics didn't help O'Brien explain the disease to his team. "The looks on our players' faces -- some were pale white,'' he said. "Some put their heads down. It was very emotional. Some thought I was out of my mind telling them that one of their friends, a 19-year-old baseball player, had cancer.''

With a charge of support from his teammates, he played that weekend in a series at USF. In a 7-3 win Sunday, he had the decisive hit, an RBI double. "The top of the dugout almost came off,'' O'Brien said. "It was one of the best feelings I've ever had in coaching.''

It wasn't long before Thompson became well acquainted with the quadruple whammy of chemotherapy: the potent drugs adriamycin, bleomycin, vinblastine and dacarbazine ("ABVD'' for short) that were fed into his body intravenously for four months.

"For a while, I couldn't tell myself I had cancer,'' he said. "It was hard for me to say it. Finally, one day I said, 'You know what? This is something I have. I'm going to deal with it as quickly as I can, and get back out there and play again.' ''

Whenever the going got tough, baseball drove him, just the way it once caused him to miss his sister's wedding -- he was on a traveling team and there was a schedule conflict. Baseball caused him to switch high schools after his junior year in a falling-out with a coach who, according to his father, told the teenager (incorrectly) he'd never get a baseball scholarship.

The first day of chemotherapy, O'Brien drove him to SBC Park, and several Giants welcomed him on the field as a way to lift his spirits. He chatted with players and heard Barry Bonds and Phillies closer Billy Wagner talk amiably about challenging each other. He and O'Brien watched Bonds take batting practice under the stands.

"There's been a lot of things said about Barry Bonds,'' O'Brien said, "but he made it a special day for Mike.''

Thompson was too sick to stay for the game. He threw up three times that day. Before cancer, his parents said, he had thrown up exactly once in his life, after drinking a can of soda as a 2-year-old.

He even tried to play the following weekend but quickly found it was impossible. "The doctors said he could give it a try,'' O'Brien said. "He played three or four innings, but it was tough for him just to get off the field. He looked at me and started to cry. He was dizzy. It just hit him like a ton of bricks. He said, 'Coach, I can't do it anymore.' "

The doctors were aghast when they found out he had cut his knees diving for a groundball. His immune system, already weakened, was battered by the chemo, making him vulnerable to infection. With five games left in the season, he was done.

Taking the coach's place for the pregame talk the next day, he told his teammates he was leaving school to undergo treatment near his home in Orange County. "It was emotional to see a guy who competes every day get something taken away from him,'' Lange said.

But what Thompson really wanted to give the Broncos, still in contention for the West Coast Conference title, was a pep talk.

"It was one of the most inspirational things you'll ever see,'' O'Brien said. "He said, 'Do this for yourselves and for our team and our program, but don't do it for me. Don't feel sorry for me.' It was gut-wrenching. We swept Pepperdine, and I think his speech had a lot to do with it.''

During his chemotherapy, his hair thinned, and his weight ballooned from 210 pounds to 245. But a surefire way to lose weight followed -- radiation. "You only got in there 5 to 10 minutes every day,'' he said. "They zap you and you're gone. But the aftereffects are just killers. I couldn't eat. If I drank, it felt like razor blades were going down my throat.'' Still, he had no doubts that he'd be playing again. He returned in September, then left after a month because he had no energy. But in January, he was back in school, back in workouts and feeling "fantastic.''

"He's cancer-free right now,'' Dr. Pan said. "I'm very hopeful.''

So is Thompson. "We think we're invincible,'' he said, "but going through that, you see things can be taken from you as easily as they can be given to you. ... I felt like I went through this for a reason. I didn't look at it as a negative thing happening to me. It was a positive thing, something I'm going to grow from.''

Thompson went hitless in Santa Clara's opening series against UC Riverside two weeks ago, although his bases-loaded walk was the game-winning RBI in the Broncos' only win of the weekend. "It was ugly but it worked,'' he said.

He adjusted at the plate the following weekend, and his improved balance paid dividends with seven hits and four RBIs in 13 at-bats as Santa Clara swept three games from Utah. The cancer patient of a few months ago was the WCC Player of the Week.

And, after homering in each game of the Broncos' doubleheader split at San Diego State on Sunday, Thompson is batting .345 (10-for-29).

It's not easy to keep this guy down.