To make her smile: Cashner pitching for mother

Padres righty gains new life perspective after watching mom battle breast cancer, leukemia

To make her smile: Cashner pitching for mother

There's a small part of Andrew Cashner that wants so badly to treat his start on Sunday against the D-backs like any other start.

Where his singular focus will be on tying the D-backs hitters in knots; mid-90s fastballs painted on the corners, sharp sliders below the hands. Strikes and outs and plenty of them.

But the Padres pitcher wants something more from Sunday's start at Chase Field than merely a victory for himself and his teammates.

It's Mother's Day, after all, and this year more than any, Cashner wants something for his mom, Jane Cashner, who one month after celebrating 10 years free and clear from breast cancer, was inexplicably stricken last fall with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"I'll be pitching to put a smile on her face," Cashner said recently, managing a smile of his own.

It's certainly been a lot easier for everyone in the Cashner family to smile these days, following a brutal period in early March, when Jane, 56, took a turn for the worse after falling at the family home in Conroe, Texas.

That wasn't the worst of it.

The fall led to her being taken to the emergency room at MD Anderson, a renowned cancer and research facility in Houston, after her temperature spiked to 104 degrees. Her blood pressure was plummeting, her kidneys failing. Soon enough, she was moved to the intensive care unit.

Seven different medical teams were monitoring her at once.

"That's when I had some words with the nurses," said Cashner's sister, Aimee Christensen. "I told them that this isn't normal."

Jane, as it turned out, had gone into septic shock. Blood clots, the result of her fall, led to an infection in her right leg, causing the leg to turn purple and black. The infection, E. coli, was spreading fast. The only hope to isolate the infection was to amputate the leg.

"They [doctors] told me I needed to call my family because they weren't sure she was going to make it," Christensen said. "That's when I had to call Andrew and [younger brother] Adam. We were able to get everyone there to make the major decisions. That's when they took her leg."

All of this occurred at the time when Cashner was with the team in Arizona for Spring Training. In between starts, he flew to Houston to visit his mother before returning for his next start -- giving the appearance that nothing was out of the ordinary.

"When you come to the field, you try to let go of everything else you have going on," Cashner said. "It's about your teammates, your coaches, and it's about you getting in your work that day. Everything is more geared toward having fun and just playing baseball. ... When I get to the field, I try to leave what's going on at home, at home."

But that's not always easy, especially when it's your mom who is suffering.

"Because you're there in Arizona, and you're trying not to let your mind wander and trying your best not to overthink too much. It helped that I've got such a great family, and they made sure my mom was well taken care of. It made it easier, even though it wasn't really easier at all."

Jane had her leg amputated on Friday, March 6. Cashner was there with his family as the surgery took place. She was heavily sedated and would remain so, as it turned out, for a period of 12 days. Two days after the surgery, Cashner returned to Arizona.

On Monday, March 9, the Padres traveled to Mesa, Ariz., to face the Cubs -- Cashner's former team. But before the team left Peoria, the team received a call about Cashner's mother. The news wasn't promising.

"She was losing blood to her fingers and toes [left leg], and there was some talk about having to amputate more," said Adam Cashner, 25. "There had been talks about quality of life issues. We just weren't sure. We asked for a meeting with the doctors that morning, and we didn't want to tell Andrew because he was pitching. We wanted him to focus on that.

"But at that point, there was a lot of fighting left to be done."

Cashner threw three scoreless innings against the Cubs, his strongest start of the spring up to that point. Afterwards, manager Bud Black told him that he had to call his family. The two then made the long walk to the visiting clubhouse at Sloan Park.

"That's probably one of the toughest things I've ever been through. That's when everything sort of set in. ... I thought my mom had passed away," Cashner said, lowering his voice.

Black and Cashner stepped into the manager's office and shut the door. Cashner picked up his phone to call his family at the hospital, not knowing what awaited him.

"To hear she hadn't passed away was a relief ... but that whole day and the whole process was so uncomfortable. My mind was racing. I had just pitched well, I had a great game, but as I'm sitting there, none of that mattered. Everything sort of stopped for me," Cashner said.

Jane eventually started to stabilize as her vital signs improved. The medicine doctors had been pumping into her started to take hold. Just as she had beaten cancer, it looked as if she was trying her damndest to kick leukemia, too.

"She is so strong and determined," Christensen said. "She's a miracle."

Christensen had an idea her mother was turning a corner when Adam brought an iPad to her room during one of Andrew's starts from Arizona and gently placed it on her lap.

The thing you need to know about Jane Cashner is she never misses a Padres game, even if her son isn't pitching. She was Cashner's first baseball coach. The family has a baseball field on their 15-acre plot of land in Conroe, right next to the barn.

Jane never misses Andrew's starts. She was not going to miss this one, either.

Still under heavy sedation, Jane's blood pressure began to rise (in a good way). Then she began moving her head back and forth. Everyone in the room was stunned.

"I don't really know if that was the medicine or what," Adam said. "But it looked to me like she was anxious when he was pitching like she always is."

Andrew Cashner smiles when this story is retold. He knew his mom was tough. After all, when she coached Andrew and Adam, she was pelted by line drives while throwing batting practice. But this is a different kind of tough.

"My mom is probably one of the strongest people I know. Her demeanor, even when we didn't think there was any more room left to fight, she did," he said.

Jane went back home to Conroe on April 30. She will be fitted for a prosthetic leg and is using a scooter to get around the house, which is now outfitted with ramps.

As for Cashner, he said this journey has helped him gain some perspective on his own life and what truly matters most.

"You can't take life too seriously," Cashner said. "It's short and it's quick. I look at things people get so worked up about, the little things that bother us. I think you have to re-evaluate things and find out what's important to you.

"You should do the things you want to do as a person and do things that can make a difference in this world."

And, that in times of crisis, nothing is stronger than the family bond.

"I'm super proud of my dad keeping it all together, but a lot goes to my sister. She has two kids at home. She spent a lot of time with my mom, leaving at 4 in the morning," Cashner said. "... Our support system throughout all this has been amazing."

It was on one of his trips back to Houston where Cashner and Christensen -- the mother of two boys, Travis, 6, and Tyler, 4, -- got the idea of providing for those who might be going through similar ordeals, specifically children.

"Anytime that you go into the hospital, it can suck the life out of you, because there's so many people going through so many different struggles," Cashner said. "You just want to make any kind of difference that you can."

From these dark moments, the Cashner Family Foundation, "Pitching for a Cause," was born. The foundation (cashnerfoundation.org) aims to provide help to hospitals and communities so that children can be supported through trying times.

This ordeal, coupled with watching his mother fight breast cancer in 2004, has changed how Cashner views life, views his priorities. Baseball has its place, but family rates much higher and always will.

"We've seen a lot of growth in Cash, the person, in the last three years," Black said. "The first year, we saw a guy who let a lot of little things bother him. But now, I think that Cash has a clearer perspective on life and is more confident in who he is as a man.

"I've seen it with how he's dealt with the challenges that life sometimes gives you ... not just on the baseball side, but the life side. He's handled them all very well."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.