Mariners GM relates to Norris' cancer battle

Dipoto received same diagnosis during his playing career in 1994

Mariners GM relates to Norris' cancer battle

DETROIT -- Jerry Dipoto doesn't know Daniel Norris personally. Considering Norris' status as the best young pitcher in the Tigers' organization, the left-hander likely isn't in the new Mariners general manager's future. Yet to a degree, Dipoto knows what's ahead for Norris, because he's been in his situation.

Like Norris, Dipoto was diagnosed with thyroid cancer early in his playing career. Dipoto went on to have a normal, healthy career. As scary as it sounded when he was diagnosed, Dipoto learned quickly that it wasn't a death sentence.

"I mean, Daniel's story is Daniel's story. Believe me, when I saw it, my heart went out to him," Dipoto said during the General Managers Meetings earlier this month. "But if you're going to get a form of cancer, that's the kind ... [with a] very, very high recovery rate, very high full-recovery rate."

Norris revealed his diagnosis in October on his Instagram account. He said he was diagnosed earlier in the season while still in the Blue Jays' organization, before the July 30 trade to Detroit, but Norris was cleared by doctors to keep pitching through the season before undergoing treatment. He had surgery soon after season's end, and his subsequent travels suggest Norris is doing well.

The Tigers have said they expect Norris to be ready for Spring Training. Dipoto's case and others suggest that's realistic.

Dipoto was diagnosed after a routine physical in Spring Training 1994 while in camp with the Indians. Dipoto went from focusing on building off his first season in the big leagues to focusing on his life, and learning a lot about his cancer.

"It took me by surprise," Dipoto said. "It all happened so fast. I went in for a physical in Spring Training, they found a lump in my neck and sent me to get a biopsy. Next thing you know ... "

Dipoto underwent surgery immediately to remove his thyroid gland. Since the Indians trained at the time in Winter Haven, Fla., he had surgery in nearby Lakeland, where the Tigers train. Dipoto was a 25-year-old just starting a family, and hearing the word cancer brought up the worst fears. Yet, he quickly learned that his battle was a very winnable one.

According to the American Cancer Society web site, the five-year relative survival rate is high for people diagnosed with thyroid cancer in its early stages -- near 100 percent for Stages I and II. Even the Stage III survival rate is high, depending on the type of thyroid cancer.

"The recovery, to actually get back and moving and get back out on the field, I had the surgery in March and I was back out on a rehab assignment in May," Dipoto said. "I was able to get back to a normal baseball existence, and then I just had to work through the physical challenges of rehabilitating. But it's a very doable thing."

By the end of June, Dipoto was back in the Cleveland bullpen. The only lingering impact was that he had to undergo regular exams to check for recurrence, which is a comparatively greater risk for thyroid cancer survivors.

"I've been there," Dipoto said. "I went back after the first year and I had a recurrence, so we had to go in for more treatments. That's why the [next] year and a half for me was a little clunky. They didn't have to go in for another surgical procedure. They cleaned it up and moved on. That was in 1995, and I haven't had a problem since."

Advancements in medical technology since then, Dipoto said, have made surgery less invasive. As player personnel director for the Diamondbacks, he saw Doug Davis undergo a similar process after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in Spring Training 2008. Davis made two April starts, underwent surgery, and was back in Arizona's rotation six weeks later.

For Dipoto, the only lingering effect of the ordeal was perspective.

"At the time, I had a two-year-old daughter, I had another daughter on the way," he said. "I was just starting out on what I thought was going to be a long journey. You learn very quickly it could be a lot worse than being in a situation with the bases loaded, nobody out. So you started to breathe a little slower. Your heart rate was maybe less like a rabbit and maybe a little more like a marathon runner. And that really helped me, because my personality was always more upbeat and I was more prone to moving quickly. I needed to learn how to slow down, and that really helped me to slow down."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.