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Phightin' Phils stand up to cancer

Phightin' Phils stand up to cancer

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel can't forget the phone call that prompted shock, worry and tears in this jolly bear of a man.

On the phone that spring day in 1998 was Melissa Martin, then Manuel's girlfriend of three years, with sobering news: a biopsy of the lump discovered in her breast had revealed cancer.

Silence. What else was there to say? Manuel barely recalls hearing the word.

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"It made me sick," Manuel said. "We were crying. You ask, 'Why her?' But there's no answer. You don't know what to say and it hits you hard. It was a horrible feeling. You cry and think the worst. It brought us even closer together."

They're still together more than a decade later, proving cancer isn't always a death sentence. Fighting pain with love and courage helped the couple lick Martin's distressing diagnosis, and, later, Manuel's own battle with kidney cancer.

It wasn't easy.

Martin's doctors initially suggested a lumpectomy and follow-up radiation. Unfortunately, more bad news came when the couple learned the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. This meant a mastectomy, performed two weeks later.

For the second time in a month, Manuel left his job as the Indians' hitting coach in Cleveland to be with Martin in Florida. He insisted, ignoring her willingness to go it alone. He'd have none of that.

"When they explained the operation, I was scared," Manuel said. "She had to go through radiation and chemotherapy. That was really tough on her, and hard to watch."

It became tougher when Manuel suffered his second heart attack in seven years, requiring a quadruple bypass. Now undergoing treatment in Cleveland, Martin would drive to Manuel's hospital after her chemotherapy sessions.

He occasionally tells the story of how an empty hospital bed in his room allowed Martin to lie with him. Across hospital equipment, the two held hands and hoped for healthier days.

Those days would come, but not until after Manuel's 2000 bout with diverticulitis -- a common digestive disease often found in the large intestine -- and kidney cancer that seemed minor by comparison.

"I still think about it, and make sure she has checkups regularly," Manuel said. "I think about the fact that we had it and beat it. That was a very tough time."

As a survivor -- though he prefers the words "very lucky" and "fortunate" -- Manuel feels compelled to discuss his situation as often as possible. In this regard, he doesn't mind being an inspiration.

"When you live through something like that, you need to talk about it," he said. "Maybe you were left here to help people or help an organization. There's a reason why things happen, and I've been fortunate. I'd say, stay upbeat and very positive about things. Any way I can help someone, I'd be glad to do it."

About 1.45 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, or an average of 4,000 per day. More than half a million people die in the United States each year from some form of cancer, an average of 1,500 per day, or one per minute.

One in three women and one in two men will be diagnosed in their lifetimes, and strong, virile men who play sports aren't immune.

Manuel recently "welcomed" first-base coach Davey Lopes into this group. The two have long been members of baseball's fraternity, spending a combined 85 seasons in baseball since beginning their professional careers in 1963 and 1968, respectively.

Lopes, 63, began his battle with cancer on March 17, after prostate cancer surgery. If nothing else, the insidious disease provided a wholly new perspective, beyond home runs, 0-for-4s and 557 career stolen bases, and shattered a belief that athletes are indestructible.

"When they drop that big 'C' on you, I don't know too many people who don't start thinking about things," said Lopes, whose condition was discovered during a routine physical. "It's scary. I don't care who you are, you realize how short of time you have on Earth. We take a lot for granted. I was lucky that they caught it early and cleaned me out good."

Nearly two months after doctors at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Fla., performed the procedure, Lopes only has to contend with occasional fatigue that comes with recovery. He spent three weeks in Florida recovering, then rejoined the Phillies in April.

He's still too tired to return to the coaching box, but Lopes plans to clear that hurdle soon. He'll have another checkup in July, and again after the season. He's confident that he has it beat.

According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed non-skin cancer in American men, having struck 232,000 in 2006 and 218,000 last year. A man's odds of being diagnosed with prostate cancer are one in six.

"I think they see someone pop up on the board [with prostate cancer] and think, 'Maybe I better go in for a checkup,'" Lopes said. "You can't take it for granted."

Lopes, Manuel, Minor League hitting instructor Sal Rende (prostate surgery in 2005) and former first baseman and current ESPN analyst John Kruk (testicular cancer, 1994) are four of the success stories in an organization touched by more than its share of cancer.

The Phillies have lost beloved members Johnny Oates and longtime organist Paul Richardson, Tug McGraw and John Vukovich in recent years. Vukovich was so revered for his more than four decades of dedicated service as a player, coach and front-office representative that players wore a "VUK" patch in remembrance. He was also inducted into the team's Wall of Fame that season.

With these people in mind, the team sponsors many initiatives to raise money and awareness. Major League Baseball has also championed the cause, raising money every Mother's Day and Father's Day, among other ventures.

Newcomer Brad Lidge couldn't wait to sign on to help. He plans to donate money and time to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (C.H.O.P), which deals largely with cancer.

"Cancer hasn't touched my family directly, fortunately, but I have kids now, and we have to realize how lucky and blessed we are to be [playing baseball]," said Lidge, who will purchase tickets for games and meet with many of the hospital's patients. "For someone less fortunate, if they want to come to a game, for us not to make that happen would be ridiculous. It's part of our responsibility."

Proving how dynamic the response to cancer can and must be is pitcher Jamie Moyer, whose Moyer Foundation has raised millions of dollars and helped in many ways. On May 12, the foundation raised more than $325,000 at its Annual Giving Luncheon, an event that was attended by 800 people.

A 1993 meeting with Gregory Chaya, who at the time was a 2-year-old battling leukemia, inspired the Moyers to establish The Gregory Fund. Created with The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the initiative is dedicated to raising funds and awareness for early-cancer-detection research.

With community assistance, the foundation has raised more than $14 million and parceled it to more than 150 organizations.

In addition to the Gregory Fund, Moyer and his wife Karen were so touched by their meeting with teenager Erin Metcalf -- who succumbed to liver cancer in 2000 -- they founded Camp Erin, in Everett, Wash., in 2002. Its goal is to help children and teens deal with the loss of a loved one. Camp Erin is currently the largest network of bereavement camps in the country with 18 camps in 12 states. The 45-year-old hopes to have 50 camps nationwide within five years, including one in each of the 30 big league cities, serving more than 2,500 children annually.

"For us, it's about creating that awareness and showing there's a need in these communities," Moyer said. "For the communities to support these camps, it helps kids deal with their grief."

Professional athletes tend to be financially secure and well known, and Moyer hopes to tap into that celebrity as a resource.

"It's great that the players are involved," he said. "There's been many players, either ex-teammates or opponents, who have gotten involved. You're hoping to make [the] communities that we work and play in better places, and allowing these kids the opportunities to deal with their issues and move forward in their lives. Having them understand that they're not alone through this process and they can positively remember the person, or persons, that they lost is the right thing to do."

Known as the Phightin' Phils, the team's members haven't let losses to cancer keep them down. They've responded with resolve, rallying in Vukovich's memory and supporting Lopes' comeback. With each new initiative from MLB, the franchise and the players and coaches themselves, the Phillies continue to swing back.

"I remember when the doctor told me I was cancer free," Manuel said. "I probably laughed. I also heard a doctor say that I wasn't going to make it [during his bout with diverticulitis], and one nurse said, 'Do you ever think he gave up and accepted the fact that he's going to die?' When she said that, I rose up and stared at her. I wasn't ready."

"I'm still not ready to go."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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