It was little more than six weeks ago that Gwynn had a second malignant tumor removed from inside his right cheek. The tumor was wrapped around a nerve that controls movement on that side of his face. Doctors transplanted a nerve from Gwynn's right shoulder, hoping to limit the damage. Gwynn's cheek is still swollen and that side of his face is lopsided. He also says his right ear is numb. But he's talking clearly and is slowly working his way back. He knows it could have been much worse.
"I could be dead," Gwynn said bluntly.
Gwynn has had two serious surgeries on that cheek in the past 19 months. Doctors discovered cancer of the parotid (or salivary) gland when they removed a tumor in 2010. Because that tumor was wrapped around the nerve, doctors hesitated to remove it at the time, fearing permanent paralysis if they did. Instead, they opted for months of aggressive radiation and chemotherapy that left burns on Gwynn's neck and face. That tact worked for awhile, but ultimately failed.
For a year, Gwynn went for monthly blood checkups, but by this past January, doctors suspected that the tumor had recurred. That diagnosis was confirmed by a biopsy.
"I was stunned. I thought it was just scar tissue," Gwynn said when he learned that the tumor was back. "I figured, 'That's it.' Then you get over it, rebound and try to figure out what to do next."
The procedure took 14 hours and began in the morning hours of Feb. 14. Gwynn, obviously, wasn't aware of the length of the surgery until he finally awoke in recovery at 4:30 a.m. the next day.
"I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Great, I'm still here. I'm alive,'" Gwynn recalled.
Gwynn then reached for his right shoulder and couldn't extend his left arm. He had been positioned on that arm all day. Now he's in rehab to rebuild strength in his right shoulder. He's hoping that the transplanted nerve will regenerate, giving him full function on that side of his face. That could take as long as a year.
Gwynn suspects the cancer sprung from a lifetime of chewing tobacco, and he has quit the terrible habit, replacing it with a non-toxic herbal blend. Twice during his playing career, doctors removed what they called benign tumors from that cheek. Another was excised after his playing days were over. But he still continued what baseball people term, "dipping." In August 2010, another biopsy revealed the latest growth was malignant, and on Aug. 31 of that year, Gwynn had surgery to have most of it removed. After that, he finally stopped.
But asked last summer if he still thinks about chewing tobacco, he responded: "Every minute of every day."
Still, life is good. Gwynn was a 15-time NL All-Star in his 20 seasons as a player, all with the Padres. He amassed 3,141 hits. As a coach at State, he helped develop Stephen Strasburg into the high-profile pitcher picked first overall by the Nationals in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. Now, Gwynn is back teaching kids, which is what he loves to do best. And though he won't be in San Diego on Opening Day, he hopes to be there on Easter Sunday so he can possibly see his son play in at least the finale of the four-game series.
He said his energy level isn't nearly what it should be yet and that the six-hour bus trip to Vegas "takes its toll on you." But that hardly matters.
"You just don't know how good it feels to be back to work," Gwynn said. "I'm busy and it keeps my mind off all these other things."