Mike Schmidt, baseball great and melanoma survivor, promotes importance of ‘cancer game plan’

Mike Schmidt

Mike Schmidt is widely considered the greatest third baseman in Major League Baseball history.

His 548 career home runs rank 16th all time. The other accolades he earned during his 17-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies — including 12 all-star team selections, three National League Most Valuable Player Awards, 10 Gold Glove Awards and a World Series MVP — bolstered a resumé that ensured his first-ballot election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.

Schmidt’s success on the diamond led to a sense of invincibility, but that shattered 4 years ago when a biopsy of a suspicious lesion on his back revealed stage III melanoma.

“From time to time, we all contemplate how great life is, and we never think things like this will happen to us,” Schmidt, 67, told HemOnc Today. “All of a sudden, it was happening to me, and I became concerned about dying.”

The extent of his disease — which spread to his lymph nodes, lungs and brain — required multiple surgeries, plus several months of chemotherapy and radiation. He also took medication to combat depression.

Oncologists at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center developed the treatment plan that eradicated his disease, but Schmidt credits his faith — along with the support he received from his care team, family members and friends — for giving him the strength to endure the journey and emerge cancer free.

Since then, he has contributed to efforts that promote skin cancer awareness, regular screenings and sun protection habits.

This month, he joined Your Cancer Game Plan, a Merck-led awareness campaign designed to help people with cancer and their loved ones develop strategies to address their health, emotional and communication needs.

“I always want to be there for people who are dealing with a similar diagnosis,” Schmidt, whose grandfather survived melanoma, said in an interview. “I want to be able to tell them, ‘I went through it and you can get through it.’ Hopefully it helps them, but I know one thing — it helps me. It makes me feel good. I feel like I’m paying it forward.”

HemOnc Today spoke with Schmidt about the physical and emotional challenges he faced during melanoma treatment, the benefits of a resource like Your Cancer Game Plan, and the advice he’d offer to clinicians who treat patients with cancer.

Question: You have spoken publicly about the high level of sun exposure you had when you were younger. Can you elaborate?

Answer: As a kid, I spent as much time outside as I could. As I grew older, I was a lifeguard, and I’d sit in the chair with baby oil and iodine. In high school and college, there was always something appealing about getting a suntan. Then I became a ballplayer, with games outside all spring, summer and fall. All along, I never used sunscreen. I have been suffering from that decision for most of my adult life.

Q: When did you begin to pay more attention to your skin?

A: I started seeing a dermatologist when I was around 45 or 50. Soon after, I began seeing changes to my skin — mostly little lesions on my arms and hands that had to be removed. Occasionally we’d run into a squamous cell carcinoma, and I had to have Mohs micrographic surgery several times. When those more serious things started to show up, I began to go more often.

Q: You were diagnosed with melanoma in August 2013. Can you describe the circumstances?

A: At that time, I was spending winters in Florida — which is where my dermatologist was — and summers in Rhode Island. I had a lesion on my hand that I couldn’t stop playing with, and I’d feel a little pain when I’d scratch it. That summer, I happened to be in Florida for one day to sign documents to close on a home. I decided I’d stop to see my dermatologist on the way back to the airport to have him look at this spot on my hand. He wasn’t there, but I was referred to his partner in the practice. The partner took care of my hand and then he said, “While you’re here, let me check the rest of your body.” He found a suspicious mole on my back and said he wanted to do a biopsy. It was sheer luck.

Q: What happened next?

A: A couple days later, I found out it was stage III melanoma. I had the mole removed. I learned I had melanoma in three lymph nodes, so I had all lymph nodes on the left side of body removed. I underwent radiation and a light form of chemotherapy. My doctors found 12 small spots in my lungs, so I received a targeted treatment for that. Then they found seven small spots in my brain that had to be radiated, and one behind my sinuses had to be removed. I pretty much had the whole kit and caboodle of surgeries and treatments but, fortunately, we hit on a protocol that worked for me.

Q: Can you describe the emotional challenges you faced?

A: I found myself thinking about dying. I remember driving and stopping at a red light, and my mind began to wander. I thought, ‘You may not ever see your grandchildren graduate from grade school. You may not see them go to dance recitals. You may not be able to follow their lives.’ Some people would say, ‘Mike, you really should get your affairs in order.’ Well, how do you do that? What’s the next step? Should I call my financial manager and say, ‘This could be the end. Let’s start selling stuff off’? All those things from the dark side go through your mind.

Q: How did you cope?

A: My faith was like a medicine for that. I would simply close my eyes and go off into a prayer to my Lord, Jesus Christ. I’d say, ‘Whatever your will for me, I’ll accept.’ Sometimes that’s all you can do. Once you commit to that, in a way, the pressure is off. Where do you find strength to fight death? People can tell you everything is going to be fine, but they’re not in your brain. It wasn’t happening to them, it was happening to me. I cured that with my relationship with the Lord.

Q: Why did you get involved with Your Cancer Game Plan?

A: Sometimes we think, ‘Why me?’ Well, maybe this happened to me because — as a former professional athlete — I have a wonderful, large platform that allows me to communicate to a lot of people. Merck has given me that opportunity. Hopefully many people — either those diagnosed with cancer, or those who have loved ones who have been diagnosed — will read my story, find out how me and my team came together to deal with it, and find it applicable to what they are going through.

Q: How important is it for patients to address the emotional, communication and health/nutrition needs that Your Cancer Game Plan encompasses ?

A: It’s huge. In my experience, the oncologist would say, ‘You’re going to have surgery, you need chemotherapy and you need radiation.’ Then I had what I call the nurturer — another member of the team who is in the same room at the same time. That is the person who is going to keep you in a good frame of mind and keep you confident that the person outlining your treatment plan is going to heal you. I firmly believe that being cured — or at least getting to the point that I have gotten to — has as much to do with the nurturer as it does with the doctor.

Q: Based on your treatment experience, what advice would you give to clinicians to treat patients with cancer?

A: I can offer my advice in the form of a quick story. Doctors can talk about cancer in your lymph nodes or your lungs, but when they start talking about cancer in your brain, that takes it to a different level in terms of being scared. I’ll never forget my consultation with Kevin Oh, MD, [a radiation oncologist] at Massachusetts General. My wife and I were in a room with him and a couple others. He was sitting on this little rolling stool. He slid in front of me, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Mike, you have nothing to worry about. I’m going to take care of your brain.’ I could have left there thinking, ‘I’m going to have radiation in my brain’ and ‘God, I hope this works,’ and it could have been a scary drive home in total silence. Instead, I left upbeat. I said to my wife, ‘Do you believe he looked me in the eye and said he’s going to take care of my brain?’ That is an example of how a doctor’s confidence can affect one of their patients.

Q: What advice would you offer to patients newly diagnosed with cancer?

A: Get to know your medical team. Ask them everything. There were times I sat in a waiting room for what felt like forever because a member of my team was in a consultation with another patient. An oncologist is not going to walk out of the room until the patient tells them it’s OK to leave, so use that time to talk to them, quiz them and learn about the disease.

Q: How is your health now?

A: I undergo a brain MRI every 3 months and a CT scan every 6 months. Right now, all scans are clear and I feel fine. For about 2 years, I had occasional tremors in my right arm — attributed to the lesions in my brain as they were dying off — but I haven’t had one in about 6 months. I am still on medication related to the blood flow in my brain, but I feel great. I’m confident, but I never want to brag. It’s like golf. I never say, ‘Man, I’m really playing well!’ That’s the kiss of death. I’m just thankful for where I am. Hopefully when I undergo my next scans, I get the same results.

Q: Do you consider yourself lucky?

A: As lucky as a person can possibly feel. Every night I say my prayers and thank the Lord for another day. – by Mark Leiser and Kristie L. Kahl

Mike Schmidt

Mike Schmidt is widely considered the greatest third baseman in Major League Baseball history.

His 548 career home runs rank 16th all time. The other accolades he earned during his 17-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies — including 12 all-star team selections, three National League Most Valuable Player Awards, 10 Gold Glove Awards and a World Series MVP — bolstered a resumé that ensured his first-ballot election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.

Schmidt’s success on the diamond led to a sense of invincibility, but that shattered 4 years ago when a biopsy of a suspicious lesion on his back revealed stage III melanoma.

“From time to time, we all contemplate how great life is, and we never think things like this will happen to us,” Schmidt, 67, told HemOnc Today. “All of a sudden, it was happening to me, and I became concerned about dying.”

The extent of his disease — which spread to his lymph nodes, lungs and brain — required multiple surgeries, plus several months of chemotherapy and radiation. He also took medication to combat depression.

Oncologists at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center developed the treatment plan that eradicated his disease, but Schmidt credits his faith — along with the support he received from his care team, family members and friends — for giving him the strength to endure the journey and emerge cancer free.

Since then, he has contributed to efforts that promote skin cancer awareness, regular screenings and sun protection habits.

This month, he joined Your Cancer Game Plan, a Merck-led awareness campaign designed to help people with cancer and their loved ones develop strategies to address their health, emotional and communication needs.

“I always want to be there for people who are dealing with a similar diagnosis,” Schmidt, whose grandfather survived melanoma, said in an interview. “I want to be able to tell them, ‘I went through it and you can get through it.’ Hopefully it helps them, but I know one thing — it helps me. It makes me feel good. I feel like I’m paying it forward.”

HemOnc Today spoke with Schmidt about the physical and emotional challenges he faced during melanoma treatment, the benefits of a resource like Your Cancer Game Plan, and the advice he’d offer to clinicians who treat patients with cancer.

PAGE BREAK

Question: You have spoken publicly about the high level of sun exposure you had when you were younger. Can you elaborate?

Answer: As a kid, I spent as much time outside as I could. As I grew older, I was a lifeguard, and I’d sit in the chair with baby oil and iodine. In high school and college, there was always something appealing about getting a suntan. Then I became a ballplayer, with games outside all spring, summer and fall. All along, I never used sunscreen. I have been suffering from that decision for most of my adult life.

Q: When did you begin to pay more attention to your skin?

A: I started seeing a dermatologist when I was around 45 or 50. Soon after, I began seeing changes to my skin — mostly little lesions on my arms and hands that had to be removed. Occasionally we’d run into a squamous cell carcinoma, and I had to have Mohs micrographic surgery several times. When those more serious things started to show up, I began to go more often.

Q: You were diagnosed with melanoma in August 2013. Can you describe the circumstances?

A: At that time, I was spending winters in Florida — which is where my dermatologist was — and summers in Rhode Island. I had a lesion on my hand that I couldn’t stop playing with, and I’d feel a little pain when I’d scratch it. That summer, I happened to be in Florida for one day to sign documents to close on a home. I decided I’d stop to see my dermatologist on the way back to the airport to have him look at this spot on my hand. He wasn’t there, but I was referred to his partner in the practice. The partner took care of my hand and then he said, “While you’re here, let me check the rest of your body.” He found a suspicious mole on my back and said he wanted to do a biopsy. It was sheer luck.

Q: What happened next?

A: A couple days later, I found out it was stage III melanoma. I had the mole removed. I learned I had melanoma in three lymph nodes, so I had all lymph nodes on the left side of body removed. I underwent radiation and a light form of chemotherapy. My doctors found 12 small spots in my lungs, so I received a targeted treatment for that. Then they found seven small spots in my brain that had to be radiated, and one behind my sinuses had to be removed. I pretty much had the whole kit and caboodle of surgeries and treatments but, fortunately, we hit on a protocol that worked for me.

PAGE BREAK

Q: Can you describe the emotional challenges you faced?

A: I found myself thinking about dying. I remember driving and stopping at a red light, and my mind began to wander. I thought, ‘You may not ever see your grandchildren graduate from grade school. You may not see them go to dance recitals. You may not be able to follow their lives.’ Some people would say, ‘Mike, you really should get your affairs in order.’ Well, how do you do that? What’s the next step? Should I call my financial manager and say, ‘This could be the end. Let’s start selling stuff off’? All those things from the dark side go through your mind.

Q: How did you cope?

A: My faith was like a medicine for that. I would simply close my eyes and go off into a prayer to my Lord, Jesus Christ. I’d say, ‘Whatever your will for me, I’ll accept.’ Sometimes that’s all you can do. Once you commit to that, in a way, the pressure is off. Where do you find strength to fight death? People can tell you everything is going to be fine, but they’re not in your brain. It wasn’t happening to them, it was happening to me. I cured that with my relationship with the Lord.

Q: Why did you get involved with Your Cancer Game Plan?

A: Sometimes we think, ‘Why me?’ Well, maybe this happened to me because — as a former professional athlete — I have a wonderful, large platform that allows me to communicate to a lot of people. Merck has given me that opportunity. Hopefully many people — either those diagnosed with cancer, or those who have loved ones who have been diagnosed — will read my story, find out how me and my team came together to deal with it, and find it applicable to what they are going through.

Q: How important is it for patients to address the emotional, communication and health/nutrition needs that Your Cancer Game Plan encompasses ?

A: It’s huge. In my experience, the oncologist would say, ‘You’re going to have surgery, you need chemotherapy and you need radiation.’ Then I had what I call the nurturer — another member of the team who is in the same room at the same time. That is the person who is going to keep you in a good frame of mind and keep you confident that the person outlining your treatment plan is going to heal you. I firmly believe that being cured — or at least getting to the point that I have gotten to — has as much to do with the nurturer as it does with the doctor.

PAGE BREAK

Q: Based on your treatment experience, what advice would you give to clinicians to treat patients with cancer?

A: I can offer my advice in the form of a quick story. Doctors can talk about cancer in your lymph nodes or your lungs, but when they start talking about cancer in your brain, that takes it to a different level in terms of being scared. I’ll never forget my consultation with Kevin Oh, MD, [a radiation oncologist] at Massachusetts General. My wife and I were in a room with him and a couple others. He was sitting on this little rolling stool. He slid in front of me, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Mike, you have nothing to worry about. I’m going to take care of your brain.’ I could have left there thinking, ‘I’m going to have radiation in my brain’ and ‘God, I hope this works,’ and it could have been a scary drive home in total silence. Instead, I left upbeat. I said to my wife, ‘Do you believe he looked me in the eye and said he’s going to take care of my brain?’ That is an example of how a doctor’s confidence can affect one of their patients.

Q: What advice would you offer to patients newly diagnosed with cancer?

A: Get to know your medical team. Ask them everything. There were times I sat in a waiting room for what felt like forever because a member of my team was in a consultation with another patient. An oncologist is not going to walk out of the room until the patient tells them it’s OK to leave, so use that time to talk to them, quiz them and learn about the disease.

Q: How is your health now?

A: I undergo a brain MRI every 3 months and a CT scan every 6 months. Right now, all scans are clear and I feel fine. For about 2 years, I had occasional tremors in my right arm — attributed to the lesions in my brain as they were dying off — but I haven’t had one in about 6 months. I am still on medication related to the blood flow in my brain, but I feel great. I’m confident, but I never want to brag. It’s like golf. I never say, ‘Man, I’m really playing well!’ That’s the kiss of death. I’m just thankful for where I am. Hopefully when I undergo my next scans, I get the same results.

Q: Do you consider yourself lucky?

A: As lucky as a person can possibly feel. Every night I say my prayers and thank the Lord for another day. – by Mark Leiser and Kristie L. Kahl