08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
He may not lead the major leagues in hits or homers, but baseball's Brett Butler is probably first in the category of gutsy comebacks. On June 3 the 40-year-old center fielder rejoined the Los Angeles Dodgers after missing 24 games with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. But that was a minor setback compared with what happened to Butler last year: On May 6, 1996, one month into his 15th major league season, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the nasopharyngeal type, a cancer of the tonsils that is so rare only a handful of cases have ever been documented.
He was given an 85 percent chance of recovery but offered slim odds that he would ever return to baseball. Butler did make it back to the Dodgers, however, on Sept. 6—but five days later he was hit by a ball that broke his hand. This year, he bucked the odds once again by suiting up for his 16th season (he's batting .322 through July 18). "The fiber of my being," says Butler, "is to prove someone wrong."
A devout Christian, Butler lives in Atlanta during the off-season with wife Eveline, 38, and their daughters Abbi, 14, Stefanie, 13, Katie, 12, and son Blake, 9. He spoke to correspondent Cindy Dampier at his home about his fight to survive, both on and off the field.
IN JANUARY 1996, I HAD TONSILLITIS, and I went to a friend, Dr. Robert Gadlage from Atlanta, about a week before spring training. He gave me antibiotics, but it continually got worse and worse. My tonsil grew to the size of a plum. They went in and took it out in May and found out that it was cancer.
On May 6, Dr. Gadlage broke the news. He also told me that he suspected that the cancer may have spread to my lymph nodes, so they were going to have to cut me open and take out 50 nodes from my neck. My wife, Eveline, and I wanted to make sure our kids were involved, so we called them into the den, and they asked questions like, "Is Dad gonna die?"
Initially, I thought I was going to die, and I got mad at God. But if you're going to accept the good God gives, you've got to accept the bad too. After my initial reaction, my question to the doctors was, "What does this mean?" My doctors said that I had an 85 percent or greater chance to be cured because I was young and an athlete. On May 21, they cut me open like a fillet of fish and, in a 4½-hour neck resection, removed the lymph nodes. One was malignant.
Some of the doctors wanted me to do chemotherapy and radiation, but I wasn't going to do that. I'm not going to get some drug in me, get nauseous, lose my hair, all of that with the chance that it might enhance my chances a little bit more. I just wanted the radiation, which was hard enough. The way they describe it, the first week you're okay; it's like getting pictures made, like X-rays. The second week, your throat starts to bother you a little bit, the next week it's worse, the fourth week it's killing you. The fifth week you wish you were dead, and the sixth week you get through because you know it's the last week.
By the fifth week, I think Eveline counted 25 blisters in my mouth. I would swish Lidocaine around, and it would numb it so I would be able to eat. I remember going out for some ice cream after treatment ended and suddenly getting a sharp pain and spitting out blood that went all over everything. The sores were starting to heal, but food going down my throat was ripping them open.
It was tough, the whole thing, but my wife was there by my side every step of the way, and the kids were the same way. My daughter Abbi came in once and said, "Daddy, I don't want you to die." I said, "I don't think I'm gonna die." And she said, "I prayed and asked God to give me your cancer. I know I could handle the pain, but I can't stand to see you in pain."
After radiation, I took vitamins and laetrile, an experimental cancer-fighting drug that is not available in the United States and that I had brought back from the American Biologics Hospital in Mexico. My desire was to get back and play, but the doctors told me, "Brett, there's no way you'll be able to get back and play this year." I had lost a lot of weight. I was down from 162 pounds to 142, and the radiation had taken its toll on my body, but I was determined to get back. I gained 18 pounds in 19 days, drinking mostly protein shake's. I worked out until I felt I was able to play.
On Sept. 6, 1996, I returned to the field. It was overwhelming. When I was announced, everybody stood up and gave me an ovation. When I walked out to home plate for my first at bat, I lost my composure. People were standing and cheering, and I was just literally kind of sobbing. It was an overwhelming show of love toward me.
I played for only five days, then broke my hand. When the ball hit me, I knew right away it was broken. But I felt peaceful. I got the feeling that I had done everything I was supposed to do, and now it was time for me to rest.
That was it. I went home and said, "Okay, I'm done. I'm not going to play again." I was 85 percent sure I was going to retire. But then Dodgers executive VP Fred Claire said to me, "Brett, why not wait and see how you feel next season?" So I talked it over with my family, as I have done every winter. My priorities are God first, my family second and the game third. I can live without the game. But my family knows me, and they knew I still wanted to play.
On the field, things started out pretty well, but then I injured my shoulder throwing the ball to home plate in a May game against the Florida Marlins. I guess when it rains, it pours. I had been on the disabled list one time in 15 years. Then the cancer hit, then I broke my hand, and now this. It's just wear and tear on an old guy's body. I've been playing the game since I was 6.
I still see my oncologist once every two or three months, and that's just the way it is. Most recurrences with this type of cancer happen in the first year, and I hit the one-year mark on May 21. Still, once you have cancer, you always live with it.
When it's all over after this season, I could walk away from baseball. Maybe I could be Mr. Mom and raise my four kids. I'm not a great cook, but I can flip pancakes, and I can wash clothes and make the beds and all that. In the winter, my wife and I split the chores. But for now, I'm really trying to play baseball with all the zest and joy that I had at the beginning. I guess I'm trying to take it all in a bit more because it's my last year. The other day I was in the outfield, and it was a really beautiful day, and I just stood there and thought, "Thank you, God, for letting me have one more season."
LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles