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‘We’re Going To Beat This Thing,’ Butler Vows Cancer-Stricken Player Ponders Chances; Surgeon Says Secondhand Smoke Factor

Thu., May 9, 1996

The Los Angeles Dodgers organized prayer meetings Wednesday. One player wrote Brett Butler’s uniform number on his shoes. Another said he no longer would chew tobacco.

Yet on a day when doctors talked about their hopes of the center fielder recovering from his cancer of the tonsils to live a normal life, Butler refused to rule out returning to baseball.

“Is there a chance that I could play this year?” Butler told Los Angeles’ NBC affiliate. “Talking to all the doctors and everything, I don’t know if there is a chance that I can come back. If it is, it would probably be late in the season. Then again, we’re not going to close any door right now.”

Butler realizes this might be farfetched. Dr. Bob Gadlage and his associates said Butler’s season is over. Even Butler had told his family Monday that he would not play again.

“I’m not giving up on this thing,” he said Wednesday. “We’re going to beat this thing. One of these days I’m going to be back out there tipping my hat and hopefully everything will be all right.”

The cause of the cancer is unknown, although Butler said people are jumping to conclusions if they believe it was caused by smokeless tobacco. Butler confirmed he used smokeless tobacco for two or three years but stopped 15 years ago. If anything, Gadlage said, exposure to secondhand smoke might have caused the cancer. Each of his parents, who died of cancer, were heavy smokers.

“We can see someone who smokes two packs a day, three packs a day for 50 years who never gets this,” Gadlage said. “Then there’s somebody with minimal exposure like Brett. … The biggest risk (for this type of cancer) is some exposure to nicotine products.”

Still, Cincinnati Reds reliever Jeff Brantley, a former teammate of Butler in San Francisco, wasn’t taking any chances.

Brantley cleared the cans of smokeless tobacco on the top shelf of his locker and threw them out.

“That’s it,” he said. “I’m finished.”

Brantley, who began chewing tobacco nearly 11 years ago, said he quit the habit simply because of Butler.

“He’s a very close friend of mine, and when I heard of the cancer, I decided to stop then and there,” Brantley said.

“I saw (former Detroit Tiger) Bill Tuttle this spring and half of his face was gone, but that didn’t have the effect on me.

“This brought it home.”

Butler, 38, who remains in considerable pain, will undergo further surgery May 21 to remove a cancerous lymph node in his neck. It is the only lymph node doctors know is cancerous, Gadlage said, although other lymph nodes will also be removed while determining whether the cancer has spread.

One difficulty of the operation, Gadlage said, is that the surgery might require the removal of a substantial amount of neck tissue. There also is the danger of severing a nerve that would cause muscular and neurological problems.

“Brett has just been through an emotional trauma,” Gadlage said. “He lost his mother last August to cancer, and he sees cancer as being the same kind of cancer his mother had. She had lung cancer from smoking, and the lung cancer was disseminated from her lung to her brain.

“The family watched her go down. He had to be assured this was not the same kind of cancer. …

“I wouldn’t hang onto any numbers (of survival rate) right now until after the surgery and pathology are performed, then, the numbers can be much more accurate. But those numbers are going to be more for the general population.

“Any figure you get nationally from a textbook, you’re going to add some percentage points to that because of who this guy is. He has never smoked, he’s not a drinker, he’s had minimal nicotine exposure 15 years ago and he’s not in his mid 50s or 60s. You’re talking about a world-class athlete.”

The cancer was discovered during a tonsillectomy Friday, an operation that at one point Butler had considered postponing.

Dr. Michael Mellman, the Dodgers’ ear, nose and throat specialist, wonders whether Butler’s condition might have been diagnosed earlier.

“I don’t know what to say,” Mellman said, “other than that obviously there was something there that we didn’t notice. We don’t miss things very often. … When you have a distressing diagnosis like this, you have to go back and see whether there was an opportunity to make a difference.”

Mellman, who repeated that he is not a cancer specialist but talks daily with Gadlage, said he is optimistic Butler will recover fully simply because of the two-week delay between surgeries.

“My guess is if they thought time was a critical issue, that Brett would be harmed by the two weeks,” Mellman said, “they would have operated a lot quicker.”

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