Dodger Brett Butler Has Throat Cancer; Surgery Set
Dodger center fielder Brett Butler has tonsil cancer, a disease that will cause him to sit out the remainder of the season and possibly end his baseball career.
The cancer was discovered Friday during what was believed to be a routine tonsillectomy. Dr. Bob Gadlage found a tumor the size of a large plum in the right tonsil of Butler, 38. Two biopsies were taken, the second revealing a malignancy. A CT scan Tuesday morning confirmed the diagnosis.
Butler, who chewed tobacco for two or three years but told Gadlage that he stopped about 15 years ago, was informed that he has a 70% chance of survival, or possibly better because of his excellent physical condition. He will undergo surgery May 21 at Emory Hospital in Atlanta to remove a cancerous lymph node and all the lymph nodes on the right side and back of his neck. Doctors will also remove one-quarter to one-half inch of muscle tissue surrounding the cancerous tonsil.
Butler will be hospitalized for six days and begin radiation treatments five times a week for six weeks.
“He’s dealing with two emotions,” said his wife, Eveline. “ ‘I know God’s in control. I know God has a better plan than I’ll ever have.’
“There’s the other side that wants to look at the worst-case scenario. The side, where, ‘Yeah, I may die.’
“Oh, mercy. It has been real tough, and probably a lot because of what we went through a year ago with Brett’s mom [who died of brain cancer on Aug. 9]. Then, having to deal with this all over again.”
Butler, who had complained of a sore throat during the winter, visited Gadlage on the day he left for spring training. He was diagnosed with tonsillitis. Butler took medication and was examined again March 17. Gadlage recommended surgery, but Butler decided to postpone surgery until the season’s conclusion.
“I told him, ‘Well, you’ve got to make a call on this,’ ” Gadlage said. “ ‘This isn’t going to get better. You decide when.’ He was more concerned with the team. He said, ‘I hate to abandon the team.’ ”
Butler’s condition worsened as the season progressed. When Eveline Butler traveled from the family’s Atlanta home to visit her husband in Los Angeles last week, she demanded that he have surgery.
“When I saw Brett’s throat,” she said, “I pitched a fit. He looked bad, tired. He said, ‘Maybe I’ll wait until the All-Star break.’ I said, ‘That’s foolish.’ ”
Said Gadlage: “I think it was a very providential break that he went in when he did. This thing had grown so rapidly that I don’t think he could have made it to the end of the season.”
Butler, whose batting average had dropped to .265, announced last Wednesday that he would undergo the tonsillectomy. He would play until Friday, and told his teammates that he would return in about three weeks. But during surgery Friday at Eastside Medical Center in Snellville, Ga., Gadlage found that the tonsil had tripled in size.
Gadlage summoned cancer specialist William Grist, who recommended an immediate biopsy. The first was inconclusive. The second was sent to cancer experts across the country. Gadlage learned Monday morning that the tumor was malignant, and visited the Butlers and their four children to present the news that night.
“I can’t think of anything tougher I’ve done,” said Gadlage, who has known the Butler family for 16 years.
Gadlage told Butler he would be unable to play the rest of the season, but the outfielder said he would never play again.
“The doctor told Brett he won’t play baseball the rest of this season,” Eveline said. “Brett said, ‘No, I’m done. I’m done playing baseball. I’m through. I had 16 great years.’
“I said, ‘You know Brett, this is an emotional time. Come January, you might be in the best shape of your life.’ ”
Said Gadlage: “I wouldn’t hold him to anything like that. Let’s wait to have treatment. Brett is a picture-perfect athlete. This is the kind of cancer that you usually see in older people, people that are at least in their 50s. He’s got youth, physical condition, and not a lot of risk factors on his side.
“I’ve seen more amazing things than this in less amazing people.”
Butler was reacquired during the 1995 season by the Dodgers in a trade with the New York Mets. He batted .300 or better for the fifth time in his career and stole 32 bases last season. He has also played with Atlanta, Cleveland and San Francisco.
Dodger players were informed of Butler’s condition by Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president, in a team meeting less than 90 minutes before their game against the Cincinnati Reds. (The Dodgers lost the game 3-2 in 12 innings.)
During the team meeting, a few players cried. The rest sat in stunned silence. They ended the meeting with a prayer.
“It was a shock, without a doubt,” catcher Mike Piazza said. “You just wonder sometimes if life is fair.”
In a statement, Butler told friends, teammates and fans not to feel sorry for him. Butler, a born-again Christian, asks only for prayer.
“My goal was to always play major league baseball,” Butler said. “I’ve been fortunate to accomplish that goal for 16 years at the major league level. Baseball is at the foundation of my life and always will be.
“But even more than baseball, my faith in Christ is my strength and at the core of my being. We don’t know why things like this happen, but we know that God’s will is perfect.
“We have many friends in and out of baseball and this will come as a major shock. It is impossible to speak to all of them personally. My wife and I would ask for your prayers for us and our children at this difficult time.
“We’re not sure where this road will lead us.”
The most difficult aspect, said Eveline Butler, has been watching their four children, ages 8 to 13, endure this ordeal.
“They’ve kind of been emotional about it, but we’ve stayed positive with it. We’re taking today, today. We’ll take tomorrow, tomorrow. And the next day, the next day.
“It’s going to be a tough time . . . but we’re going to make it.”
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