In the day-to-day life of going through the motions, it’s not often that a college student has a chance to educate his colleagues. If one is so privileged, it’s rare that any of it ever actually hits home. Even more rare does the teaching experience have the potential to change lives.
For senior Chris Malec, a four-year starter on the UCSB baseball team, the opportunity has arrived, and the lesson is clear: Cancer is a blind and unforgiving disease.
“Without a doubt, people need to know more about this. That’s one of the things that’s kind of a positive aspect to come out of this, is that my story’s being told quite a bit,” Malec said. “Hopefully my story can help somebody else out – that’s the goal.”
For any seemingly invincible college student, this is a tough lesson. The word “cancer” simply doesn’t register for many students outside of the underlined text in their biology book.
Fully aware of the rights vested to him under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), a national law that was designed to protect the privacy rights of patients, Malec has decided to speak out with full transparency about the disease that has changed his life.
Malec credits Lance Armstrong, another young male athlete who was diagnosed with testicular cancer, for his inspiration to seek medical help and reach out to inform others.
“I had read Lance Armstrong’s book, [It’s Not About the Bike], a couple years back and I just read the story. That’s probably one of the reasons why I went to see the doctor,” Malec said. “It definitely has a lot of new meaning now and I can’t thank him enough for telling his story because it’s helped me through this process right now and it’s helped me previously.”
The Box Score
Testicular cancer is a relatively rare form of cancer. According to National Cancer Institute statistics, approximately 7,500 men in the United States are diagnosed with testicular cancer each year, which accounts for only 1 percent of all cancers in men.
“However, it is, by far, the most common cancer in men between the ages of 20 and 40,” said Dr. David Kohl, lecturer in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Dept. “Fortunately, its death rate is very low and it is one cancer that doctors and researchers have been extremely successful in fighting, particularly when there is early diagnosis.”
The high occurrence of testicular cancer in young men creates a need for better education about the disease across college campuses. Symptoms often go undetected, allowing the cancer to progress, which decreases survival rates.
“One of the things young men in particular should be doing is self-examinations each month, much the same way that women have been taught. Perhaps because testicular cancer is rarer than breast cancer, most men do not report doing this,” Kohl said. “Even when they feel something unusual, many men ignore this for a long time before going to see their doctor or a urologist.”
Stepping Up to the Plate
Malec said he visited the doctor because he had discovered abnormal symptoms, which he ignored for a few weeks before deciding to have them checked.
“Basically, I just went to the doctor to go get checked out and it turned out not to be what I was looking for, but there was never any pain or anything,” Malec said. “That’s the thing, I never felt sick. That’s the scary part.”
After his diagnosis on April 11, Malec opted to make his regularly scheduled start at shortstop against #22 USC on April 13, the day before he underwent surgery. Malec went 1-4 at the plate, scoring two runs in the Gaucho win.
“I told my parents I wanted to go through my normal routine just going out to the field, doing my thing. I just didn’t want to have to deal with a whole lot of extra things on that,” Malec said. “I can lose myself out in the [batting] cages, just go out there and focus on hitting and having fun. Basically, I just wanted to keep things normal.”
Since the surgery, Malec has tried to return to life as usual. Unfortunately, his daily workout routine has been limited to allow him recovery time before he begins chemotherapy.
“Basically, I can’t really exercise at all this week. That’s been kind of a bummer for me, just not being able to do anything active, being an active person,” Malec said. “I’ve been to class all week though, and I’m feeling fine and in good spirits.”
First Base, Second Base, Third Base
The progression of testicular cancer has three stages. When the cancer is confined to the testicles, the cancer is considered to be stage one. The spread of the cancer to the lymph nodes is characteristic of stage two, while the spread of the cancer beyond the testicles and lymph nodes is a mark of stage three.
Treatment of testicular cancer depends on each individual patient’s age, health and the stage of the cancer, according to National Cancer Institute literature.
“The first treatment is a surgical treatment known as an orchiectomy when the cancerous testicle is removed,” Kohl said. “There are a number of chemotherapeutic agents that have been very successful in treating cancer which may have spread beyond the testicle.”
Kohl said that cancer is usually caught at either stage one or two and that the earlier the cancer is detected, the higher the likelihood of survival. According to American Cancer Society studies, the five-year survival rate for testicular cancer is 99 percent when the cancer is in stage one, 96 percent for stage two and 72 percent for stage three cases. Overall, the five-year survival rate for testicular cancer is 90 percent.
“The success of [chemotherapy] agents is evidenced by the fact that 10 times as many patients used to die of testicular cancer than die now,” Kohl said. “It is completely curable when caught early and is treated very successfully even if it has gone beyond the testicle.”
Getting off the Disabled List
Malec is expecting to begin his first cycle of chemotherapy Monday. Malec hopes to gradually decrease the treatment cycles in number should test results show positive improvement.
“We haven’t quite put a label on it yet; it’s either in stage one or stage two, but the prognosis is just great,” Malec said. “We’re lucky to catch it at what looks like a pretty early point.”
Malec’s goal is to return to the field within five weeks, so he can don a Gaucho uniform one last time in his collegiate career.
“The prognosis is awesome; we’re going to beat this thing one way or another – it just depends on how soon we get this out of me. I don’t have any doubt in my mind that I can beat this,” Malec said. “Ideally, I’d love to play that last series at home here against Irvine; that’d be a dream come true right now.”
If UCSB can extend its season to the NCAA playoffs and Malec meets his goal, he could return for an entire month of playoff action. The first round of NCAA Regionals begins June 3 and the College World Series begins June 17. Santa Barbara continues its conference season this weekend with a home series against Cal Poly.
“I hope [the team] had the motivation [to make the playoffs] before this happened. It all comes down to conference for us and we knew that from the start,” Malec said. “I’d love to continue my Gaucho career for as long as possible.”
Serious, life-threatening diseases like cancer are not commonplace in collegiate athletics. The everyday occurrences of ACL injuries, ankle sprains, concussions and pulled muscles make news headlines and attract preventative concerns from coaches and trainers.
The Big West Conference, however, is no stranger to athletes with cancer. Drew Awad, a senior forward at Cal State Fullerton, joined the men’s basketball team as a cancer survivor last season. Awad, diagnosed with leukemia while playing at Fresno City College, was in remission when he made the Fullerton team for the 2004-05 season.
“I got hired at Fullerton and found out he was playing, and he felt positive. I told him that as long as I was coaching, he had a place to play,” Fullerton Head Coach Bob Burton said. “We started out this year and he was really going great. Everyone got to see how good of
a player he was. No one ever really knew that; he never had a chance to show it.”
In December 2004, Awad was showing signs of low energy in practice when he and Burton realized something was wrong. Awad went to see a doctor and found out that his leukemia had returned, forcing him to leave the team in the middle of the season to seek treatment for a second time.
“The whole team was just stunned. At the end of practice, when he came in, I grabbed everyone to tell them. The tears were just flowing; everyone realized he was in for another battle,” Burton said. “We realized we had to gather ourselves as a team. We really carried that theme through the whole year. He was a real inspiration for us.”
Receiving treatment in Northern California, Awad was away from his team during its successful Big West season and National Invitation Tournament (NIT) run. Awad reunited with his teammates for Fullerton’s second round NIT game at the University of San Francisco, marking the first time he was able to watch the Titans since leaving in December.
“When we played USF in NIT, his brother brought him to shoot around and we were all able to see him. Getting to see him, it really hit home with our guys,” Burton said. “It affected them emotionally and really made them step up, knowing he was fighting too.”
Awad is still undergoing treatment for his leukemia. Currently, he is awaiting a matching donor for a bone marrow transplant.
Field of Dreams
Despite his misfortune, Malec remains optimistic about overcoming the hurdle. He is equally confident in the new Gaucho infield – one that has lost five shortstops since March.
“There’s a little hex on the shortstop. We thought about just having a sacrifice over there or something,” Malec said. “It’s just sad watching all these guys go down.”
When Malec is healthy enough to trot back onto the diamond to take grounders or step up to the plate, baseball will have a new meaning in his life. Baseball is therapeutic, a medicine that no doctor can prescribe.
“Baseball is just one place that I can just dismiss everything,” Malec said. “If there’s something going wrong outside of baseball, I can come out [to the field] and focus on the game and just find myself out there in complete happiness out on the baseball field.”