By Kevin Begos
A Wounded Hero
Facing cancer in the public eye may have been Mickey Mantle’s greatest achievement
By Kevin Begos
Mantle’s diagnosis of liver cancer came at a time when liver cancer rates in the United States were on the rise. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 18,500 people were diagnosed with liver cancer in 1995, and that an estimated 14,200 died of the disease. Last year, the American Cancer Society estimated that 22,620 people would be diagnosed with liver cancer in 2009, and that 18,160 would die of the disease.
Liver cancer is not easy to diagnose, and only a relatively small number of liver cancers are found early. The sole cure for liver cancer is surgery, which is done to either remove a small tumor or to perform a liver transplant. Removing the tumor is only possible if enough healthy liver will remain. In some instances, a person’s liver may be so damaged from cirrhosis that a transplant is required even though the tumor is relatively small. As a result, the overall five-year survival rate from liver cancer is less than 13 percent.
Even so, in the 15 years since Mantle’s death, there have been a few significant advances in treating liver cancer that are having an impact, says Carolyn Britten, a medical oncologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Today, she notes, the targeted therapy drug sorafenib (Nexavar), which inhibits proteins that fuel cancer, can be used to prolong life until a liver becomes available. In addition, doctors now better understand the biology of liver cancer, and with many new clinical trials under way, along with new research in drugs, there is the possibility that we will one day see multidrug combinations that significantly extend life. That has happened with other cancers, says Britten. “And I think with liver cancer, we’re just starting to see that.”
Today, Mantle’s legacy lives on—as both a baseball icon and as a man who had the courage to admit his flaws before a nation. And even though many baseball fans today never even saw Mickey Mantle play, memorabilia from his career still fetches high prices. Why the enduring fascination, given the number of sports heroes who have come and gone in recent decades? Sportscaster Bob Costas helped answer that question with his eulogy for Mantle in 1995.
“Mickey Mantle had those dual qualities so seldom seen, exuding dynamism and excitement but at the same time touching your heart—flawed, wounded,” Costas said. “We knew there was something poignant about Mickey Mantle before we knew what poignant meant. … In the last year (of his life), Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero. The first he often was not. The second he always will be. And, in the end, people got it.”
Respecting his last wishes, the legendary sports hero’s crypt has just this epitaph: “A Great Teammate.”
(photo credits: AP Photo; AP Photo; AP Photo / John Lindsay; © Barbara Walz)