The Inspiring Story of a former Major League Baseball Player Beating the Odds on Cancer and Giving Back to Others
Bob Tufts is a former major league baseball pitcher, professor and cancer survivor. Bob played MLB on the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants, earned a degree in economics from Princeton University and an MBA from Columbia. He had a successful 20-year career on Wall Street and served as President of the New York State Chapter of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. In March of 2009, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. In remission for seven years, his cancer has returned slightly and he is now participating in a clinical trial. He currently teaches at Yeshiva University. Bob’s personal journey as a cancer survivor inspired him to help others. He co-founded My Life Is Worth It, an online not-for-profit that advocates for patient and doctor access and choices in cancer care.
What was your life before being diagnosed with cancer, and what has changed since?
Before cancer I had thought about disease and health, but never about my own mortality. I have been able to travel and have a very interesting life while playing a kid’s game, see our country, marry a wonderful woman, and raise a great daughter. I was able to accomplish quite a bit in my first 50+ years before cancer. I just want my wife to know every day that we wake up for the rest of my life that I love her for what she did for me, her mother and our daughter during a very stressful and perilous time.
Cancer caused me to be more focused. I did not dwell on the disease. I wanted to live long enough to see my daughter graduate from college, help my mother-in-law with her health issues, and be around long enough to repay my wife for the sacrifices and stress that our family went through. My wife held us all together that year.
But the focus was not personal — not just “give me drugs and I want to live.” It was about surviving and thriving. For example, I wanted to be at my daughter’s graduation in 2012. Cancer helped me get rid of the petty day-to-day annoyances and focus on the bigger issues of what living a good life means to me.
What have you learned playing in MLB that has helped you in other aspects of your life?
Much of life involves numbers. My condition and status as a professional baseball player was clearly defined by my numbers and metrics. During my Wall Street days, investments and trading opportunities were also defined by numeric ratios. This enabled me to focus on what the tests said about my improving, unchanged or worsening health. Fortunately for me when I was diagnosed and first treated, the tests showed a remarkable recovery in a very short time thanks to an innovative treatment regimen.
I learned about pressure. As a relief pitcher, you often come into key situations where the game is won or lost. My diagnosis, initial treatment and eventual stem cell transplant were moments that I could fit into that mold.
I learned to work with a team. In a cancer setting, there are specialists, but there are also assistants, nurses, other specialists. You have to try to manage the process to get the best results. Do what you are told (or question it immediately), follow instructions, and keep all parties informed so the team can win.
What personal character traits or experiences have you drawn upon to help you overcome obstacles or challenges in life?
I have never known anyone with myeloma, so I had to draw on the knowledge of my oncologist and the medical community to bring me up to speed. I had to be open-minded and able to tolerate pain. Playing sports and working out helped me deal with the early treatments and the stem cell transplant. I had to bargain with my body. Rather than complain about side effects of terrible bone and muscle pain, I would say to myself, “The medication is harsh, the side effects are harsh — this must mean the medication is working!”
I do not allow my disease to define me. I try to keep it walking behind me, not with me as I do my daily activities.
What would you advise cancer patients and caregivers to do?
Do not curl up in a ball and hide from the public. Being told that you have cancer is traumatic. In order to have the best chance of survival, you should be open and public about your disease. Reach out to friends and acquaintances that have walked your path. Tap their knowledge. Rely on the basic kindness of human beings to be there to help. I immediately reached out to my college community and received valuable information and guidance — and yes, prayers.
Caregivers are the neglected piece of the healthcare puzzle. The patient under treatment will lose all of their income, but the caregiver could lose a significant portion of their pay as well. Additionally, travel to the hospital, tolls, gas, babysitters, meals — all of these items add up. Be prepared. Caregivers must not neglect their own health. They need to eat well, exercise, and do things to keep their strength.
Both patients and caregivers need to study for the exams. Do your homework, come to every doctor’s visit with questions written in advance. You have a limited time to see your physician — try to maximize the results. And while in the office, take notes to help with the current visit and care in between visits.
What are the top three things life’s experiences have taught you?
Life is a corridor principle. You travel down your planned and projected path, but you come to turns and twists along the way. Be a well-rounded, educated and continuously learning person to take advantage of the opportunities, and thwart the bad that these twists and turns present.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Just because I lost time in the race due to my cancer doesn’t prevent me from picking up and moving forward with new dreams and goals.
Life is about simple human decency. Treat people well and the kindness you give to them will come back to help you in a time of need. Then you can “pay it forward” when you can get back on your feet and help others.
If you could fix or change things in this world, what would it be?
I would love to see all of the deadly diseases become manageable chronic diseases, and chronic diseases be cured. Hopefully precision medicine and immunotherapy will get us closer to that goal every day. I advocate for patient access to the right drug at the right time to enhance their ability to live, to enable people to experience precious moments in the human lifecycle — births, deaths, graduations, and weddings — the experiences that make life meaningful. No administrator far removed from our bedside or a clinical setting should ever be allowed to make care decisions that interfere with the sacred relationship between doctor and patient.
The efforts of researchers and scientists to continuously innovate, attempt to increase survival, to raise the mean survival rate on a daily basis — maybe even find a cure for a chronic disease is important. Through their efforts we hope that today’s exceptional result becomes tomorrow’s new norm in cancer care.
Through My Life Is Worth It, my hope is that we can help assure patient and doctor access and choice in medicines and treatments so that people survive longer. The hope is that patients can live better and share countless meaningful moments with their families. I want others to experience the advantages of medical innovation that I did. Each patient responds differently at diagnosis, treatment and relapse. We need medical care that addresses our differences, and allows the practice of medicine to be both an art and a science.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on June 13, 2017.
Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com