I May Have Cancer, But Cancer Doesn’t Have Me
That’s what it was. Almost exactly.
That’s how long I was sitting there in the hospital thinking that I was going to die. Thinking about no longer being on this Earth. About … the end of my life. And not being around for my kids anymore — not being there to hear them laugh, or to see them smile, or to watch them grow up. About leaving my wife behind, all alone.
A moment earlier, my wife, Karelis, had interrupted the doctor at Cleveland Clinic who’d called me in at the end of June to discuss the results of some recent blood tests. He had started out by discussing my platelet count, and then he told us he had discovered what had been making me feel sluggish and overly tired for weeks.
It was leukemia.
The doctor was really great in explaining everything, and in giving us detailed information, but as he was talking, my wife … she could see that I didn’t fully get it.
I’d never even heard anything about leukemia before, and she could tell that it wasn’t really registering with me. That I was kind of just sitting there nodding my head as the doctor spoke.
“Wait!” she said at one point. “Stop. Stop for a second, please.”
She turned to me, and grabbed my arm. Then, looking me dead in the eye, she goes….
I just stared at her as she spoke my name.
“You have cancer.”
“That’s what he’s saying right now. That’s what he’s telling you….
“You have cancer!”
And right there — right when Karelis finished that last word, cancer… that’s when the 10-second clock started.
It was like, two seconds of thinking, This is really it for me. I’m gonna die. And then three seconds of extreme sadness. And then like five seconds of thinking about my family, and us no longer being together.
That was the worst 10 seconds imaginable. It seemed to last forever, like those 10 seconds were actually days— days and days, where all I could think about was dying. It was all just very dark and sad. I wouldn’t wish those 10 seconds on anyone.
But then, in the blink of an eye, everything totally changed.
Those 10 seconds were actually like days — days and days, where all I could think about was dying. It was all just very dark and sad. I wouldn’t wish those 10 seconds on anyone.
My wife, you gotta understand … she’s the most positive person on the planet.
So there was no sadness at all from her. No grief.
After she said those words to me, and let me process them, the very next thing out of her mouth was….
“You’re fine. You got this!”
And then she kept saying that over and over again as the doctor continued speaking.
“You’re tough. You can do this. You’ll beat this.”
Hearing her say those things made it so that I was no longer worried or scared about what might happen to me. And, at the same time, the doctor kept mentioning that this was something we could treat and control with medication. I’d be tired, and feel worn down for a while, he said, but he was confident that I could get back to feeling good again.
So from that point on, Karelis and I basically decided that we were going to stay positive and not worry.
When we got out of the hospital and drove off, we didn’t discuss the fact that I was sick, or that I had cancer. We never even mentioned what occurred in that office. We didn’t talk about what was going to happen or the challenges ahead.
What we did was….
We went out to dinner.
As soon as we left Cleveland Clinic, we drove straight over to The Capital Grille.
Then, for two full hours, we sat at the table and had a completely normal meal where we just enjoyed each other’s company. The topic of cancer never once came up.
My wife went with the salmon.
I had the 24-ounce porterhouse steak.
It wasn’t even a question, either. Those 10 seconds of darkness and fear were already way in the rearview mirror by that point.
There’s no way cancer was gonna keep me from living my life.
Or from that steak.
And it was delicious.
I didn’t go home and google leukemia.
Never looked at any drawings of how blood cancer works or read any sad stories.
None of that.
I just convinced myself that I was going to beat this disease, and then … I did everything in my power to focus on that goal.
“I may have cancer,” I’d say. “But cancer doesn’t have me.”
Every day when I’d wake up, Karelis would tell me good morning and ask me how I was feeling, and then she’d say, “Remember, Carlos, this is nothing for you. You are a strong person. You can do this.”
And she said it with such conviction. Such certainty.
So I followed her lead. The only time I ever even thought about cancer was early in the morning and a few hours before dinner … when I was swallowing those pills that the doctor gave to me.
For all the time in between, I was the same Carlos I’ve always been. I wasn’t thinking about dying or being sick. I was just living my life and staying positive.
Most of the time, it worked out pretty good.
But nothing — and especially not cancer — is ever that easy.
We have five kids, ranging from 16 down to two years old, and my wife and I decided to tell our two oldest. But our eight-year-old, four-year-old, and two-year-old … we didn’t tell them.
The two youngest are way too little to understand what was going on, but our eight-year-old, Camila, she was kind of right in the middle. At the end of the day, we decided not to worry her or stress her out with the news.
For the first week or so, there were no problems.
Then MLB invites me to appear at the All-Star Game in Cleveland for the Stand Up To Cancer ceremony, where everyone in the crowd gets a card to write the name of a loved one on and then hold up.
My daughter is there in the stands with my wife, and she has one of those cards, but she doesn’t really know what it’s about, and she also doesn’t know about my diagnosis. She just sees it as a card that you can write on. So Karelis tells her she can write anyone’s name on there, and our daughter fills it in with: I Stand Up For MY DAD.
But she’s just writing it because I’m her dad and we’re at the stadium where I play, and I guess I’m just the person she thought of in that moment … not because she knows her dad has cancer.
So I’m down at the field level for the ceremony, and when I go out there on the field and they show me on the jumbotron, my daughter … she’s seeing that. She’s seeing the fans respond, and hearing the ovation, and seeing all my teammates’ cards saying they stand up for COOKIE.
So that’s when she found out her dad had cancer.
Right there at the ballpark.
Looking up at me on the big screen.
When I went back to my seat, as soon as my daughter saw me she ran up to me.
There were tears streaming from her eyes.
“Dad, you have cancer! Are you gonna die? Papi, are you going to die?”
And at that point, hearing her say those words … my wife, my oldest son, myself, everyone around to hear that … we all just started bawling.
I’m just absolutely sobbing at that point. But I catch my breath enough to talk.
“NO!” I told her. “I’m going to be fine. The doctors told me that. They said I will be O.K. … I promise.”
She wasn’t convinced, though. No matter how many times I said it.
So Camila, God bless her, she FaceTimed me every single day we were apart after that.
I’d given my teammates the news a few days earlier, and that had ended up being an incredibly emotional, moving experience for me.
Before doing anything, I talked to Tito first and asked him to call a team meeting for me in the clubhouse.
No one knew what was up.
I had a few guys tell me that before I spoke they thought I might have gotten people together to say that I had hurt my shoulder, or that I had injured my elbow and was going to be done for the year. They were never expecting cancer.
When they got the news, the whole room went silent.
It was the quietest I’ve ever heard our clubhouse. No one said anything. It seemed like no one even moved or made a sound with their shoes or coughed or anything. It was just complete silence.
I said a few words about coming back stronger than ever, and then our trainer finished with some more details about my treatment.
As soon as I was done talking, Francisco Lindor walked right over to me.
“You’re not alone in this,” he said. “We are going to do this, and fight through this, together.” And then he just looked at me and said….
“I love you, brother.”
Jason Kipnis was another guy who pulled me aside and told me that he was there for me. That the whole team was.
And after that, he’d send me texts all the time asking me how I was feeling, or how my treatment was going, or if there was anything the guys could do for me.
“We’re here for you,” he’d say.
And I could really feel it. I could feel that love and support from my teammates on that day, and on every day since.
Beyond our clubhouse, Josh Tomlin, my longtime teammate and friend, heard bits and pieces of news in Atlanta, where he plays now. So he got in touch right away.
When he called me up, after I gave him the details, I could hear that his voice was changing a little bit as we spoke. He was starting to choke up and cry. But then he caught himself and was like, “Hey, dude. I’m with you here. I love you. And I can’t wait until after the season when I can spend some time with you and give you a big hug.”
After that, he’d send me a text every morning, just checking in and giving me support and encouragement.
In addition to all the players and people in the game who reached out, I received thousands of get-well-soon messages from people all over the world — from my home country, Venezuela, the Dominican, Mexico, everywhere. When the news went public, I got 2,500 text messages in the first two days. And more than 300 calls.
There was just so much love directed my way. From people who didn’t even know me, but who took time out of their day to wish me well. I got 500 cards mailed to me. I received letters from kids in Cleveland who drew pictures of Cookie Monster for me. WWE legend Roman Reigns reached out over Twitter. It just went on and on. And it never got old.
I just constantly felt an outpouring of love and support.
It kept me feeling positive, like it was only a matter of time before I was fully healthy.
But even as confident and positive as I was, I still definitely had my bad days.
Just because I stopped focusing on negative thoughts after that first 10 seconds, doesn’t mean I’m not human, you know what I mean? I’d be lying to you if I said there weren’t moments when fear and doubt and frustration crept in.
The most difficult of those moments came about a month after my diagnosis.
I’ll never forget it.
I decided to throw a bullpen session to check out how my arm was doing after a bit of a layoff, and our pitching coach, Carl Willis, was there to oversee everything. Right from the start, I could tell something was off.
I got out there on that mound and … the ball just wouldn’t go. I was trying to throw like I normally would, but it was like 20 or 30% of what I’m used to.
I couldn’t even get the ball to the catcher without it bouncing.
I threw five pitches like that. After that fifth pitch, I paused for a few seconds because I was so frustrated, and Carl walked over to me.
“What happened?” he asked.
And there was just something about those words.
For whatever reason, they really brought up a lot for me in that moment, and before I knew it I began crying right there on the mound.
I couldn’t stop the tears.
It was like: Why did this happen to me? This isn’t fair. Why me? Why? Why? Why? Why did this happen to me?
Carl just gave me a big hug and told me it was going to be alright. But I could tell that maybe he wasn’t sure.
Within minutes of walking off that mound — maybe even seconds — I decided that I needed to try out a different kind of medicine beyond the pills that the doctor had prescribed.
I took two weeks and went home to be with my family.
I spent time with Karelis, and hung out with the kids, and just completely took my mind off of baseball and cancer for two straight weeks.
And I have to say … the medication has definitely helped me over the past few months, but nothing makes me feel better than being around the people I love most.
The day I rejoined the team and took the mound on September 1 in Tampa is one that I will hold dear for the rest of my life.
My whole family was at the game, and everyone was just so excited to see me out on the field again. It was incredible to have both teams come out of the dugout and show that they were glad to have me back.
And, you know what? I have to admit something here.
I don’t usually get nervous before games, but on that afternoon, in that moment … I was a nervous wreck. Before I even got into the game, I realized that I was sweating a ton. And at certain points my whole body would start shaking from the nerves. I couldn’t even really feel the ball when I first got out on the mound.
But I get out there, and I remember looking behind home plate, and I could see my children and my wife in the seats. Then, as I was about to deliver that first pitch, it got real quiet as I’m winding up, and all of a sudden I hear….
“Let’s go, Papi!!!!!!! LET’S GO!!!!!!!!!”
I don’t usually get nervous before games, but on that afternoon, in that moment … I was a nervous wreck.
The whole stadium was quiet except for one little voice.
“Papi, let’s goooooooo!!!!!”
It was Camila. My eight-year-old.
Then before the next pitch….
“Papi, Let’s go!!!!! Go, Papi, go!!!!!”
The pitch after that … same thing.
She did it before every pitch I threw. As loud as she could.
And, you know what? I didn’t pitch my best that day. It wasn’t my best outing. But years from now, I won’t remember that part of it.
What I’ll remember is Camila screaming out support for the dad who, a few months earlier, promised her that he wouldn’t die.
When we got back to Cleveland, and I was able to make an appearance on the mound in front of our home fans … it’s impossible to put into words how amazing that crowd made me feel.
I felt like I had an entire city behind me.
That roar I heard from the crowd as I approached the mound, that love I felt in my entire body as I looked around and saw everyone standing and smiling, those are memories that will last a lifetime for me. So from the bottom of my heart I want to thank the people of Cleveland for always having my back. It has truly been an honor to play in this town for the past 10 years. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel fortunate and appreciative that I somehow was able to end up playing in this wonderful city.
And, you know what? I definitely don’t think it was an accident that I arrived here, either. The more I think about it — especially now, after everything I’ve been through this season — the more I believe that me and Cleveland … we were meant to be together.
Not only does this town have some of the best fans in the country, but it also just happens to have one of the top hospitals in the country, with expert care. I could’ve been playing for any team in the country when this happened to me. But the fact that I am lucky enough to be a Cleveland Indian means that I can get the best treatment possible, from world-class doctors and caregivers, in a city where I feel completely comfortable and at home.
Beyond my wife’s insistence that I was going to be just fine, one of the things that really helped me maintain confidence was knowing how good Cleveland Clinic is, and having seen firsthand the difference they make in so many people’s lives.
Now, after going through what I have, and making it back to the field, I am even more inspired to meet with patients and help them get through their challenges, just like so many of you helped me over the past few months. I want to fully beat this disease and let everyone see how I made it through, so that going forward people fighting against cancer can look at me, see that I did it, and say, I can do it, too!
I want people battling cancer to know that I’m not only here to represent for myself and for my teammates and my family, but, from here on out, I’m here to represent for you guys, too.
For the fighters!
And just like I don’t believe it was an accident that I ended up in Cleveland, I also can’t help but think that everything that happened to me this season occurred for a reason. This illness, and my battle with leukemia, has allowed me to reach so many people, and to give hope to so many kids who I’ve been able to visit at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. So, as weird as it probably sounds, in some ways I’m grateful for my leukemia because of the opportunity it’s given me to become a role model and symbol for those who might really need some support and inspiration.
Things are really looking up right now, too.
I’m back to feeling 100%. I’m more optimistic than ever. And thanks to this incredible city, and the people of Cleveland who have showed me so much love, and the doctors and caregivers who oversaw my recovery, I can say for certain that I’m not going anywhere.
I’m gonna be just fine.
So now … it’s time to see about winning a world championship trophy to bring with me on my hospital visits.