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Bigger than baseball: Rowdy Tellez shares his family journey through skin cancer

Monday night, the bat of Rowdy Tellez was swinging freely. The first baseman and top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization had a banner night for the Buffalo Bisons, going 4 for 4 with a double and a run scored at Coca-Cola Field.

The first baseman had been struggling to find consistency at the plate but on that night, for the first time this season, more than just his swing was easy.

His mind was easy, too.

That morning, Tellez got a phone call from his mom. She woke him up with good news. The doctors had stopped her treatments for Stage 4 melanoma because her body was now cancer free.

"I got the phone call that morning it was like smile from, well I went back to sleep, but when I woke up it was a smile 'til the end of the day," Tellez said.

Baseball was a mixed bag that day – Tellez had a breakout day but the team suffered another in a string of losses.

Still nothing was going to wipe that smile off his face.

Was his performance a result of the news, the result of a load of worry and fear being lifted off the 22-year-olds shoulders?

"People have asked me that already. I don't know," Tellez said. "If I had to think about it right now I'd be like, 'Aw, it didn't affect me' but subconsciously, it was a huge weight off my shoulder because then it's that thing where you don’t have to worry so much. It's not added pressure but you know she was sick. So it was one of those things. And of course that day I went 4 for 4 and we ended up losing which was a downfall. It was one of those things where to me, I had a good day, we lost. But all that aside my mom became cancer free. It was bigger than baseball. Bigger than life."

Surviving melanoma

While melanoma is not the most common skin cancer it is the most dangerous as it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body if not caught early.

Lori Tellez had an advanced stage of melanoma, Stage 4, and used immunotherapy to treat her cancer. It's an area of expertise for Dr. Igor Puzanov, the Chief of Melanoma at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and a treatment that has helped extend the life of patients diagnosed with Stage 4.

"Ten years ago, the survival was six months to 10 months and only five percent were alive at five years," Dr. Puzanov said. "Melanoma was very deadly at Stage 4. Since then we've had a whole revolution and I'm happy to be a part of it with both target agents and immunotherapy. We went from five percent living past five years to now 35 maybe 40 percent. For nearly half of people with Stage 4 we're measuring in years not months."

A type of skin cancer, risk factors for melanoma include sun exposure and sunburns, but Dr. Puzanov also said there is a genetic component. And melanoma can also occur in the eyes, mouth and nose.

And it can travel, something ESPN reporter Holly Rowe didn't know until it happened to her.

"I did not realize a skin cancer outside of your body could then travel inside your body," said Rowe, who was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago with the cancer recently returning. "A small spot on my chest traveled forming a tumor under my armpit and in my lymph nodes and has now traveled to my lung. It is a pesky cancer that can move anywhere in your body. That is why early detection is crucial. I wish I had checked a suspicious spot earlier and been more proactive before it metastasized."

Growing up quickly

Tellez remembers exactly when his mom told him about her melanoma diagnosis – Dec. 22, 2016. He's not sure exactly when she was diagnosed, suspecting it was earlier and that his mom was trying to keep the news from her children, to shield them from the worry and fear.

It was a blow to Tellez who had just made the decision to move full-time from California to Florida so he could train with the Blue Jays organization through the off-season.

He was 2,800 miles away, chasing his baseball dream, working at the job which gave him joy. His family was back in California, dealing with the daily battles that come with cancer treatment.

"It's pretty emotional, especially being so young," Tellez said. "I moved away from home this offseason full time. I used to go half and half between California and Florida but now it's full time. I just kind of felt helpless at first."

Tellez didn't tell many people about his mom's health situation. He wanted to keep it close. He didn't want it to be perceived as a distraction, but he wanted to let people within the Blue Jays organization know. He told three people – team president Mark Shapiro, general manager Ross Atkins and director of player development Gil Kim.

"They're great people and very understanding," Tellez said of the Blue Jays front office. "They did a lot for me during the situation, not only helping me but calling me and asking how I was doing. I became very close with Gil Kim. He's an awesome guy. Very fortunate to have someone like him in our organization. He was very helpful and supportive and thoughtful through that process on the baseball side."

The Blue Jays were more than willing to help out Tellez. It's the way the organization wants to work, to help players not only on the field but off it as well.

"We think about the person first and that's just something that's natural," Atkins said. "Ultimately we  feel that can be a competitive advantage if our entire organization is thinking that way. That these are human beings that are trying to run down dreams and do exceptional things in the world to be the best at what they are in the world but they need to feel as though they're human beings and we need to make sure that we're providing every possible resource for them to improve and get better in every way as a man, not just as a player."

Support and advocacy

While Tellez had been quiet about his family's battle with melanoma, others in the sports world have become outspoken about melanoma as more athletes, coaches, and reporters face their own diagnosis. It hit home in Major League Baseball when commissioner Bud Selig was diagnosed with melanoma. MLB had teamed up for a number of years with the American Academy for Dermatology for an initiative that offered skin cancer screenings at all 30 major league ballparks. That program ended last year.

Rowe, however, has just begun her campaign to bring awareness and help athletes, fans and fellow reporters take care of their skin.

"The fans, coaches and athletes have really rallied behind me to help me through this," Rowe said. "It is hard and scary and the outpouring of love and support has helped me immensely. I wanted to give back to the wonderful loving fans at the Women's College World Series so we partnered with AIM at melanoma and the NCAA to pass out free sunscreen and a fact fan on how to prevent and detect melanoma. If one single person gets checked, early detects, covers up because of me sharing my experience, it will make me so happy.

"This is a very preventable cancer. I wish I had covered up more and diligent about protecting my skin. I have worked outdoors for more than 20 years covering sports. I wish someone had told me more...We should be talking more about melanoma."

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