- The Rockies' 28-year-old righthander opens up about his return to the bigs on Monday night after a season spent battling testicular cancer.
Colorado Rockies pitchers are used to the vicissitudes of life. Working at mile-high altitude—where the balls don’t break as much as they do in any other ballpark, and travel farther when they’re hit; where a handful of respectable starts strung together constitutes a small miracle—conditions them to expect all sorts of challenges.
Nothing, though, had prepared righthander Chad Bettis, then fresh off a 14-win season, for the lump he would find on his testicle one night last November. That night, he stayed up researching testicular cancer, about which he had known essentially nothing. After a visit to a urologist he learned that the lump was, in fact, cancerous.
On Nov. 29, out the testicle came. Based on a followup screening, his doctors declared him cancer-free, and about a week after his surgery, he was back working out, running on an underwater treadmill, performing bodyweight exercises. The disruption had been so minor and temporary, he says, that he nearly didn’t reveal his condition to the public. He needed only three more weeks to get back to full speed, and in February he reported to Rockies camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., like usual, ready for 2017.
“I felt great then,” he says now. “I was ready to put this all behind me.”
Then, in March, despite months of normal bloodwork, a CT scan during a checkup revealed inflamed lymph nodes. The news, after a biopsy: His cancer had spread. Bettis would need chemotherapy. On March 10, the day he was supposed to be making his second start of the spring, Bettis instead announced that he’d be leaving camp for a nine-week chemo regimen, with no timetable for his return to the field.
Bettis has pulled off an astounding comeback: That return to the field will happen Monday night at Coors Field against the Braves. And he will be starting for a Rockies team that stands nearly an 80% chance of making the playoffs (per Baseball Prospectus) for the first time since 2009. His arrival will bolster a pitching staff that has, for a change, driven the team’s success. By ERA+, which is ballpark-adjusted, the Rockies’ staff has been the National League’s fourth-best. Somehow the 28-year-old Bettis will be the oldest starter of the bunch.
That comeback seemed a lot less likely when Bettis sat in the chemo chair at Pinnacle Oncology and Hematology in Scottsdale on March 20. The feeling of that first week, in which he had daily treatment, compared to nothing he had ever encountered before. “People talk to me about it now, and I’m quick to say it wasn’t that bad. But it was," he says. "I wasn’t prepared for it, mentally or physically. I couldn’t have been.”
Just having chemo treatments made him different from the other major league pitcher this year to come back from testicular cancer. Pirates righty Jameson Taillon missed five weeks early in the season before returning to the mound on June 12 and beating, of all teams, the Rockies. The two spoke briefly when Pittsburgh visited Colorado in July and though they were suddenly linked by a devastating illness, their physical and emotional toll was different because Taillon's cancer didn't spread.
To Bettis's chagrin, his clean bloodwork didn’t mean that he would have a lighter chemotherapy load than other patients. And nine weeks of treatment, as a concept, just seemed insurmountable. “That would have eaten me alive,” he says. So he conceived of his treatment instead as just 21 sessions. After the first two, he thought, Well, I’m into the teens. And the number kept getting smaller from there.
Along the way—in fact, just nine days after his first dose—Bettis’s wife, Kristina, gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Everleigh. It wasn’t easy having a newborn around during his treatment. His and Kristina’s families both pitched in; so did the Rockies and his teammates; so too did former teammates, like fellow pitchers Jason Motte and David Hale.
But the little girl helped him immensely, Bettis says. “I don’t want things to be about me, ever. It was a blessing: People stopped asking me how I was doing, and started asking me about how Kristina and Everleigh were doing. . . . I don’t think she’ll ever understand the impact she made on me.”
The chemo went well. He lost his hair but none of his weight. While training at the Rockies’ facility, he found that his strength had held steady, although his endurance and stamina were mostly shot. He’d get winded after five minutes on the exercise bike, and recovery took him longer than he was used to. His goal, he says, had been “to pitch somewhere this season. Where and how were irrelevant to me.”
When he came back to Coors in June, though, just to throw and work out and rejoin his teammates, he decided that he wanted to push himself and make it back to a big-league mound before the season was through. He had watched every Rockies game during his absence and had stayed in touch with coaches and teammates. He wanted to be a real part of what projected to be the the team’s best year since he was drafted in the second round in 2010, out of Texas Tech in his hometown of Lubbock.
Bettis made his first rehab start for Double A Hartford on July 13 and has worked every fifth day without a setback in the month since. In his last outing, for Triple A Albuquerque on Aug. 8, he threw five innings of three-hit ball.
Doctors say Bettis's prognosis is good, and studies have shown that about 90% of people who gone through what he has make a full recovery. Bettis says that after the season he’ll launch a charity event—a golf tournament, he thinks—with Testicular Cancer Society, a group that raises awareness of the illness and its prevalence in young men. He’ll also reflect further on the improbability and triumph of the journey he’s taken in the last year; he swears he wouldn’t change a thing about it.
All that comes later, though. He has a playoff race to join.