Tellez playing through mother's cancer battle

Toronto Blue Jays' top prospect Rowdy Tellez has played this season with a lot weighing on his mind. His mother, Lori, has been battling Stage 4 melanoma. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

Toronto Blue Jays' top prospect Rowdy Tellez has played this season with a lot weighing on his mind. His mother, Lori, has been battling Stage 4 melanoma. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

By Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

BUFFALO, New York – Monday was a good day.

As Rowdy Tellez has learned in the six-plus months since his mother Lori was diagnosed with melanoma, cancer brings bad days and it can bring worse ones, but Monday was neither of those. Roused from his slumber in the morning by his cell phone, the 22-year-old answered to his mom’s voice across the country, letting him know that she was officially melanoma-free. 

“I cried,” Tellez said, before the Buffalo Bisons doubleheader against Rochester. “She called this morning and woke me up. They found out when the doctor called her at 7:30 this morning…I woke up when she called, and I cried when she told me. It was really good.”

Lori Tellez was doing some routine self-maintenance when she found an unfamiliar lump, and went to her doctor in Elk Grove, California. Her son believes his mother learned of her grim Stage 4 verdict sometime around the beginning of December, though he can’t be sure how long she and his father Greg waited to tell him and his sister Amy. 

“We found out on December 22nd,” Tellez said. “My mom was shaving her armpits and she found a huge lump in there. She went to get it checked and they found [cancer] all over her body. That was early December, and I was at my house in Florida. I got back from playing in the Dominican [in November], went to Thanksgiving at home and everything was good then.

“Then I went back to Florida and was coming back out for Christmas, and got there the 19th, and on the 22nd she sat me and my sister down and that was when she told us…I don’t know if her and my dad talked about it, or what was going on, or how they wanted to present it to us.”

For what seemed like an excruciatingly long time to Tellez, he and his immediate family kept the news to themselves, bearing the burden on their own and not wanting to encumber anyone else in their lives.

“We had to keep it quiet for a while, because we didn’t want any of our family – my mom’s side or my dad’s side – or our friends to worry, or feel like it was the end,” the first baseman said. “We wanted everything to be in high spirits, and she didn’t want us kids to worry too much. I think that was why she found out before and waited to tell us. She didn’t want anybody to worry or feel bad for her.”

As hard as Lori tried to keep her family from feeling concerned, it was impossible for her son. 

“I worried,” Tellez said. “I was really upset. I handled it way worse than my dad and my sister. I went upstairs and started crying my eyes out right away. I just felt helpless. I felt like I could have done something. Especially now that I live in Florida full-time, and I’m not there. I would go home [to Florida] and I would get a call from my dad telling me my mom wasn’t doing well and think, do I need to come home?

“In spring training, she had a huge setback, so I thought I was going to have to go home, and it was one of those times where I felt helpless. We couldn’t talk about it much to anyone, so I had to pick and choose my person. I talked to Dee Brown, [family friend, Tellez’s former coach, and his signing scout] and drove over to his house immediately just crying the whole way. It probably wasn’t the best of ideas.

“He’s lost all three of his moms and he’s 40 years old, so he helped me with everything and had an understanding of what was best for her, and advice to not make any rash decisions. It was tough.”

During spring training with the Blue Jays this year in Dunedin, Tellez took a brief opportunity to talk to another player with an experience not unlike his own. Noticing that Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman wore full sleeves even in the hottest of Florida heat, he inquired and learned that Freeman does so in honour of his mother Rosemary, who passed away when he was 10 years old of melanoma. 

“I talked to Freddie at first base in those couple games we played against him in spring training,” Tellez said. “It made me feel a lot better. I really should have talked to him more…I know he went through it too, but younger.”

Though their time in the Grapefruit League was the only time the two first basemen shared in person, Freeman made himself available to his young Blue Jays counterpart, hoping to help in any way possible.

“Melanoma is a tough disease, it really is,” Freeman said, after playing at Rogers Centre against Toronto earlier this season. “It’s nice to have someone who’s gone through it who you can talk to about it. There’s not much you can really say, but all you can do is offer some words.

“My mom beat it the first time, but obviously she lost her battle the second time, so you can be a supporting figure, someone who’s done it before, someone to bounce things off of, see what treatment they’re getting, and if I can remember what my mom was doing, I try and be supportive…When they say time heals, it heals a little bit, but now I think about all the happy times that I had.

“Obviously reliving that stuff is not fun; there’s always going to be that pain in there. But sometimes my pain can help someone else through it, so when you look at it that way, he’s going through what I went through 17 years ago, so if my one piece of advice, or one sentence, or something resonates with him, it’s all worth it to me. I’ve been through it, so if I can help out in any way, that’s all you can do.”

In retrospect, Tellez believes that he found the right people, gleaning the right advice at all the right times. Heading into this season, he wasn’t sure how he would handle his time on the field with his thoughts off of it, and he leaned on organization-mate Ryan Hissey, currently with the Dunedin Blue Jays, who went through something similar last year.

“His mom had cancer, and she’s good now,” Tellez said of the catcher. “I talked to him because it was in-season when he was going through it. He found out right before the 2016 season that his mom had cancer, so I talked to him. The biggest thing he told me was not to look at anything online. Don’t look at anything about cancer, don’t read about anything, because you’re going to make it worse for yourself.

“I took his advice. I didn’t want to make it worse. I already am a worrier, and am pretty emotional, so I didn’t want to make it worse than it was. Nobody ever posts online or writes about a good situation when it comes to cancer, unless it’s a really drastic one. My sister found out about melanoma and told me what they could do, and I was fine not finding out.”

The one thing that Tellez did learn about the terrible disease was that sugar is the leading cause of cancer reproduction. After changing his diet in recent years and becoming more health conscious for his own reasons, he helped his parents transform their eating habits.

“I did a lot, making sure my mom stayed away from sugar and helping in that sense,” he said. “Now, they changed their whole diet, my dad and my mom, so that he can accommodate her.”

Because of Lori’s Stage 4 diagnosis, she became an early candidate for an experimental immunotherapy treatment. She was expected to undergo the procedures for years to come, but the improvements she experienced brought it to an end on Monday. 

“It was one of those things where it was caught so late they wanted to figure out why, and if this was going to be the right way to go about it,” Tellez said. “Then today they took her off of it, because she was melanoma-free, so there was no point of having her on there. It was going to be a five-year treatment total. The first year was every month, and then every six months after that, and then eventually every eight months.”

The Bisons slugger can appreciate everything his mother had to go through in hindsight, but it was hard to watch as it was happening, and consider how she must have been feeling on some of the worst days.

“It made her feel terrible,” Tellez said. “It gave her really bad side effects. She would wake up at 10 and go to bed at seven, and couldn’t work. It was hard for her to eat. Her stomach was spinning in circles. One day she would eat rice and that was it, because it was the only thing that wouldn’t bother her. Even the smell of food, it was kind of like a pregnancy, because if she smelled something weird it would really bother her.”

In spite of what Lori Tellez must have been experiencing, she did everything she could to make everyone around her feel better about it.

“I know how strong she is, so I knew that no matter what the pain was, she could deal with it,” her son said. “I don’t think it was so much physical. It was more emotional for all of us, but physical for her on top of it, so it was tough to see her go through that, but I was able to talk to her. She likes to communicate, so that was helping us.”

Embracing the positivity that his mother has consistently brought into his life, Tellez has a newfound belief in staying the course, as his mom celebrates being melanoma-free and continues to undergo testing to battle any residual side effects.

“You can trust the process,” Tellez said. “You understand that it could be worse, but it could also get better, so just don’t ever have that negative outlook on life, because you never know what could happen. That’s how she is. She never has a negative outlook no matter how bad it got for the rest of the family, or if a vacation went bad, she always made everything fun and still does.

“It was one of those things where if you just trust what’s going on around you, let the people who are professionals in their field do what they do best, and it can work…She made all the sacrifices to change, and it paid off.”