The symptoms and signs began as a curiosity and evolved into concern.
Trey Mancini would become fatigued while performing drills in spring training, having to push himself through them. He tried to dismiss it as a product of growing older. He braced for news that he was experiencing something far less serious than colon cancer - a diagnosis that rocked the entire Orioles organization and led to his March 12 surgery in Baltimore.
The story progressed to the point where Mancini began undergoing chemotherapy treatments on April 13 and vowed today in a Zoom conference call with local media to be ready for the 2021 season.
“Looking back, I really didn’t think it was anything outlandish or crazy at all,” he said. “I had just turned 28 and I thought it was getting a little older. I’m still kind of young I guess, generally, but I was like, I don’t know. I’m not 21 anymore. Maybe I’m getting a little more tired when I’m taking 10 swings in the batting cage. Felt a little more lethargic. Normally I just go out there, no problem and do my actually work.
“I remember specifically when I did outfield work in the morning it would really be a grind. I wanted to do both first base and outfield work. It would be tough to get through the whole day and then I’d be gassed doing even the first base work or outfield work at the end of the day, whatever I didn’t do with the team. And that was kind of like one sign that I was like, that’s a little weird, it’s never really happened to me before. But besides getting tired easier, there was nothing.
“Like I said, if you Google what comes on with colon cancer, I really didn’t have any symptoms on the surface that would have made me think ... I really thought I had celiac disease.”
So did the front office, which had prepared to move forward with a different set of treatments and with Mancini on the roster.
“This was something that was difficult for all of us to process when the news hit in spring training,” said executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias. “It was so shocking. We were kind of expecting that we were ruling this out and were headed to some type of celiac disease diagnosis or something like that that would explain the iron levels being off. When this news hit and we were all shocked, but I was impressed with the way that he and his family and everyone just kind of proceeded step by step through what we had to do. And now I feel like we’re in a really good spot.
“You see him and you hear from him and he’s so upbeat, and you see his strength and his youth and his health, and we all know this is going to be a matter of time. But it’s tough for our organization, it’s tough for our team. We’re going through a really tough period and now we’re going to be out for a while without our best player and a big heartbeat in our clubhouse. But he’s still going to be around and I think it’s going to make it all the more special when he gets back and it’s going to mean a lot for us and the progress that we’re making as an organization when Trey Mancini comes back to us.”
The process will be long and at times challenging both physically and mentally. The treatments are administered every other week, the most recent on Monday.
“I’m still learning and it could change as it goes a little bit. I could get a little bit more serious side effects. I could tolerate it better throughout. But the first round I’d say went really well and better than expected,” Mancini said.
“The one that goes in Monday kind of makes you sensitive to cold a little bit for about 24 hours, so my fingertips and my toes and if I drink anything cold, you’re really sensitive to that for about 24 hours. And then I also had a port put in my chest and the nurse is coming here in about an hour to take that out. They install it on the Monday and I get it taken out on Wednesday.”
The next day is the most taxing.
“Tomorrow I might be feeling a little more tired and maybe have some minor nausea. But by Friday, I got my appetite back pretty well and was good to go for the next 10 days until I went back on Monday. So hopefully it stays like that where it’s just three or four days of not feeling ideal and then 10 days of feeling good,” Mancini said.
“I’m hoping for those 10 days or whatever days I’m feeling good, I’m going to take advantage of and get all my exercise in and I’m finally able to start lifting kind of lighter weights. I’ve got some bands and dumbbells from one of the strength coaches the other day to have here at the house, so I’m going to start to try to do a little bit of exercise in that regard. I’ve gone for a couple runs. I’m definitely able to do some things. Not as much as I’m used to, but I’m going to do everything I can to try to keep up physically because obviously when you go through this you lose a little weight, so you want to try to maintain and build that back up even while you’re going through the chemo.”
Mancini remains thankful that the cancer was diagnosed in time to hold it at Stage 3. There are only four stages.
“If I didn’t have a blood test or I didn’t play baseball or have the medical care that we do with the Orioles, I would not have caught this in time. I feel pretty confident that it would have progressed another stage, which obviously would have been pretty devastating,” he said.
Mancini rode the rollercoaster of emotions on a short track. He experienced the usual feelings upon hearing the news, but didn’t wallow in pity or let the fear envelop him.
“From the second I got the diagnosis, I knew I had to accept it pretty quickly and I think that’s helped me a lot,” he said. “I didn’t really mope around too much. Don’t get me wrong, it was really tough, especially the first few days. And talking to the team was really tough, too, and telling them what was going on. I think accepting it pretty quickly, knowing this is what’s going to happen, that helped me a lot.
“Going into my surgery, we weren’t sure if it was late Stage 2 or early Stage 3. There was a possibility that I wasn’t going to have to do chemotherapy, so that was a little tough. The doctor called me the morning of my birthday (March 18) and told me that three of my 23 lymph nodes, there are three that were right up next to the tumor that tested positive for cancer. So at that point, even though he got the tumor out, it didn’t really break through the colon, you never know if a cell can escape anywhere else in the body, and the chemo at that point is kind of like an insurance policy.
“You don’t know if that can spread anywhere else and give you a different form of cancer, so it was a no-brainer to do the chemotherapy for long-term health reasons.”
Mancini’s father, Tony, an OB-GYN, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 and became a needed resource as well as an important member of his support team.
“I think that kind of helped with how quickly I accepted the fact that I had colon cancer,” Mancini said. “The fact that he had it, I knew there was the slightest possibility that I could have maybe had it, but still, from everybody I talked to, they said if you’re under 45 or 50 years old, you don’t have colon cancer, and then sure enough I did.
“It was tough to see him go through that experience but it definitely helped me. He’s another person that obviously has been through this before and luckily he didn’t have to go through chemo, but it was definitely tough on him for that month or so. He was in the hospital longer than I was and he had been through a few tough weeks himself, so having somebody like that, especially somebody that I was close with really helped me, too, throughout all this. He’s been the biggest person I’ve leaned on throughout it all.”
The calls and texts keep coming to Mancini, including one from Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. He cherishes every one.
“I already met a few people who have had colon cancer, caught it pretty much exactly when I did - early Stage 3 - and have been through chemotherapy before. So talking to them has really helped,” Mancini said.
“It kind of gave me a good idea going in of what to expect with the chemotherapy and everything that went along with it. So I feel like I have a lot of good background and I’m well-versed in what to expect for the next five months or so.
“Somebody that played at Notre Dame reached out to me and said he had it in his 30s. Same thing. He told me that he went through all that and he’s going great today. That’s the encouraging thing I’ve really found out talking to everybody was if you catch it at this stage and go through the chemo and take all the necessary precautions and steps that it is a very curable type of cancer. I didn’t really know anything too much about colon cancer other than what my dad went through. It’s been really encouraging, especially people who are younger like I am that had it, to know that they pulled through it well and went through the chemo pretty well.
“Obviously, there are some side effects and it’s not ideal, but it is really encouraging to hear that guys like (former outfielder) Eric Davis or other people who were in their 20s or 30s who had this, that they got through this OK and are living totally normal lives now.”
The medical procedure took place on the exact same day that Major League Baseball shut down spring training and pushed back the opener. The Orioles closed their camp and kept seeking updates on Mancini’s condition.
One of the most disturbing periods in franchise history.
“That happened literally in the middle of my surgery, so I woke up and I remember my whole family, my mom and sisters told me that they had shut down spring training and nobody was sure what was going on. That was after the ‘Are you OK,’ they told me that was going on,” Mancini said.
“It was just a weird day. It’s been a weird couple of months for all of us, too. Especially since the fact that I’ve kind of been doing what I would have anyway post-surgery and stuff. It’s a little weird that the world kind of stopped the same time. It’s just a weird coincidence. But again, I hope that there’s a safe way that baseball returns because it’s just so strange not having sports on, especially baseball right now.
“We’re about to go into May. It’s the first time in my whole life since I was 5 years old that I’m not playing baseball in late April and May. And it’s definitely the same for all of the guys in the league, too. It’s just a bizarre time. I know everybody wants to get out there and play when it’s safe and there’s a lot of hurdles that obviously have to be crossed, but I know a lot of plans are being set up and there’s a lot of different ideas floating around and I feel confident that it will return at some point this year.”
Mancini won’t be part of it. He’s got to stay focused on his treatments and light workouts, and also live through this pandemic that’s changing the world.
“With COVID really emerging at the same time, I got lucky because they stopped doing a lot of surgeries right after. I’m lucky that I got in when I did. It was just six days from my diagnosis to my surgery. And the medical attention I received from everybody, from the doctors in Sarasota, Baltimore, everybody in between has been unbelievable. I feel so lucky in that regard. And I fully expect to make a full recovery and be back,” Mancini said.
“Even throughout the chemotherapy I’m going to be doing everything I can to stay in shape and try to maintain my strength and all that. And you have a whole offseason to get ready for next year, too, so there’s no doubt in my mind. But there’s also a couple risks during chemo I know I have to monitor, too. There’s a couple side effects that can go along with it.
“There can be kind of like a tingling in your fingers and toes and in some really rare cases it can be irreversible, so that’s definitely something I’m aware of and something I’m going to monitor. I chose the treatment plan I did to reduce the risk of that because of baseball. But I’m doing everything I can and I have no doubt in my mind I’ll be back playing baseball.”
Mancini will be able to recite dialogue from “The Wire” now that he’s binge-watching the Baltimore-based series that ran on HBO from 2002-08. He’s down to the last four episodes, which air while he’s undergoing his treatments.
“And when I want something more light-hearted, I’ve watched ‘The Office’ like 50 times,” he said.
“The treatment goes by quickly. It’s like a three-hour infusion and then I’m done. So it’s been good. But it’s an interesting time to go through this.”
Also a risky one with the pandemic, which threatens to eliminate the 2020 season before it gets started.
Mancini is taking all of the necessary precautions. The infusions can lower his red and white cell counts and make him more vulnerable to illnesses. No one is allowed to accompany him to the hospital for treatments.
“Anytime I leave the apartment, my mask is on,” he said. “I really have to be careful with all that. I know I’m in a compromised group they talk about. I’ve done my research there and try to minimize the risk.”
Mancini is going to use this experience to educate and assist others, a typical response from a team leader who is ready and eager to carry his responsibilities outside the clubhouse.
“I have a platform because I play baseball and I can reach some people, so that’s definitely something that I want to do,” he said. “Even if it’s something as simple as just getting a blood test every year, because that’s how I found this out, it’s really important. And those of us in our 20s ignore going for our normal checkups because we don’t think anything’s wrong. None of us think it can happen to us and it can. So it was definitely a wakeup call for me and I think hopefully a lot of people, especially those with a family history, somebody like me whose parent had it, it’s important to go earlier than recommended for sure.
“It’s very easy to remove early on and it’s definitely a preventable thing if you catch it early. It’s definitely something I already feel passionate about and going forward something that I want to bring to the limelight.”
The Zoom call lasted about 35 minutes and was arranged one day after Mancini’s article ran in The Players’ Tribune. He wanted to pass along his story, to offer assurances and warnings.
He just needed to find the right moment to do it.
“I wanted a little bit of time to pass and I also didn’t want to take away from everything going on in the world with COVID-19,” he said. “I think that was a huge reason why I waited a month and a half after my surgery to really come out with it. There’s been so many people going through tough times and suffering and so many people have lost family members and it’s just thrown the world for a loop, so I wanted to stay out of the headlines for a little bit because of that. And just because I wanted to take a little time and go through everything normally, start the chemo normally without everybody in the world knowing what’s going on.”