Orioles legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. revealed Thursday that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February and is “cancer-free” after surgery in March.
“The surgery couldn’t have gone better,” Ripken said. “The outcome couldn’t have gone better, and I’ve resumed doing everything I did before. It’s a pretty miraculous few months.”
Now, he’s sharing his experience in hopes that it might encourage other men to see their doctors and potentially get similar life-saving information.
“You feel like something’s wrong with you and that’s not something you want to share with everybody. But ... [it’s] a positive story to tell other people to make sure that they get their regular physical,” Ripken said. “There’s an opportunity, at the very least, to create awareness around it.”
Dr. Robert K. Brookland, chairman of the department of radiation and oncology at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center and chairman of the American Joint Committee on Cancer, said Ripken’s message is a “great service.”
He believes Ripken can influence others to take measures that lead to early detection, and thus save lives.
“This is just an example of what a great human being Cal Ripken is,” Brookland said. “He could have kept this very private and not shared it with anybody, and I certainly respect anybody’s right to keep their privacy. But he elected to let other people know what he was going through, and increase the level of awareness about the disease, the importance of screening, to allow for early detection.”
Early detection typically means early treatment: “Outcomes are always going to be better as a general rule when we’re treating earlier stage, lower-risk cancers rather than higher-stage, more advanced cancers.”
On Sept. 6, Baseball’s Ironman will celebrate the 25th anniversary of breaking Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,131 consecutive games. Ripken referred to the diagnosis as “a moment in your life that you don’t want to hear.”
“We all know people that have had different cancers and you kind of wonder, how would you feel if it happened to you?” said Ripken, whose father, Cal Ripken Sr., died of lung cancer in 1999. “I know what that feels like now.”
Ripken said he had “no symptoms whatsoever” with a normal-sized prostate for someone his age. He turns 60 on Monday.
Levels on his prostate-specific antigen test, which measures proteins that typically are contained to the prostate that reach the bloodstream, were moving “just incrementally,” Ripken said. He and his doctor thought that could be explained by him riding his bike or simple aging.
Still, he went to a urologist, and tests there pushed Ripken to have a biopsy.
“When you get into this sort of age frame, I guess the risk factor continues to go up,” Ripken said. “It was just a precaution, and I’m thankful that I was pushed to do it.”
When that test revealed cancer, Ripken said, the consensus for his path forward was surgery, which was performed by Dr. Mohamad Allaf at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Brookland said the treatment options at that point, radiation and surgery, have “identical” cure rates. Patients and doctors base their decisions on factors such as side effects, convenience and personal preference.
“If you have an early stage cancer, then surgery and radiation are equally good choices,” he said. “If you have a very advanced cancer, then you usually can’t do surgery.”
It’s recommended that patients wait three weeks after the biopsy for surgery. Ripken said he didn’t have to schedule the surgery as quickly as he did, but growing concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic pushed him. Post-operation tests revealed the cancer was contained to the prostate.
“You can resume your normal life, so I thank my lucky stars that occurred,” Ripken said.
According to the Prostate Cancer Foundation, one in nine men will be affected by prostate cancer, making it the most common non-skin cancer. Risk factors shoot up exponentially once men reach 50, with 97% of cases occurring in men over that age and 60% of all cases in men 65 and older. Those with direct relatives who have had prostate cancer are also at increased risk.
For those with family history, checks are recommended once men reach their 40s, Brookland said.
Symptoms can include difficulties urinating and pain in that area of the body, though the PSA test and a digital rectal exam can screen for prostate cancer without symptoms.
Once it’s detected, 99% of patients whose cancer is contained to the prostate live for five years or more, according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
Billy Ripken, Cal’s younger brother, said he got the news at the end of their annual Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation Aspire Gala on March 2.
“He goes, ‘Hey, you got a minute?’” Billy Ripken said. “I said, ‘Uh-oh.’ We’re not a, ‘Hey, you got a minute?’ type family.”
Billy Ripken said his brother was speaking like “typical Junior” when he delivered the news, matter-of-factly telling him that they caught it early, he was going to have surgery in a few weeks and urging him to be screened himself.
“It’s just kind of the way, I guess, we operate,” Billy Ripken said. “I don’t think we’re necessarily knee-jerk alarmists. I was probably the most knee-jerk alarmed and made a facial expression and looked concerned when he told me that he had it. Then 10 minutes after that, after talking about it and everything else, I think the majority of the 10 minutes might have been seven minutes directed at me to make sure I get checked out.”
Billy Ripken said the family is private but Cal is also thoughtful and realized that it might be beneficial to share his story.
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Cal said he often looked inward during this period, and it wasn’t an easy decision to go public.
Ripken acknowledges that men can sometimes have the tough-it-out mentality with their health, not unlike his own celebrated consecutive games streak.
“Sometimes, we as guys avoid that or think we’ll just go to the doctor when we need to,” Ripken said. “I thought that maybe my story, as lucky and as great as it is as a happy ending, could encourage and maybe bring the awareness that you should get checked. You should go to the doctors. You should do all the things necessary so you can catch something like this early because when you do, you have a lot of options and it’s a good outcome.”
Ripken noted that when he saw former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre speak out about his prostate cancer in 1999, he “thought that was a good thing that he was sharing his story for other people.”
Others around the game who have battled prostate cancer include Andre Dawson and Steve Garvey.
The announcement came on a Zoom call with local media in preparation for the 25th anniversary of Ripken’s 2,131st consecutive game next month.
There was meant to be a celebration of that anniversary at Camden Yards on Sept. 6 to commemorate the achievement, but Ripken said he and the team were still discussing how to best do that with no fans allowed at the ballpark because of the pandemic.