Atkins honors mom's fight with cancer
Third baseman to celebrate his mother's 14 years of survival
Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins recalled his mother keeping things as normal as possible during her 1994 bout with breast cancer, only telling him and his younger sister "the basics."
But Diana Atkins said there was one "basic" that she kept out of the conversations.
"I didn't even say the word 'cancer' for a good three or four months," she said. "I just talked about 'My illness,' or, 'Not feeling good.' I couldn't say, 'I have cancer.'"
Now they celebrate her 14th year of survival in the most public of ways.
Mother's Day, when the Rockies play the Padres at PETCO Park, will mark the third straight year that Garrett Atkins intends to swing the pink bat and wear the pink wristbands as part of Major League Baseball's breast cancer awareness program.
"I would imagine everybody in here knows somebody or has had somebody affected by it," Garrett Atkins said recently from the Rockies' clubhouse. "It's a common thing, but when you're taking about cancer, it's something you want to get rid of so you don't have to worry about that anymore."
Diana Atkins responded to her son's dedication to the cause, "It kind of makes you cry."
The summer of 1994 was a busy one for Diana Atkins.
She was vice principal of Northwoods High School, with a hefty enrollment of around 2,500, in her mid-40s and active. She and her husband, Ron, had two active children. Garrett was about to begin his sophomore year at University High School, where he would play basketball and baseball. Kristen, a few years younger, was an outstanding student and a good volleyball player.
Right before school started, however, her instincts told her she should visit her doctor.
"I've always told Garrett and his sister than if they have a strong feeling about something, don't ignore it," she said. "I went to the doctor and they found it. It was fortunate for me that it was in Stage 1. I was in my early 40s, healthy and busy, but I hate to think what would have happened if I had ignored it.
"I told the doctor that I was an assistant principal and it was my job to open school. It wouldn't happen if I wasn't there. He said, 'I don't think you understand. We need to take care of this now.'"
Diana Atkins underwent what she called "the whole bit" -- surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The experience was frightening and educational at the same time.
"No one in my family had ever had breast cancer, so it was scary," she said. "And even then, 14 years ago, women weren't as open about it as they are now. You see women in chemotherapy who are proud of fighting the fight. You didn't see it as much back then.
"What I did was keep up my daily routine. My two kids were the main things for me. And I went along with the program that the doctors and the nurses gave me. I focused on the now, handled things as best I could."
Garrett Atkins recalled seeing the dramatic effects of the treatment on his mother's body, but not on her spirit.
"My mom was really good at hiding things," he said. "When she's in pain, she's not going to show it. She kept on doing things. I'm sure she took some time off, but she worked and got back to her regular activities as soon as she could and dealt with chemo as best as anybody can."
Diana Atkins recalled one day when trying to keep things as normal as possible led to a funny moment.
She had found a wig in her hair color and style and was using it. It was uncomfortable, but effective enough that many of her children's friends had no idea she was battling cancer.
With her husband traveling for work, one of her duties that winter was taking her son and one of his friends to school for 6 a.m. junior varsity basketball workouts.
"I was on the way, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, I don't have my wig on,'" she said. "Garrett just looked at me and said, 'I know, mom.' I'm like, 'Well, why didn't you tell me if you knew?' Well, it's too late now.
"His friend got into the car and didn't say anything but, 'Good morning, Mrs. Atkins.' Of course, it was early, so he and Garrett were still sleepy. But we were able to get a laugh out of it."
Garrett Atkins is happy for many more laughs to share with his mom.
"I'm definitely blessed," he said. "I still get to have her around. A lot of people lose their moms or their sisters or loved ones when something like that happens. To tack on an extra 14 years so far, the things she's been able to watch me and my sister accomplish is something she's real happy about. I'd like to help in any way I can."
Now semi-retired, Diana Atkins works a few days a week as an academic counselor at Northwoods. She also is advising the Pink Ribbon Club, in which teenagers work to foster the awareness that didn't exist 14 years ago.
"We're a large school, so we have something like 40 clubs -- the environmental club, the gaming club," she said. "But I ask why they want to be in the pink ribbon club, and they say some of he clubs raise money and do good for people far away. But with this, they have a grandma, or a mom, or an aunt. It feels so much closer to them.
"I had a student come to me and say, 'I feel I can make a difference.' This is a 15-year-old girl. I'm definitely in the right place right now."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.