Dodgers back their own against cancer
Ticket operator on road to recovery after diagnosis
LOS ANGELES -- Don't die.
A simple enough request, and even though it challenges one of life's greatest mysteries, for Desiree Sanchez, it makes perfect sense.
On Feb. 28, Sanchez's life journey was given an abrupt change of plans. She received a new set of marching orders.
Her worst fears became reality that day when her doctor confirmed a diagnosis of breast cancer. The following day, Sanchez spoke to her three children. The brief and poignant conversation reaffirmed all that is closest to her heart.
"Keep your game face on," said Paulina, 8.
But her son Jason, 11-years-old and elder statesman of the group, struck to the core: "Don't die."
"We all burst out laughing and then they said: 'Can we go now?'" Sanchez recalled of the toughest moment in her life as a single parent to her adopted kids.
What it revealed was not a cavalier and uncaring attitude by her children but a fundamental belief that everything is going to be OK.
Like many in baseball's different walks of life, Sanchez has been touched by cancer, and she is holding to that belief that everything is going to be OK.The manager of ticket operations with the Dodgers, Sanchez has spent eight years as part of the team at Dodger Stadium. Now she has a team of family and friends behind her as she takes on breast cancer, and she's spreading the word that early detection is key to survival. Mainly, she's making sure she does everything she can to heed Jason's words. Family history of support
For Sanchez and her kids, the specter of breast cancer is not new.
Her mother Helen is a four-year cancer survivor and the Sanchez children witnessed first hand the diagnosis, treatment and recovery of their grandmother.
For Sanchez herself, the word cancer was an answer and not a sentence and something that kicked her "Tough Chick" persona into gear.
"I can't be sick," said Sanchez, 41. "I have three kids I need to raise. There is no way that I can go anywhere; these kids need me. All I could think of was my kids; I have to be here. They are too young to lose their mother."
The positive cancer diagnosis ended more than a month of uncertainty but served as a prime example of the benefits of early detection. h Sanchez had been given a clean result following her annual mammogram in December. But just a couple of weeks after, Sanchez said she felt something unusual during a self breast-examination in the shower, though different than what her mother had described.
She returned to her doctor and an ultrasound was performed, the result of which was also clean. Dissatisfied and feeling a growing sense of unease, Sanchez pushed further and her gynecologist agreed. Referred to a surgeon, she underwent a needle biopsy, which revealed a five-centimeter tumor large enough for a Stage Two diagnosis.
The answer was unwanted but accurate.
"I knew something was there and I knew something wasn't right," Sanchez said. "All the tests were able to show at that point was there wasn't anything that looked like breast cancer. OK, you don't see it but I feel it and my doctor feels it. Given my mother's history I wasn't going to just pretend that it was nothing and go about my business. I wanted somebody to tell me what it was. It has to be something. If it's not breast cancer, then fantastic. But it is something and I need to know what it is."
Sanchez said for her it was far more painful to endure sleepless nights without knowing the true nature of her condition than the illness itself. There would still be some emotional moments as she told family, friends and co-workers but she had set her course on moving forward.
The prognosis is a 90-95 percent five-year survival rate, Sanchez said, but she added that she's not accepting anything less than 100 percent. She has already had two rounds of chemotherapy, suffering some nausea while also losing her hair and feeling generally tired.
Sanchez said she will have a lumpectomy, but her oncologist wants to try to squeeze in at least one more course of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor as much as possible, to save as much breast tissue as possible during surgery. More chemotherapy will follow and then a course of radiation treatments, after which she would like to take her children to Hawaii for the holidays.
"Everyone says attitude is everything when you're going through your treatments. It makes such a huge difference and so far I haven't been afraid of anything," Sanchez said. "OK, 2008 I'm on the DL and next year I'm coming back. Here comes Spring Training and here we go."
It takes a team
Sanchez's parents live with her and are the basis of her support. They were foster parents to her three children before she adopted them in April 2004. Sanchez's father, Manuel is a constant presence, always ready with a hand, but she said she is doing her best to maintain her work schedule and the normal routine for her children.
To help in that regard, the Dodgers IT department installed their ticketing program on a home computer to allow her to telecommute whenever necessary.
"You know people have colds and people have the flu but this was the first time that I've had someone (in my department) have cancer," said Billy Hunter, Sanchez's boss and the Dodgers vice president of ticket operations. "I just really want to help and make it as easy on her as possible."
What has particularly impressed Sanchez, though, is the support that extends beyond her immediate and personal network. There were words of encouragement but also tangible items like hats and scarves to minimize the side effects of treatment.
"People were reaching out to me and were willing to talk to me," Sanchez said. "It was amazing that these people I didn't know were willing to talk to me and share their experience and knowledge. Women that have gone through it want to help other women and I think that is fantastic."
Sanchez, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and attended Ramona Convent Secondary School for Girls and then UCLA, is also a lifelong Dodgers fan. In her job, she has come to know Don Newcombe, Sandy Koufax and Vin Scully and admits that Steve Sax was "the heartthrob" when she was in high school.
But during nearly a decade with the Dodgers, Sanchez has come to feel a sense of home and credits her co-workers with helping her through this crisis in her life.
"She is handling it very well," said her co-worker Roxanne Adams. "I admire her strength. I'm not sure I would do as well. We're all there for her. We're a family."
Sanchez said she spent her high school days frequenting Dodger Stadium with best friend Honey Bee Gonzalez and in July, they'll be going to New York for the All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium's last season. Next year, the pair has a trip to Italy planned and Sanchez also hopes to take her kids on more road trips in the future and take time for more fun.
On Sunday for Mother's Day, Sanchez and family will spend the day at Dodger Stadium, and she'll throw out the first pitch before the series finale against the Astros. Sanchez said she hasn't picked up a ball in about two years and fears where it might go.
While she was a self-described pessimist before her diagnosis, she said she has now become more optimistic and gained a deeper faith.
And if there is one message she'd like to pass along it would be to heed the warning signs.
"It is a scary thing to have to say; it is a scary thing to have to hear," Sanchez said. "If caught early, breast cancer is such a treatable disease now. I don't think it is something that you should be afraid of."
Mike Scarr is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.