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Volume 23 No. 14
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How sports helped my family through its darkest time

Other than my family, the first person I told about my wife’s breast cancer was someone I’d met just once before: Olympic champion cross country skier Kikkan Randall.

In an email to schedule an interview, I thanked Randall for telling the Anchorage Daily News her own story of diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, giving me some idea of what Mandy faced. Randall responded with a thoughtful, calming message of hope, and we continued to correspond.

At the darkest time of my life, Randall became a temporary confidante, friend and supporter. She didn’t hesitate to make me — and Mandy — feel like her own Olympic teammates.

Randall’s kindess wasn’t unusual. Since Mandy received her dark news on April 1, people in sports have given us comfort, inspiration, distraction, and above all, a sense of community. Some days, a life-altering fear took over every thought and every action. Sports were a lifeline.

One Sunday during those tense days between diagnosis and treatment, Mandy and I watched the final round of the Masters. As Tiger Woods roared to victory, we barely talked. Cancer was too scary for words, and everything else seemed pointless. But seeing him win again made us so happy. Woods can be hard to like, but he’s our generational compatriot. His peak came just as we were coming of age ourselves, and at times, his physical decline has mirrored our own.

That triumphant back nine reminded me of old times, when we measured our future in decades instead of weeks and months. Mandy tweeted something she didn’t say out loud: “Feeling strangely emotional about Tiger Woods winning the Masters. It’s comforting to know it’s possible to make a comeback, even after your life falls apart and your body turns against you.”

The author, his wife Mandy Jenkins, Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Roddy Jenkins pose at Oracle Park in May.
The author, his wife Mandy Jenkins, Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Roddy Jenkins pose at Oracle Park in May.
The author, his wife Mandy Jenkins, Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Roddy Jenkins pose at Oracle Park in May.

The next month, Mandy’s dad visited our temporary home in Mountain View, Calif., and we tried to have fun with a day trip to San Francisco. But the chemo was hitting her hard. Nausea, general unease and fatigue were troubling by the afternoon. Hair was starting to fall out.

At the Golden Gate Bridge that morning, a man noticed the Cincinnati Reds hats Mandy and her dad were wearing and struck up a conversation. He was Dick Williams, the Reds’ president of baseball operations, alongside general manager Nick Krall, in town for the Giants series we were attending that night.

In an incredible gesture, Williams invited us to batting practice. Mandy’s sickness was acute, but she endured for this rare opportunity. We got our field pass lanyards in the tunnel and walked onto the field with wide grins. We gawked at Yasiel Puig’s biceps and took photos with Mandy’s favorite player, Joey Votto. Jesse Winker and owner Bob Castellini posed for pictures with us, too.

Then the Reds drubbed the Giants, 7-0, and it was like old times: Me, Mandy and her dad, watching baseball, eating junk food.

Thanks to Williams and the Reds’ kindness, cancer was off the agenda for the first time in weeks. Like Randall, the Reds made us feel like part of the team. (To be clear, I’m not certain if Williams knew anything was wrong. Mandy still had some hair, and to an outsider might have appeared healthy. Also, he didn’t know I work for SBJ.)

One July morning, we waited anxiously in her doctor’s office at Stanford Health Care. But instead of dwelling on chemotherapy and blood counts in silence, we huddled over my iPhone to watch the Fox stream of the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s World Cup semifinal against England.

Moments before Nurse Kathy knocked, Alex Morgan found the net with a header and we cheered — a sound you don’t hear much around the cancer clinic. Nurse Kathy asked for the score, and for 30 seconds we were just talking soccer instead of cancer.

Then came major surgery in August. The day before, Mandy wore her new birthday gift: A navy blue T-shirt with a painted image of Megan Rapinoe extending both arms to the sky in celebration.

Mandy must have been so, so scared. But that shirt encapsulates all of the achievement and pride the USWNT stands for, and it’s infectious. A stranger complimented her at the airport, sharing a moment and reinforcing that trademark Rapinoe confidence.

A week later, Mandy gingerly sat up from her recovery couch to join our NFL fantasy draft. It took everything she had to pick through 17 rounds, but we wouldn’t miss that bonding ritual with our friends for the world.

All of this happened while we were living in California, thousands of miles from friends and family. Our two old cats had both died in the last year. For a lot of 2019, it was just the three of us: Mandy, me and cancer.

But sports kept bringing us new friends and comfort. Sometimes it was a fleeting moment of kinship with a fellow fan; other times it was a personal experience we’ll never forget. Many times, sports just made life feel normal for a while. Other times, it was inspiration to keep fighting.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know how powerful sports can be. So this isn’t an opinion column. This is a thank you note. Thank you all for helping bring the world of sports to life and making cancer a little less scary. 

Mandy’s cancer is in remission. We’re back in New York among friends, co-workers and closer to family. We have two new kittens. She remains at risk for recurrence, but optimism is high.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com