Chad Bettis Completes Road Back to MLB Mound After Battling Cancer with a Smile

Chad Bettis had to be hiding the hurt. No one confronts cancer with a smile.

Not all the time, not for every minute of every day. Not when he hears a diagnosis in November and has doctors tell him a month later he has it beat, only to find out in March the cancer has returned.

Not when he was 27 years old, with his first child due weeks later.

Stand up to cancer, sure, as Major League Baseball's favored charity says. But as his Colorado Rockies teammates watched with admiration, Bettis did more than simply not let cancer get him down.

"On the inside, I'm sure he was pissed off," Rockies pitcher Kyle Freeland said. "But he kept projecting positivity."

He projected it at the ballpark. He projected it at home. He even projected it the night he got the call telling him he had testicular cancer, right in the middle of an anniversary dinner in November with his wife, Kristina.

"We didn't even leave the restaurant," Kristina Bettis remembered. "It's how Chad is. He's so positive. He just said, 'We're going to finish dinner. We're going to have a great night.'

"He's a rare breed."

He finished dinner and he finished cancer treatments, the first time and then the second time, when a CT scan in spring training showed the cancer had returned to his lymph nodes. He made it to the hospital to be there when Kristina gave birth to Everleigh on March 29, in between Chad's chemotherapy sessions.

Now, not even three months after the last of those sessions, Bettis has just about made it back to the major leagues. He's expected back with the Rockies next week, with the Denver Post reporting he will likely start Monday at Coors Field against the Atlanta Braves, and a whole bunch of people couldn't be happier for him.

"A piece of our family is coming back," Freeland said.

Now there really is a reason to smile.

The road back from cancer has been a long one, but to hear Bettis tell it, it's been filled with blessings. Becoming a father was the biggest, and Bettis still marvels at the timing.

It was a doctor visit early in Kristina's pregnancy that encouraged him to do the self-exam that led to catching the tumor early. Everleigh's arrival gave the family a focus other than Chad's cancer, providing everyone with a reason to feel good and allowing Chad to avoid constant questions about how he was doing.

"It completely took the attention off of me," he said. "That was really nice."

"He was telling me, 'You'll get through this,'" Kristina said. "And he was going through chemo."

The chemotherapy came with some of the usual side effects. Bettis' hair fell out. But there was another blessing. Unlike many patients, he didn't lose significant weight. He didn't lose his appetite.

He was strong enough to hold his newborn daughter, even after two nights sleeping on the couch in Kristina's hospital room.

He was also strong enough to keep throwing a baseball in between treatments, whenever he felt up to it. The Rockies' Salt River Fields spring training complex is near the couple's Arizona home, so Chad would head over and play catch to keep his arm in shape.

Beating cancer was the first goal, the most important goal. But Bettis was determined to resume a baseball career that saw him get to the major leagues in 2013. He was a 14-game winner with the Rockies in 2016, and before the cancer diagnosis he was supposed to be a big part of their rotation this year.

"Our pitching coaches, they love this guy," said Bud Black, who took over as Rockies manager this season.

The Rockies players love him, too, and they were thrilled when he walked back into the clubhouse June 6, just three weeks after his final round of chemotherapy.

"He's one of our energy guys," pitcher Jon Gray said. "A lot of people look up to him."

He joined a team that had been one of baseball's first-half surprises, a team that was in first place in the National League West, one game ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bettis would have been happy to be back no matter what their record was, but the way the team had played made his return that much more exciting.

"It was a lot of fun to have him around," second baseman DJ LeMahieu said.

He was around, at home and on the road. But Bettis' only game experience since last season had been two innings in spring training, so he wasn't close to being ready to pitch. That first day back, he threw from 75 and 90 feet in the outfield and told reporters he felt winded, according to Nick Groke's report in the Denver Post.

It was basically a spring training routine, leading up to his return to the mound July 13, in a rehabilitation start for Double-A Hartford. Bettis pitched again for the Yard Goats five days later, and he then made four starts for Triple-A Albuquerque to set up his return to the Rockies.

On the mound, it seemed little had changed from before the cancer. Bettis was still able to throw his fastball 91-93 mph, and his changeup, curveball and slider were there.

But there was a difference Bettis noticed, even if no one else saw it.

He was having fun.

He thought he always had, but as he looks back now, he sees there was a time baseball had taken over his life.

"It was not fun," he said.

Now, taking the mound as a father and a cancer survivor, Bettis felt better.

"It's more fun," he said after his second start in Hartford. "I feel like I'm enjoying baseball much more than I have before. Baseball still matters to me. I love it, and I want to play it for as long as I possibly can. But when you have to go through a situation where your livelihood's at stake, there's not a lot of things that matter before your life."

Thanks to early detection and good care, Bettis has his life again. He wants to make sure others have the same chance, which is why he has used any opportunity to talk about his own experience with cancer. He reached out to Stand Up to Cancer and the Testicular Cancer Society.

"As a major league player, he has almost unlimited access to reach people," said Mike Craycraft, the Society's founder. "It's just an incredible platform, and he's doing such a good job."

As Bettis said, women are told all the time to perform self-exams to detect breast cancer. Men are rarely told the same about testicular cancer, even though it's the most common form of cancer for men aged 15 to 35.

"It shouldn't be, but testicular cancer is hard for some guys to talk about," Craycraft said.

Bettis is talking about it now, telling the story about a little bump the size of a grain of rice was the only sign of a problem. He didn't feel sick, and at first he wondered if it really was anything to worry about.

"I'm so glad we didn't wait," Kristina said.

Tests showed it was cancerous, and doctors quickly scheduled surgery. And when that surgery was done and the blood work was clean, Bettis thought that was it. He worked to get ready for spring training and began the spring with a normal program. He kept up with the blood tests, but they showed no changes.

Then came the CT scan that showed the cancer was back.

Amazingly, Bettis still pitched in a spring game for the Rockies, even after finding out. But doctors told him this time he would need chemo.

"He handled it with such poise," Kristina said.

He handles most everything that way. When Bettis was in Hartford, he did the traditional rehabbing big leaguer thing of buying a nice postgame meal for his minor league teammates. But Bettis didn't "big league it" in other ways. When the Yard Goats played a 13-inning game, he stayed in the dugout to support his teammates for every inning.

"He was here from noon to midnight," Hartford manager Jerry Weinstein said. "That's all you need to know about him. He just makes good choices. I had him in [Class A] Modesto [in 2011]. He hasn't changed.

"He's the kind of guy you'd like your daughter to marry, the kind you'd like your son to be. Be like Chad."

He's the kind of guy who was easy to root for through his battle with cancer. LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon held up cards with Bettis' name during the Stand Up to Cancer salute at the All-Star Game.

"I don't want to say I know what he's been through, but I've been told what he's been through," Blackmon said. "What an unbelievable attitude. He's just a pleasure to be around."

"I can't wait for him to be back here," LeMahieu said. "He's a great person."

On top of it all, the Rockies need Chad Bettis the pitcher as much as Chad Bettis the person. They're one of the NL's best teams and in the thick of the playoff race despite a struggling rotation, and he can provide a very tangible impact.

And now Bettis is coming back, as he always believed he would.

"I think God's grace got me through," he said. "At no point in time was I ever worried. It was like, 'This sucks. It really sucks.' I just knew. There was some real grace there, knowing I was going to get through it."

Now he has. Now there really is a reason to smile.

  

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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