A new lease on life and fresh perspective: how cancer diagnosis changed Liam Hendriks

CHICAGO, United States -- IT'S JUST MORE than 90 minutes until the first pitch of the first leg of a doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, a washout the night before ensuring that fans will see twice the usual baseball on offer at Guaranteed Rate Field on this Thursday afternoon and evening.

Fortunately, there are few signs there is any risk of any weather disruptions today. Warm-ups are taking place with just a scant flickering of clouds obscuring the bright July sun, and players from both teams are out on the surface performing their warmups; fielding grounders, playing catch, and getting loose as an eclectic mix of R&B, pop, Latin, and rock music plays out over the stadium's speakers. In the home bullpen, pitchers from the White Sox are stretching out their arms and getting loose, including Australian-born closer Liam Hendriks, who is rehabbing inflammation in his elbow while on the injured list.

When he makes his way into the dugout to chat -- after making a brief diversion to the clubhouse to swap out his sweaty 'Struck Out Cancer' t-shirt, as well slip into some Australian flag-adorned slides -- he cuts a much more positive figure than one might expect from a hurler renowned for their aggression and competitiveness that has been forced from the field by a troublesome elbow. But given the road that the 34-year-old West Australian has walked to reach this point, this is a demeanour layered with an important level of perspective.

Back in December, Hendriks received confirmation of something that he'd begun to suspect was coming ever since he was finally sent for a needle biopsy of the persistent lumps that had emerged across his neck throughout the previous season. He had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the body's lymphatic system, which includes the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus gland and bone marrow. Further, his was classified as stage four, which meant that it had spread to one or more tissues or organs outside the lymph system - he says the PET scan that confirmed the diagnosis resembled his dalmatian Olive, such was the spread of black spots indicating cancer on it.

Given that the lumps across his neck had presented as hard, immovable, and painless, he'd at first estimated they were no big deal, especially after a blood test didn't turn up anything untoward. The persistent fatigue and aches and pains he'd been experiencing throughout the season, meanwhile, were able to be dismissed as signs of wear and tear on an ageing body or related to a pre-existing immune condition. Thankfully, eight months on, he's able to look back and poke fun at those misassumptions.

The right-hander and his wife Kristi would announce his diagnosis to the world in January, at the same time he was beginning a combined course of immunotherapy and chemotherapy near his home at the Mayo Clinic's facility in Arizona. He responded to the treatment as well as could have been reasonably hoped for and needed just four of the usual six cycles before being able to announce that he was in remission in April. Just over a month later the White Sox announced that he was being reinstated to the active roster.

A return to the mound to a standing ovation came in an eventual 6-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels a few days later, before he went on to get his first win of the season against the Detroit Tigers on June 4. National Cancer Survivors Day, of all days.

That aforementioned elbow inflammation forced him onto the injured list just a week after that famous moment, snapping his momentum and forcing him into more rehab. But given that these efforts have been able to take place at the ballpark, as opposed to the sterile confines of a haematology/oncology treatment centre, Hendriks retains a sanguine outlook.

"I love being out there again," he says. "Other than drinking a coffee and playing with Legos and sitting on the couch with my dogs, the mound is my happy place. That is where I feel like I can almost unleash the pent-up aggression, almost release all of that.

"I love the day-to-day grind of just the monotony of the day-to-day in baseball. I get to the field at the same time every day. I have the same food every day. I do the same things every day when I'm active. And that's something that I missed, but it's something that just makes me happy and all I'm trying to do is just just be happy right now.

"I'm excited to get back out there whenever they let me again and embrace the rest of the season."

THIS WEEK, HENDRIKS received the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2023 ESPYS, "a symbol of his strength and resilience in his fight against non-Hodgkin lymphoma" and recognition of his efforts to help raise ap $100,000 for cancer research. Though not the express purpose of the award, this public recognition and platform that it will grant hits upon a theme that the pitcher has become increasingly cognizant of as makes his return to action and began discussing his journey with a deliberate, purposeful honesty: of the power that visibility and sharing your story has.

One of MLB's premier bullpen operators -- a three-time all-star and two-time American League reliever of the year -- Hendriks' return to play has become another important and easily discovered example (especially for young people, for which lymphoma accounts for nearly 1-in-5 cancer diagnoses in their age cohort), that not only is it possible to survive a cancer diagnosis, but it's possible to thrive at the highest level.

He himself got an insight into the importance of being able to find others in the same boat as he began to come to grips with the new reality facing him upon diagnosis. One of his first trips, in a time-honoured cancer tradition, was to Google; seeking out others that had experienced what he was about to go through and, perhaps, more importantly, how they had come out of it on the other side.

"I just went straight to celebrities," he recalls. "So, for lymphoma, the Leukaemia Lymphoma Society and Lymphoma Research Foundation, both have published articles all about like people that have gone through it, whether it be Jane Fonda, Michael C Hall, Mario Lemieux - there have been so many different athletes, there have been so many different celebrities, there have been so many different people that have gone through it.

"Knowing that they've gone through it is a big deal."

Inevitably, Hendriks' journey towards becoming a new source of inspiration has been widely celebrated. And while the inspiration tag might be one of the most common superlatives bestowed upon someone going through a cancer experience, it's also one of the most powerful and valuable. Using one's cancer experience as a means to help others is often an incredibly important part of keeping a person's spirits up throughout their treatment and beyond, providing an opportunity to heal by turning one of the worst things that will ever happen to them into something that can benefit others. It robs cancer of some of its impact by making it serve your needs, not the other way around. You're talking back control.

At the same time, though, being an inspiration can carry unique challenges, the kind that is difficult to quite comprehend unless you've experienced it firsthand. The honorific can at times feel like it's becoming an all-consuming public persona, subsuming other aspects of one's identity to the point where it can feel like their disease has become the only thing that people see or care about when they look at them when they're so much more than that. In other cases, it can instil a sense of survivor's guilt, one feeling unworthy of praise when you've seen others suffer to a greater degree than yourself.

It's a complex set of emotions, not all of which are covered above. And there's no right or wrong way to feel about it as a cancer patient, everyone is different.

Hendriks, for his part, knows that being called an inspiration and receiving plaudits for returning to the mound following his diagnosis is something that is going to happen no matter what -- he's previously spoken about getting opposition fans to hate him again with enthusiasm. But he also recognises the power that the label holds, particularly for someone with a platform the size of his, and is happy to embrace it if it empowers him to help others in the middle of their journeys by sharing his own, as well as serving as a signal that a diagnosis doesn't have to spell the end of one's hopes and dreams. However, he makes it quite clear that he wouldn't bestow himself with that title.

"I don't think of myself as inspirational because I'm not doing anything different than a lot of other people do," he explains. "I'm just doing it with a very public outlook.

"I want to always shine the light back on others because I had a very easy run with it; I was on a very mild chemotherapy and I had a very limited amount of treatments. I'm not inspirational compared to a lot of things.

"I'm just doing it a little bit more publicly and I'm very, very open about talking about it. I'm a conduit for a lot of people going through something and whether that brings a smile to someone's day or that gives someone a little bit of hope going through it - I don't think I'm the inspiration.

"Going through and seeing other people and what they've gone through, the ones who are there every single week with no end date, going through things by themselves. There are a lot of other people going through a lot tougher things than I am.

"I want to make sure that I get to those people. And if I have to talk and if I have to be regarded in a certain light, it is what it is but I don't think I'm an inspiration. I don't think I'm a beacon for anything. I just want to make sure that everyone is fully aware because there are a lot of people out there that don't have the support system that I had, there are a lot of people out there who don't have the same view of going through it as I have, there are a lot of people that are out there that don't understand the whole treatment plan and cancer in general.

"It's raising awareness so that everyone knows they're not alone."

WHEN HENDRIKS FIRST got the confirmation of his diagnosis, he needed to engage in an awkward bit of subterfuge: keeping it under wraps while his family was staying with him at his Arizona home. What he couldn't do, though, was attempt to hide it from his wife, Kristi. He might have gotten away with not bringing her to the actual appointment where the diagnosis was confirmed, telling himself he didn't want her to worry, but that wasn't going to fly in the months to come.

To some extent, his success in his career already owes a lot to his wife of 10 years. At a turning point in his career, she'd put him into contact with a tarot card reader and mental coach that had helped him change his thinking surrounding the way he pitched: turning into the aggressive, dominant flamethrower that earned a three-year, $54 million contract to close for the White Sox. In 2021, she matter-of-factly informed him on a drive home after a rough outing against the New York Yankees that his abnormally high home-run rate was because he had been tipping pitches, something which a subsequent film review reinforced.

Cancer, though, was a whole different ball game.

"I think we were both equally worried and we both hid it from the other person," he recalls. "Every time she'd get upset, she would go to the closet or go to the bedroom just to be away from [me]. And for me, it was the same way, I would generally bottle it up and then reflect while I'm driving to the field or something like that.

"There were definitely some times where we were kind of shielding it from the other person but I think that helped us get through to it, to be honest. We didn't show it but we also were very aware that the other person who's going through it as well.

"Now having gone through it, I feel like it's hard on the caretakers in the actual patient. They're sitting there - Kristi came to every single appointment, she can do every single treatment session, every single thing."

Hendriks remembers how throughout his treatment, despite how hard he knew it was for her, Kristi made sure to never let her husband see her break down under the strain and worry. It's an experience that he's shared with the spouses and loved ones of patients in the months since he has returned to public life, reinforcing both how important it is that they take time for themselves, and let their emotions out but also how what his wife's strength and care meant to him.

"She never let me see how hard it was on her because that would have killed me more than anything else, watching my wife go through something like that," he says.

"So her being able to remain stoic and positive and upbeat around me which is not her personality, that was fantastic."

ONE OF THE things they tell cancer patients is how important it is to keep moving if you're able to and to try and stay active. Guidelines discuss how appropriately prescribed and monitored exercise programs can help patients with their mental wellbeing, physical function and quality of life as well as manage fatigue.

For Hendriks, not only did a self-prescribed goal of returning to the mound as soon as possible almost make training throughout his treatment something of a requirement, it also offered him another way to take the fight against his disease. While the treatments he was receiving mostly involved sitting around and waiting for the infusion to finish, this was something that he expressly could do to help improve his outcomes and fight cancer.

At the start of a new cycle, he'd head in for treatment on Monday and Tuesday, always ensuring that the treatment was administered through a needle in his left arm to spare his throwing one any potential damage. The visits where he received immunotherapy were long, up to eight hours before he received the clearance for rapid infusions, whereas the chemo days were short, less than an hour in length. The days that followed were spent being mostly catatonic on the couch.

Then on Friday, he'd head to the White Sox facility in Arizona to train. Loading up on Aussie sporting podcasts to listen to on the 40-minute drive, the North Melbourne fan otherwise not really able to keep up with what was happening back home, he cleared most of The Howie Games during his treatment and started listening to the likes of The Mason Cox show and Flightless Bird with David Farrier.

Enjoying the routine and working towards his goal of returning to the majors, that ritual would repeat the next day before Sunday was off. Then for the next three weeks, it was Monday through Saturday at the facility, before another round of treatment rolled around and it all repeated.

"I'm not exactly the most active person," he laughs. "I loved getting on a peloton now and then but for me, my entire job is throwing a baseball and I just throw a baseball a lot. I don't necessarily run, I don't work out or do those sorts of things. So being at the field and forcing myself to do certain things [was important].

"The normalcy aspect was huge. Just being able to go out there doing your normal day-to-day life, acting like nothing has changed too much, that was a big one for me just going there and just feeling normal.

"Once I got through my second round, once I came back from that, spring training had also started so not only was I there at the field, but it was also everyone else's there. So you have that little bit of a community. Being around the guys, that sort of stuff helped a lot."

As an athlete so used to the regimented, almost military-like nature of playing week in and week out in the majors, Hendriks almost took a level of comfort in knowing where he had to be and what he had to do at all times. Though this sudden loss of autonomy can be challenging for some, which, again, is perfectly valid, he saw the parallels between being on time to his appointments and planning his day around them to what life is like in the clubhouse.

"Knowing where and when I had to be somewhere was almost relaxing," he explained. "It's almost like 'okay, a week on Monday at six o'clock, we're at the hospital so that means I leave at 5.15 to go grab a coffee on the way to the hospital'. That's what I'm doing. And then Tuesday, I gotta be there at seven, so I gotta leave the house at 6.15. I love knowing what to do - or being told what to do more likely.

"Being an athlete going through certain things like that, you are trained to be that way. If stretch time is at four every day, I've got to have all my stuff done before 3.55. So I can get out there.

"And the same thing with treatment. You've got to do this. Okay, do it. Can I eat? Can I drink? Can I do this? No. Okay. I've got to wake up at this time to make sure I don't do any of this. It's part and parcel of the way things go but I mean, it is what it is and nothing I can change."

ON APRIL 6, Hendriks posted a video to his Instagram of him completing one of the biggest milestones for not only a cancer patient, but also the team of doctors and nurses - Hendriks was frequently treated by nurse Kaylee, whose frequent presence he described as "fantastic" - that have worked with them: ringing the bell to signify not only the end of treatment but if all goes to plan, the start of the rest of their life, and a new way of looking at things.

Some of these new habits, admittedly, are the hangups one normally associates with a lymphoma diagnosis; Hendriks frequently touches and examines his neck to see if he can feel any signs of the lumps and bumps that had marked his initial diagnosis.

But he also feels like he's more direct and up-front with things. Having been forced to confront his mortality, he has less patience and less willingness to put up with "crap" and a greater desire to live his life the way he wants to. Albeit, this has faced some barriers: having kept his hair in treatment, he'd wanted to match the silver streak running down it ("like Rogue from the X-Men") with a full dye job, only for Kristi to veto it.

"As far as short-term perspective, [cancer has] definitely changed some things, I put up with a lot less crap," Hendriks says. "There are certain times where I'm like, I don't want to deal with this. I'm just gonna walk away instead.

"Instead of being that person who was constantly trying to mesh everybody together or do certain things, it's to the point now where like, after all the cancer, I couldn't care less. I'm over it. I'm just gonna focus on me.

"It seems very selfish, it sounds like that way but you know what? It's something that I focus on me. That's all I can control right now.

"There's nothing in my life that I could have done differently, that would have prevented me from getting this. I may as well live my life the way I want to live it and you know, I don't if I don't want to put up with petty bullshit, I don't put up with petty bullshit."

In addition, part of Hendriks' efforts to reach out to others and use his platform to elevate them and their stories comes when the White Sox hit the road, where he's working with opposing teams to try and find local fans going through their own cancer experience.

"What I'm doing every road trip is getting someone who's either currently going through or has just gotten over, or has just got diagnosed with cancer," he explains. "And we're getting the family group out, we're getting them out on the field for batting practice.

"I will spend time with them just chatting and talking because I think one of those things I've realised is the more you talk about this stuff, the more pressure gets almost taken off. So it's like it's almost like a relief."

And as he's rapidly discovered, peer support and the ability to talk with somebody else that has a real, tangible experience with the same physical and emotional challenges is an incredibly powerful tool for those living with cancer; connecting with those with the same lived experiences, who possess the same understanding and whose judgement or inability to relate doesn't need to be feared, has its own, unique power.

"Talking to people, you can feel the weight being drawn off them," Hendriks says. "[Cancer is] still known as such a taboo thing to talk about for whatever reason. We're like 'I don't want to do this. I don't want to talk about this because it's going to bring everybody else down'.

"And you know what? Everyone's going through some sort of an affliction, whether it be cancer, whether it be depression, whether it be anxiety, whether it be any other name of disease or anything like that but what I found is, the more you talk about it, the less stigma there is around it, the less kind of concerned you are with what people think about it.

"Talk about it because it makes you feel so much lighter, it makes you feel so much better."