Baseball coach shows no signs of rectal cancer five years after treatment
When Tony Beasley was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer in 2016, he could have easily asked “Why me?” Instead, he posed the unlikely question: “Why not me?”
That’s because Tony viewed his diagnosis not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to encourage others to get screened, and to tell fellow survivors to stay positive during treatment.
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you deal with it,” he says. “Having cancer gave me a platform to share my experience and give hope to others.”
A rectal cancer diagnosis
Tony’s story starts like that of many rectal cancer survivors – no family history of the disease and only a few vague symptoms.
“I’ve been an athlete all my life, so I’ve always been healthy and in shape,” says Tony, a third base coach for the Texas Rangers baseball team. “That’s why when I began noticing blood in my stool and experiencing hemorrhoids for the first time ever, I wrote it off as no big deal.”
But by the time baseball season ended, the hemorrhoids had become so painful that they interfered with Tony’s sleep. He flew home to Richmond, Virginia and visited a gastroenterologist.
The doctor did a quick examination, then ordered a colonoscopy.
“I thought ‘uh oh,’” Tony recalls. “I knew by the look on his face that something wasn’t right.”
The colonoscopy revealed a rectal tumor about the size of a grape. It was located near the lower end of the anal canal.
“I’m a man of faith, so my first thought was, ‘I’ll beat it,’” Tony recalls. “I didn’t get upset or down in the dumps. I knew I’d be fine.”
That night, Tony and his wife, Stacy, broke the news to their son, Tony Jr., who was away at college.
“That’s the hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make,” Tony says, “but he took it like a champ.”
Then Tony notified the Texas Rangers. The franchise rallied around their popular coach who was treasured for simultaneously dispensing tough love and pure joy to players.
A colleague urged Tony to contact MD Anderson.
“He said it was the best cancer center in the country, so I made the call and got an appointment," Tony says.
Rectal cancer treatment: Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery
Two weeks before spring training began, Tony arrived in Houston. He met with his care team led by gastrointestinal medical oncologist Kanwal Raghav, M.D., and colorectal cancer surgeon George Chang, M.D.
The doctors shared their recommendation: four rounds of a combination chemotherapy regimen called FOLFOX, which includes the drugs folinic acid, fluorouracil and oxaliplatin. The drugs would be administered into his bloodstream every other week for eight weeks. After chemotherapy, Tony would undergo 30 rounds of radiation therapy for six weeks, five days a week. Finally, he would have surgery to remove what remained of the tumor.
“I completely trusted their plan,” Tony says. “Just knowing I was at MD Anderson put me at ease and gave me assurance that I was getting the best care anywhere.”
Tony’s chemotherapy was scheduled to start in mid-February, the same time his team’s spring training was getting underway in Arizona.
“No way was I going to miss spring training,” he says. “I didn’t want to lie in bed and act sick. I wanted to keep working and stick to my normal routine.”
Raghav devised a solution. He enlisted a colleague at a clinic in Arizona to administer Tony’s chemo there. The two doctors communicated frequently about Tony’s progress, with the Arizona oncologist closely following Raghav’s instructions.
A regular presence on the baseball field
Each chemotherapy session lasted three hours. Many patients read, watched TV or napped to pass the time. Not Tony, who walked into the clinic each morning smiling broadly, cracking jokes, and greeting each patient and health care provider by name.
Jamie Reed, the Rangers’ senior director of medical operations, picked Tony up after each chemotherapy session and drove him back to the ballpark.
Tony responded so well to chemotherapy that he was a regular presence on the field. His manager urged him to stay in the hotel and rest on difficult days. But Tony didn’t plan on having any bad days.
“No matter what,” he says, “I just kept moving.”
He took daily walks with Rangers manager and bone cancer survivor Jeff Banister – our “old man walks,” Tony called them.
Facing rectal cancer treatment side effects
After chemotherapy ended, Tony traveled back to MD Anderson for six weeks of radiation therapy. Each morning, he walked a half mile from his hotel to the radiation suite. His radiologist, Prajnan Das, M.D., suggested he find transportation before the treatment weakened him too much to walk.
“I told him ‘That won’t happen. I’m going to walk to all 30 of my appointments until I’m done.’ And I did,” Tony recalls.
Through it all, he barely wavered physically, losing only about 10 pounds during chemotherapy and radiation. Doctors told him he was a “poster child” for fighting off side effects that others commonly experience. There was no nausea, no loss of energy, no dramatic change in his blood count, and no pain.
Chang marveled at Tony’s endurance and told him: “You don’t have to deal with cancer – cancer has to deal with you.”
Back to the ballpark
With radiation completed, Tony underwent surgery to remove what remained of the tumor. Chang performed the operation robotically, using master controls on a console to manipulate small-scale surgical instruments inside the body.
“Although Tony's surgery was complex, the robotic approach resulted in fewer incisions and a faster recovery time,” Chang says.
During the seven-and-a-half-hour operation, Chang updated Tony’s wife with good news: the tumor had shrunk significantly and was basically reduced to scar tissue.
Chang rerouted Tony’s intestine to a temporary ostomy bag that collected waste for three months while the area that was operated on healed. On Dec. 5, 2016 – Tony’s 50th birthday – Chang removed the bag in one final surgery. and declared Tony “NED,” meaning he had “no evidence of disease.”
Tony returned to full-time duties with the Rangers in April 2017. An accomplished gospel singer, he sang a stirring rendition of the national anthem at the team’s opening day pregame ceremonies. His performance in front of a sellout crowd of 50,000 went off without a hitch.
‘Best year of my life’
Today, Tony returns to MD Anderson once a year for check-ups. It’s been five years since his treatment began, and still, no evidence of cancer.
Through his yearlong treatment, he gained a new perspective.
“Most people in my shoes would say 2016 was a terrible year because it was spoiled by cancer,” he says. “But 2016 was the best year of my life. It strengthened my faith, my love for my family, and my commitment to making a difference while I’m here. It’s amazing that the toughest time of your life can be the best time of your life.”