Fighting cancer a way for Breslow to give thanks
Reliever founded Strike 3 Foundation in honor of sister's survival
Reflection and appreciation.
Two rather simple but often times forgotten -- possibly ignored -- acts.
Both, though, are pervasive in the Breslow household -- especially during the holidays, a time of thanks in which Craig Breslow annually watches the duo of gestures intertwine to form a common underlying theme at his family's dinner table.
"I think a lot of people will be searching for things to be thankful for," Breslow said. "I guess, for us, luckily and fortunately, they're pretty apparent."
Some even apparent to the general public, or at least to the baseball community. Breslow has finally found a stable home with the Oakland A's -- his fifth team in five years -- and is eligible for arbitration, meaning his salary is likely to soon bump to seven figures following a season in which he ranked among the top American League relievers in several categories.
The life and earnings of a professional baseball player are generous, no doubt. Breslow is neither blind nor careless of that notion. He understands it well and is grateful. He will surely make a toast of appreciation for that on Thanksgiving Day. And in turn, he will reflect on the days that led him to this point.
Those days, spanning 30 years, were not always full of happy Thanksgivings. In fact, there was that "worst Thanksgiving we ever had" -- as described by Breslow's mother, Ann -- 18 years ago. Breslow was 12, and his sister, Lesley, was 14. Lesley had a large lump on her neck.
"The doctors were watching it and treating it with antibiotics," Ann recalled. "They knew something wasn't right, and in our hearts we all knew something was terribly wrong."
Lesley had thyroid cancer. At the time, no one knew it. And it was the not knowing that made it hard to enjoy Thanksgiving that year. A daughter was sick, and her parents were trying to protect their son from fearing more than he should.
Please note: the Breslows -- Craig, Lesley, Ann and father Abe -- are not about to deem this a sad story. Because it's not.
Spoiler alerts in this case would speak of a happy outcome, with healthy and rich lives for all. They would highlight Craig's Strike 3 Foundation, influenced by Lesley's battle, which is continuously growing to combat cancer. And they would rejoice in Lesley's current life, one enriched by her husband, Paul Palange, and 15-month-old son Jagger -- "the best-dressed baby, thanks to Uncle Craig," Lesley said.
All of this, the tales of a blessed family stationed in Connecticut, is true. But to appreciate it, as the Breslows do every Thanksgiving, is to reflect on it all -- the good and the bad.
This is their story.
When thinking back on that fateful year of 1992, certain recollections are a blur for Ann. Others, not so much -- like when Lesley came down the stairs one day and pointed her mom to a big lump on her neck.
"I remember that," Ann said. "Something was not right. It was too big and too obvious to be a little infection."
The doctor informed them it had been there awhile, possibly months or even a year. But the way it protruded, well, that was a result of Lesley turning her neck a certain way, which turned out to be a fortunate happening -- the first of several in this story.
"Because it was so big," Ann said, "we knew something was wrong and we could ultimately treat it."
But not before several other attempts, ones that involved antibiotics and weekly measuring. The lump didn't go down and it didn't go away, so a biopsy was ordered in December. Instead of being sent home to hear of the results a week later, as is custom, Ann and Abe were told to stay with Lesley in the waiting room.
"I think, at that point, they knew it wasn't good," Ann said. "They checked it right away. Within an hour, they came back and told us it was malignant."
Lesley was officially diagnosed with pediatric thyroid cancer. Craig, meanwhile, was at a friend's house. He was unaware that his older sister had been making regular visits to the doctor. On this day, he found out. And only one thing came to mind.
"I remember my dad saying, 'She has cancer,'" he said. "And I said, 'Is she going to die?' That was the exchange. I'll remember it forever."
"I think he was more scared than anything because he didn't understand it," Ann said. "His sister had cancer, and cancer meant somebody was going to die.
"It was a horrible, horrible time in our lives. No one should ever have to go through it. It humbles you in a heartbeat. It really does. You just have a million emotions, and you immediately wonder why it couldn't be me and not my child.
"And then you have another child that you still want everything to be as normal as possible. So you still want to take him to soccer and baseball and maintain a normalcy while your insides are just scraping trying to take care of your daughter. Just awful."
Ann was sure of Craig's astuteness and his ability to see this pain. He did, but he also watched Lesley's reaction to it all.
"I can remember when my sister would be in her room, which is where most 14-year-olds spend a lot of their time, and the rest of the family would be downstairs crying," Craig said. "She would come down and say, 'Why are you guys crying?"
Ann recalls the tears well.
"We did nothing except cry," she said. "We tried for the kids, but in your heart you're just scared to death."
Lesley, though, was more worried about her high school future. Here she was a freshman at Trumbull High, trying to make her way through the already tough teen years, simply wanting to get back to school, see her friends and join the track team.
"I think it was a given in my family -- if you're given something you're not happy with, you're going to deal with it," she said. "It was never about the negative. It was about, this is what we're going to do, we're with the best doctors, and we're going to be fine. I think that's the way I looked at it. I have to deal with it, I'm in the best hands, and that's it.
"I was a typical selfish teen, just wanting to get back to a normal high school life. I don't think I was educated or old enough to realize what the cancer meant. I just remember my parents being upset, which obviously made me upset, but I don't think I really understood what that meant for the future. All I knew was I was going to have to have surgery to remove the cancer."
She did, just before Christmas. This made for another worst holiday for the Breslows -- "the worst Christmas in the world," Ann said. The surgery was a success, but Ann remembers nothing but a worry-filled winter.
"My first feeling was, am I sure they got it all?" she said. "How do we know they got it all? I would watch her like a hawk. Every time she would sneeze or cough or, really, anything, I would think, 'Something else is wrong.' That they didn't get it all."
Lesley endured a second surgery after the New Year for good measure, a cleanup procedure of sorts. The tears slowly stopped, and the Breslows -- still understandably overcome with a dose of apprehension -- began realizing they were, as Craig believes, "the lucky ones."
The cancer was said to be gone, but the nerves proved slower to leave. Still, Ann and Abe were thankful for not having to watch their daughter undergo the trials and tribulations of chemotherapy or radiation. This realization fell under the good-fortune category, the one that continued to grow.
"Once she had the first scan come back clean, we were all relieved, but subsequent scans were still nerve-wracking," Craig said. "Anytime she had to see the endocrinologist or oncologist, it was nerve-wracking. But once you hear the words 'cancer free,' that's when you realize you made it."
"Craig kept asking if she would really be all right, and we kept saying, 'Yes, absolutely.'" Ann said. "We made ourselves believe it. Fortunately, things worked out as well as they could, and this all goes back to Thanksgiving. That's what we have to be thankful for."
Lesley was limited in her activities during the early months of 1993, but by June she was caught up with schoolwork. Three years later, she was headed to Indiana University, and, later, grad school at Fordham University.
To this day, Ann is still very protective of her daughter -- as well as Craig -- and now her grandson. Lesley, now a 32-year-old guidance counselor and in remission for more than 20 years, still goes in for regular scans and blood work. That part of it will be with her forever. For Craig, the experience will be embedded in his mind for the rest of his days, too.
That's OK, though. It's those memories, more so the joyful ones than the distressing ones, which have him on a mission to aid in the fight to cure cancer.
In 2007, when Craig found himself in the middle of winning a World Series championship with the Boston Red Sox, he also found himself thinking of using his name, with what little notoriety he had gained, to do some good in the world.
He had always thought he'd fulfill that longing to do good as a doctor. After all, he had received degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale in 2002, and was on the cusp of attending medical school at New York University before baseball called him to continue pitching.
"I had always been interested in medicine," he said. "I broke my wrist when I was 9 or 10, and I was fascinated by the fact I could go to the doctor's office and they could put a cast on me and fix me. Then, going through with my sister's situation, that was confirmation. Medicine was high on my list of priorities as long as baseball has been."
Craig didn't dare let the big leagues change that. So, in 2008, while sitting around with good friend Joe Lizza -- a teacher who often used to catch Craig during the offseason -- at his parents' house, Craig threw around different ideas to get the wheels going on a lifelong goal.
"We were thinking it would be really neat to do something good for people," Craig said. "We were trying to find some cause to get behind. Then we just thought, 'Let's do the whole thing ourselves. Let's make our own charity with our own cause.'"
Enter the Strike 3 Foundation, formed to heighten awareness, mobilize support and raise funds for childhood cancer research. This is where all that good fortune comes in. Craig was ready to give it back, to celebrate the triumphs rather than dwell on the negative.
"My sister's case was pretty straightforward," he said. "Fortunately, the prognosis was really good. I thought that was really important. I thought, and still think, that's the most important impetus for starting a charity, in my opinion -- celebrating the successes instead of highlighting the tragic story. The importance of funding research and raising awareness is because of the success stories. It's because people survive as a result of funding and research and treatment."
To that end, Craig has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars, and the foundation's $100,000-a-year grant has allowed Yale's Smilow Cancer Hospital to start a Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Program.
"I don't know how I would have been affected had Lesley's situation been graver," he said, "but to me, the fact that she could be afflicted with such a terrible disease and be cured within six months and live a fully unrestricted life, that's the reason why we celebrate."
Much of that mindset comes from Craig's vision of Lesley, occupied in her bedroom, not wanting to add to the tears downstairs while she was sick. Lesley was the bravest of them all, the solid rock during a time when many expected her to break apart.
"It's funny, because I've found that, through meeting a number of cancer patients, and my sister included, the patients themselves seem to be the strongest," Craig said. "It turns out that family members and friends lean on them, and they become the pillar. That's the way she was, and that's what I've seen."
He's witnessed it in a handful of hospitals, where children welcome his visits and appreciate his positive attitude. Craig enjoys it just as much as them, if not more.
It was at the Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital where he met Isaias Valentin, a young boy diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. The two swapped words and laughter as Valentin underwent a chemotherapy treatment. Months later, the upbeat personality that was Valentin passed away at age 9. To honor his heroic fight, Craig created the Isaias Valentin Award for Courage, to be awarded to a child at his First Pitch Gala every year.
"That's something that's remarkable, and I think that's probably one of the most noteworthy comments I can make," Craig said. "When you go to the hospital and visit a kid who is 9 years old and he's got no anger, and he's hooked up to IVs and on his way to a chemo treatment, and he's smiling and asking why everybody is so sad. There's no event, there's no amount of money, there's no donation that could ever substitute seeing that."
On Nov. 13, at the foundation's third annual gala, Craig presented the first Isaias Valentin Award for Courage to Daniel Trainor, a 12-year-old boy who was diagnosed with brain tumors three years ago and has since undergone 12 brain surgeries. Trainor, despite the odds, has -- like Craig -- found fortune in his situation. This amazes Craig, who -- still clearly taken aback by his new friend -- enthusiastically spoke of Trainor's surprisingly peaceful demeanor.
"He's weak, and we gave him an award and he spoke, and he was saying that he's lucky," Craig explained. "When we told him that he would be receiving this reward, his reaction was, 'Why? Why do I deserve this award? I'm just a happy kid.'
"Here's a kid who can't walk without assistance of a walker, he's got a patch over one eye, he's got double vision, he's short of breath, he can barely stand up. But he's lucky because he's awake and he can recognize his parents and remembers all of his relations, he's been able to keep up with his schoolwork, and he's in a hospital next to people who haven't opened their eyes in months. Perception is everything."
The Breslows will be reminded of that notion on Thanksgiving. They will descend upon a friend's home, where Craig will be encompassed by his biggest fans, the family that has lent much of their own time and efforts to his charity.
"It's a phenomenal time when we look back on how much we're thankful for," Ann said. "Lesley is fine, she's married, we have a grandson, and Craig is doing terrific work. I couldn't be more proud of him. We're thankful for a huge amount every year."
Craig and Lesley have grown closer, knowing full well that that worst Thanksgiving and that worst Christmas is behind them.
"When I was 14, if you had asked me the impact this had on me, I probably would have said it was a sad time in my life but we've moved on," Craig said. "Now I'm seeing another generation where my contemporaries are having kids themselves, and I'm realizing the importance of charity and community and family. Progressively, we've had more and more to be thankful for."
All through the lens of reflection. And appreciation.