In midst of cancer battle, Berry coping with new normal

In midst of cancer battle, Berry coping with new normal

In midst of cancer battle, Berry coping with new normal

PHOENIX -- It wasn't that Reds third-base coach Mark Berry didn't appreciate being with the team back on the road again this past weekend. He certainly likes being around the players and participating in the daily work of the coaching staff.

Berry has more basic needs to savor first. Having the energy to get out of bed again tops the priority list. Eating certainly ranks very high, as does tasting a little bit of the food he's consuming again.

You see, the 50-year-old Berry recently completed radiation and chemotherapy. Near the end of Spring Training, he was diagnosed with cancer on his left tonsils and lymph nodes. The personal abyss was at its worst toward the end of the treatments.

"The last week and a half, I finally started climbing out," said Berry, who is in his 30th season with the organization. "I'm still pretty weak. I get tired real easy. That's normal.

"Eight days ago, I finally started eating my first food -- just basic stuff, salad and vegetables. Sweets and meats are just terrible. Everything is real dry. The radiation killed all the taste buds on my tongue. The saliva glands on the left side of my mouth don't work right now. I get real dry and dehydrated."

Berry first detected something in December when his tonsils became swollen, and a month later, he started feeling something that felt like marbles in his neck. Those were his lymph nodes, which had hardened because of the cancer. He left camp and returned to Cincinnati for the tests, which confirmed the bad news.

In the last week of Spring Training in Arizona, Berry told the team during a clubhouse meeting.

"We knew that he would beat it, the way that he is," shortstop Zack Cozart said.

Beating it required a temporary new normal, however. Berry decided against the more invasive surgery and opted for chemo and radiation. He hoped to work home games at night as the bench coach, since he would be getting treatments at University Hospital during the day time. Bench coach Chris Speier moved to the third-base line during camp.

The reality soon set in that it would not be possible for Berry to work at all. Former player Miguel Cairo, who retired last season, became acting bench coach. Both Speier and Cairo have been praised for the work, but Berry's absence was still felt.

"I am really fond of him and missed him while he was gone," first baseman Joey Votto said. "He is an excellent coach. He's a very knowledgeable person. I think we're lucky to have him. When he wasn't here, he was missed."

With his energy sapped, it was hard for Berry just to get out of bed. Because of the aforementioned radiation, food was tough to eat. Chemo made him nauseous. Many cancer patients get a feeding tube, but Berry declined because it would have required a surgical procedure.

Built with an already thin frame to begin with, Berry said he dropped 40 pounds during his treatment -- from 215 to 175.

"There was two-week period where I was close [to getting the feeding tube]," Berry said. "I was hurting so bad that I couldn't eat. It was Gatorade, water and a couple of little nutrient shakes -- that was all I had for seven weeks. You can't taste anything. It's like chewing on cardboard. Your throat is sore. Your teeth are really sensitive -- the nerve endings. You can't brush your teeth. It feels like your teeth are going to fall out. You get canker sores all on your tongue and cheeks. Fruits really burn my mouth, still."

Yet under the circumstances, Berry could still count himself as fortunate. He knew there were others, at the very same hospital, going through a much tougher fight. There are no good types of cancer, but there are certainly more brutal, evil forms of the dreaded disease.

"Some people go through six, eight and 12 months of chemo. I talked to people at the hospital," Berry said. "Man, I don't know how they do it. What I went through was tough, but I couldn't imagine doing more than that."

Berry managed to stop by Great American Ball Park from time to time. While he stayed positive, he looked like he had been roughed up. That's because he was. The left side of his face had a deep sun burn that looked as though he was standing directly next to the sun. His nose was flaked with burnt skin.

"It was tough seeing him come in when he was going for treatment and stuff. He did not have a lot of energy and seemed kind of down," Cozart said. "As a player, it puts things in perspective. You come into the dugout and 0-for-3 and see Bear, you know there are a lot more things in life more important than going 0-for-3 in a baseball game."

Once his treatments were completed and the side effects reduced, Berry could do more than visit the team. He put on the uniform and went back to work, part time at the start of the Reds' previous homestand on June 14. On Thursday afternoon, he boarded the charter flight with the team for its three-city, eight-game road trip.

Is Berry ready to hit fungoes and throw batting practice yet, staple activities for all Major League coaches? Not just yet. The energy isn't all the way back. Halfway through a BP session last week, he had to go inside for a break when his legs got tired. But he's walking around more and building up strength.

"The last homestand, I sat in the dugout really observing a lot of things," said Berry, still missing hair on the back of his head. "I'm helping out with signs. I'm in on meetings again. Mentally, I'm back. I'm really improving mentally. Two weeks ago, I was still kind of in a fog and couldn't really focus. Now things are getting better and I'm involving myself a lot more."

Berry is the Reds' longest-tenured coach, with 15 Major League seasons, the last 10 as their third-base coach. Each Spring Training, he coordinates the Spring Training plans and drills.

Manager Dusty Baker kept Berry on his staff when he took over in 2008.

"Mark is valuable to our team and means a lot to our team. It's a psychological lift to see one of your comrades return," said Baker, himself a survivor of prostate cancer. "He's been through hell, like most cancer patients."

Berry is aiming for a full-time return either just before or after the All-Star break. Baker wants him to have the goal, but also wants to be cautious.

"I've got to protect him. I don't know how quickly he can move out of the way of some of the line drives down there," Baker said. "His life has changed. It will be back to normal, but will probably never be the same outlook on life. He'll see life a lot different now, and it's probably brighter. What happens when you're in that situation, you notice some things you were taking for granted before. He's just happy to eat again."

While the treatments are over, the cloud of cancer is not gone from above Berry's head. He is scheduled to undergo a final PET scan on Sept. 4 to determine if the cancer is gone. If it's not, surgery would be a potential option.

Right now, things look good. The feeling of marbles in the lymph nodes is gone and Berry said a scope already showed doctors that the tumor had been greatly reduced. The burnt skin inside his throat is turning into new skin again.

"You want to be positive," Berry said. "Deep down, I think I'm going to beat it on the first go around, but there's always that little doubt."

That's yet another part of Berry's new normal.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.