Until a few years ago, Brandon Huntsman didn't know anyone who had cancer. Now he is all too familiar with the disease.
Huntsman, a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher for the Class A Frederick Keys, learned he had testicular cancer in March 1997. Later that fall, one of Huntsman's former minor league roommates, outfielder Joel Stephens, discovered he had colon cancer.
It is a cruel coincidence that two strapping young minor leaguers in the Baltimore Orioles' organization would be felled by the same disease, especially since then-Oriole Eric Davis's colon cancer also was diagnosed in 1997. Huntsman and Stephens appeared outwardly healthy, full of potential.
"You don't expect a young person in the prime of their athletic life to get cancer," said Tom Trebelhorn, director of player development for the Orioles. "It's not common, but it's certainly not uncommon."
Huntsman may yet realize the dream the former roommates shared of playing in the major leagues. Stephens, who played three seasons in the minors, died Sept. 30, 1998, at age 21.
"Joel was one of my good friends," Huntsman said. "I lived with him. It was weird because I had [the cancer] first before he got diagnosed. It makes people start thinking a little more, two guys who looked so healthy. Joel especially, he was a big kid before, real healthy. . . . His [death] came as a huge shock."
After two surgeries to remove his cancer, Huntsman has made a full recovery. Last year, in his first season back since the surgeries, he went 7-6 with a 3.94 ERA at Delmarva. He began this season in Delmarva, then was promoted to Frederick on May 9. He has a 3-2 record with a 5.97 earned run average since being called up.
"His fastball is his best pitch," Keys pitching coach Larry Jaster said. "That's kind of the reason he's pitched well here. He needs to learn how to get it down in the strike zone more, but he's been effective. . . . He's the type you have to hit him to beat him. He doesn't walk people."
Doctors discovered Huntsman's cancer during a routine physical examination he had in Florida for spring training in 1997. He was 21 years old.
After his blood tests came back abnormal, doctors first suspected anemia. Huntsman was shocked by the eventual diagnosis of testicular cancer. He had no indication his health was in jeopardy.
"I was in disbelief," he said. "I felt fine. I was ready to pitch that day."
Testicular cancer is most often found in young men ages 15 to 35. Doctors discovered Huntsman's cancer on a Monday. He had surgery two days later, then returned home to Utah to recuperate. However, follow-up tests indicated the cancer had spread to his stomach. Huntsman endured a second surgery, but with better results. The second surgery proved so successful he didn't need to undergo chemotherapy.
"I got lucky," Huntsman said. "They thought I was going to have to have [chemotherapy], but when they removed [the cancer], there was nothing more."
Huntsman had a difficult time recovering from the second surgery. To get to the cancer, doctors had to cut through his abdominal muscles. For a while, he couldn't stand up straight. It took almost six weeks before he could sit up comfortably.
By July 1997, he felt well enough to return to Florida to work out. He pitched for a few innings before back pain sidelined him.
The cancer "gives you a different outlook," he said. "Baseball at that time was probably the most important thing. . . . Having come back and actually started playing, I started to think how good I had it, getting paid to play. It makes you want it a little more."
Huntsman still has blood tests and chest X-rays three times a year. He has CAT scans once a year. Doctors have told him if he remains cancer-free for the next five years, he should be in the clear.
He is grateful to the Orioles and to baseball in general for the support he received during his ordeal. The Orioles paid all of his medical expenses not covered by his insurance.
"They didn't have to," Huntsman said. "We have insurance. . . . But they called and told me not to worry about it; they'd take care of everything. That was huge having them do that. It was nothing I asked for or expected. . . .
"Something good will come out of baseball for me. I probably never would have had that test if I wasn't playing. I wouldn't have had that physical."
CAPTION: Brandon Huntsman, 23, twice had surgery after learning in March 1997 he had testicular cancer.