All-Star pitcher Liam Hendriks shares how he closed out cancer
By Marty Velasco Hames
Bigger than baseball
That's how some describe Liam Hendriks' battle against cancer.
At 33 years old, the All-Star Major League Baseball closing pitcher is a fan favorite and famous for throwing fastballs at blazing speeds. But, at 33 years old, at the end of the 2022 MLB season, Hendriks made a sobering announcement — he had been diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The day after that announcement, Hendriks began cancer treatment at Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Phoenix, Arizona. His sight was set on beating cancer in time to rejoin his team for the 2023 season.
Hendriks struck out cancer
He did it in traditional Liam Hendriks fashion — focused, fierce, and with a warrior spirit, determined to win the battle. His strength and resilience won him ESPN's 2023 Jimmy V ESPY Award for Perseverance. During his acceptance speech, Hendriks expressed his heartfelt gratitude for his wife Kristi, the Chicago White Sox organization and his healthcare team at Mayo Clinic.
Watch this video to hear Liam Hendriks share how he struck out cancer at Mayo Clinic:
Silver linings guy
Liam Hendriks is known for attacking the best hitters with unflappable composure when the stakes are highest. That's also how he attacked cancer.
"Hope is one of the biggest things," says Hendriks. "I've always had the attitude, 'Why fret, why stress, why bother with a woe is me kind of thing?' Because me complaining about it isn't going to change it." He says he took an "all in" approach to fighting cancer. "I'm a big silver linings guy. So I said, 'This is happening to me right now; how am I going to make good out of this?'"
It was June 2022 when Hendriks noticed some lumps on the back of his neck. He didn't think much of it. A blood test came back clean leading Hendriks to suspect it was just stress. When the season ended, the lumps had grown. A return visit to the doctor and additional tests revealed Hendriks had lymphoma. He underwent a full-body PET scan to see if the cancer had spread. "The scan had black dots all over it. I looked like our dalmation, Olive," says Hendriks. He was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had likely played the entire 2022 season with cancer.
"I'm not worried"
"You have cancer" are not words anyone wants to hear. But Hendriks' doctor, lymphoma specialist Allison Rosenthal, D.O., had three words for him that hit home. "Just after she told us we had stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, she was like, 'I'm not worried.' That has always stuck with me: 'I'm not worried.'"
Dr. Rosenthal also told Hendriks she was a cancer survivor and former athlete herself. "She's been through something similar, she's still here now, she's happy, she's still pushing forward and fighting that fight," says Hendriks. "When a professional who has gone through everything says 'I'm not worried,' that was one of the biggest reliefs in the whole ordeal."
It was like a scene out of a blockbuster sports movie. May 29, 2023, Hendriks returned to the field, cancer-free, and ready to pitch. A roaring crowd welcomed Hendriks with a standing ovation, handmade signs of support, and cheers of "Liam, Liam, Liam." The moment drew the attention of thousands worldwide.
Cancer treatment plan of attack
Hendriks' treatment included a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy. "What he received has been a proven therapy for a long time, and we were hoping to get by with that being all he needed and everything being all cleared up," says Dr. Rosenthal. "Thankfully, that's where we ended up."
Chemo couldn't stop Hendriks
Throughout his four rounds of treatment, Hendriks attended spring training practices with his White Sox team in Scottsdale. Dr. Rosenthal had given Hendriks a green light to train, as long as he didn't overdo it. "I try to understand, for all my patients, what their life is like, what is important to them," says Rosenthal. "I think the more we can keep people in their usual habits and patterns — it just helps things feel regular."
Spring training with cancer
Hendriks said advice from a friend who had overcome testicular cancer gave him the confidence to train through treatment. "He told me, 'No one can tell you what to do; all you can do is what you feel is right,'" says Hendriks. "That was something that really hit me between the eyes. So I said, 'OK, let's see how far I can push it — how long can I go before I start feeling bad.' And the more I did it, I wasn't reacting negatively to it, so I moved forward."
Hendriks says the normalcy of attending practices gave him strength. "I wasn't there with the guys, just in case, because of my immune system, but they'd get there at 10, and I'd get there at 10 to stretch. I'd be in the training room doing my stuff and getting my work in; I just wasn't at the clubhouse as much as I would have liked."
Hendriks believes his friend's advice and Dr. Rosenthal's support were game changers. "It was great advice, and I pushed it."
Hendriks' message to people fighting cancer
Weeks after a PET scan and bone marrow biopsy showed Hendriks was cancer-free, he was sent to North Carolina for a rehab assignment with the Charlotte Knights. By the end of May, he was put back on the White Sox active roster and headed for Chicago. Hendriks is now back to firing bullets from the mound at close to a hundred miles an hour.
Hendriks is also on a mission to use his experience to help others close out cancer. He has this personal message for anyone diagnosed with cancer:
"You're never alone and don't ever for a second think, 'Why me?' You are strong enough to be able to handle it and that's why this happened to you. You are strong enough to be able to get through this. You are strong enough to be able to get to the other side and make a difference for the next person. That's why you. It's never, 'Why me? It's why not me?' I'm going to make this a positive."LIAM HENDRIKS
Watch this video to hear more of Liam Hendriks' story:
Join the Blood Cancers and Disorders Support Group on Mayo Clinic Connect.
Also, read these articles:
- "Dear Mayo Clinic: What is lymphoma?"
- "Understanding, treating lymphoma"
- "Researchers seek to improve success of chimeric antigen receptor-T cell therapy in non-Hodgkin lymphoma"
- "Life after lymphoma"
A version of this article was originally published on the Mayo Clinic News Network.