Monday is Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.’s 60th birthday, and he has another reason to celebrate. Baseball’s Iron Man, who is approaching the 25th anniversary of breaking Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played, is happy and healthy.
Ripken was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year and underwent surgery, which was successful.
“In the early stages of it, it hits you privately,” Ripken said in a telephone conversation on Thursday morning. “I didn’t want to tell anybody. I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me in some ways. In some ways, you feel like there’s something wrong with you, and you don’t want to talk about that.
“I thought I would talk about it internally, and put it inside, just kind of move on. With the benefit of time, and the way it evolved, the story is a very positive story. You find it extremely early. You take action. It was all contained in the prostate, and then you resume your activities in a very normal way.
“I kept thinking, ‘I’m really lucky,’ and maybe by telling the story, I would encourage other people, other guys, instead of not going to get their physical, not going to get bloodwork, thinking it can’t happen to me, then I would encourage them to get a yearly physical, to be proactive in the process. If you’re going to get it, you want to catch it early.”
Ripken couldn’t have played 2,632 consecutive games without being extremely healthy. As a successful businessman, he’s always thinking of ways to get his message across and, with the prevalence of prostate cancer, he wants men to think ahead.
“If you catch it early, the prognosis is very good,” Ripken said. “I started thinking that I had these negative feelings and thoughts that I wanted to keep private, but once I started to look at the bigger picture, I could turn something that potentially was negative in my life, where it was shocking news, and you never want to hear that word cancer associated with you. I thought my story was worthwhile enough to share, maybe enough to turn it into a positive, and help people.”
Ripken’s father, Cal Sr., died of lung cancer at 63 in 1999.
“I’ve got to believe that was caused by him smoking since he was 16,” Ripken said. “Dad wasn’t someone that took advantage of any of the medical opportunities surrounding a ballclub. It’s interesting, as a baseball player, you get physicals all the time, you have the best of medical care all the way around you for anything that ever happens. You have a baseline for anything, bloodwork and other things.
“When you retire, the responsibility falls on you to continue your regular checkups, and I was pretty good about that. Sometimes, I’d get a little lax, depending on how busy I was, and you go, ‘I haven’t had a physical in a while, let me go schedule one.’
“That’s the part when you start to age, and you don’t have the regular physicals, and you’re unlucky to have a period of time when something’s happening to you, and you don’t catch it early.”
Instead, Ripken was one of the fortunate ones.
“I was very lucky,” he said. “My PSA number specifically, it was just moving a couple of percentage points up, really mild. It was still well within the norm range for someone my age.
“It could be explained, an increase in your number as you get older. I was riding a bike quite a bit so it could be explained by riding a bike. It could be explained by infection. It could be explained by anything. I thought it was nothing.
“I just did it as a precaution. I had a few extra tests done that determined whether I needed a biopsy or not. Those tests came back, and said, ‘Yeah, I need a biopsy.’ I had a biopsy and then, all of a sudden, you’re faced with, you have prostate cancer.
“Because I was diagnosed in the middle of Covid, it was the middle of February, I had surgery in the middle of March, and that was the right course of treatment.”
Ripken passed Gehrig’s mark of 2,130 consecutive games played on September 6th, 1995. The streak is an inspiring story, and so is his cancer story.
“Clearly, listening to all the possibilities, that was the right thing for me,” he said about surgery. “It really wasn’t a hard one. Just getting into the hospital and getting the procedure done, I focus on the physical part of that.
“I look back, and I was extremely lucky. It went well. Everything was fine and, basically for me, I could resume my life where it was before. I think that’s a fear when you’re diagnosed. How does your life change?
“Mentally, it changes you a little bit. It stops you in your tracks. You start to think: ‘What’s important in life? How do I spend my time? When you turn 60, you can see the end of your life a little clearer than you could before, so you start thinking in those terms.
“There’s a mental side of this. What I’ve learned from this whole thing is it’s very important to get your regular physical checkups, very important to do the normal bloodwork. It’s very important to pay attention to that kind of stuff because if something were to happen to you, you’re far better off catching it in the early stages when you’ve got a really good chance than letting it grow and spread inside your body.”