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Retired baller Ken Griffey Sr. on why early detection saved his life why he shares prostate cancer story

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Prostate cancer can remain an untold secret or it can tell a story of hope and courage. Retired Major League Baseball All-Star and World Series champion Ken Griffey Sr. chose the latter. He knows more than 29,000 men will die of prostate cancer each year. He is aware prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men in the United States. He also understands men don’t talk about it and that there is a great need for more men to speak out about screening methods and advanced prostate cancer.

So he’s sharing his story and encouraging others to do the same. Griffey Sr. started getting tested in his mid-30s. He was diagnosed when he was 55. It was 2006, and his ex-wife, Alberta, was just diagnosed with colon cancer. Griffey Sr. kept it from his children, Craig Griffey and Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., who was well into his baseball season with the Cincinnati Reds at the time. To finally tell his children was the hardest thing he ever had to do. It was the hardest conversation he’d ever had. Griffey admitted one of the toughest things to do is to get men to speak to doctors about their symptoms.

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, cancer fighters and survivors do not disclose their battle for several different reasons. They’re not ready to talk about it. They’re afraid that other people will be scared. They think other people may not want to be around them. Saying the words out loud makes the cancer more “real.” They don’t want others to feel sorry for them or change how they treat them.

“I had three friends of mine that I played golf with for years,” Griffey Sr. said. “Until I got diagnosed with it, I had no idea that they all had the surgery for prostate cancer and they would not talk about it until they found out I was diagnosed with it.”

Early detection and surgery saved Griffey’s life. The former “Big Red Machine” outfielder is now 66 years old and has been cancer-free for several years. Now, he’s urging men to get tested. Both Griffey Sr. and Jr. have teamed up with the Bayer Men Who Speak Up movement to encourage men to know the symptoms of advanced prostate cancer and the warning signs that accompany the disease.

“This is a very important thing to me in terms of being involved with Men Who Speak Up because I lost four uncles with prostate cancer and my mother was pretty adamant about us being checked as we got older,” Griffey Sr. said. “She raised five boys and one girl as a single mom and she wanted to make sure that we’d be around.”

Outfielders Ken Griffey Jr. #24 (R) and coach Ken Griffey Sr. (L) of the Seattle Mariners laugh together circa 1993 before the start of a Major League Baseball game against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California.
Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. (R) and coach Ken Griffey Sr. (L) of the Seattle Mariners laugh together circa 1993 before the start of a Major League Baseball game against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California.

“For most of them, it’s like a macho thing,” Griffey Sr. added. “They don’t want anybody to know anything, as we say in the sports world, that’s below the belt. But at the same time you have to talk about it. First of all, you don’t feel any symptoms. You have no symptoms until it gets later. Then it’s a tough scenario.”

The baseball great made a stop on Capitol Hill on Sept. 15-16 during the 12th annual African-American Prostate Cancer Disparity Summit. He was part of a panel that addressed policy and medical issues toward eliminating this racial disparity.

“Our focus this year is ensuring that black men are included in the quickly evolving next chapter for prostate cancer early-detection screening, participation in clinical trials and education and awareness initiatives,” said Thomas A. Farrington, founder and president of the Prostate Health Education Network, the leading patient education and advocacy organization addressing the needs of African-American prostate cancer patients and survivors. According to the agency, about one in five African-American men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime, with the highest prostate cancer incidence and mortality rates in the United States.

African-American men suffer the nation’s largest prostate cancer burden with incidence and mortality rates of 60 percent and 150 percent, respectively, higher than all other men. He was familiar with the devastation that comes with prostate cancer if left untreated or not caught in the early stages.

Griffey Sr. played right field on the Reds teams that won back-to-back World Series titles in 1975-76. He was a three-time All-Star, and was named All-Star Game MVP in 1980. He spent part of his final MLB season playing with Griffey Jr. in Seattle in 1991.

Griffey Sr. had only two major health issues during his 19-year career. He broke a kneecap in 1979 and had two vertebrae in his neck fused in 1991, ending his playing career.

Griffey Sr. now has 18 grandkids. “And I want to be around for all of them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.