One of baseball’s best batters ever, Tony Gwynn, died of cancer of his salivary glands on June 16, 2014. The New York Times called Gwynn “the best pure hitter of his generation”. During 20 seasons for the San Diego Padres, he had an incredible .338 career batting average, hit above .300 for 19 consecutive seasons (a National League record), won eight batting titles, was a 15-time All Star, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007. After retiring from the Padres in 2001, he became head baseball coach at San Diego State University.
A Successful Family
His brother Chris was also a major league outfielder who played for the Padres. His daughter is rhythm-and-blues singer Anisha Nicole and his son is major league outfielder Tony Gwynn, Jr.
Tony blamed his cancer on the chewing tobacco he used in his right cheek during his entire 20-year career with the Padres, and for ten years after that. He was a left-handed batter and stuffed the tobacco in his right cheek facing the pitcher every time he came to bat. He admitted to everyone who asked that he was addicted to tobacco. Nicotine, found in all tobacco, is addictive. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer, he had to take other substitutes for nicotine to get him off chewing tobacco.
Three times during his career, doctors found benign growths on the right side of his face, but Gwynn kept “dipping.” Then, a biopsy showed a cancer inside his mouth, and on Aug. 31, Gwynn had surgery to have most of it removed. The cancer came back and in February 2012, he had even more extensive surgery. 28 months later the cancer killed him.
Nobody Has Shown That Chewing Tobacco Causes Salivary Gland Cancer
Tony Gwynn’s cancer doctor at Scripps Memorial Hospital, Dr. Prabhakar Tripuraneni, stated correctly that there was no proven link between smokeless tobacco and cancer of the parotid. All forms of tobacco are associated with cancers of the mouth, tongue, lips, throat, tonsils and gums, but extensive data fail to show that smoking or drinking alcohol are linked to salivary gland cancers (Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, February 1998;118(2):195–198).
Other Possible Causes of Parotid Gland Cancers
• Radiation: working with radiation or being treated with it for other cancers
• Genetics: Family history of salivary gland cancer increases risk
• HPV: Researchers have found the human papilloma wart virus in salivary gland cancer.
• Mobile phones: Suggested, but certainly not proven. Most reviews find no convincing evidence linking mobile phone use to any type of cancer. The World Health Organization’s advisory group recommends use of earpieces that keep the phone away from the head.
Major League Baseball Still Permits Chewing Tobacco
Other famous baseball players including Babe Ruth, Brett Butler and Bill Tuttle developed mouth cancers after using chewing tobacco for many years. Smokeless tobacco is prohibited in high school and college baseball, but not in the big leagues because the players union has prevented attempts to ban it. It is a potent stimulant which does improve concentration and helps keep the players awake during some of their long and tedious games. One famous player said “Bubble gum and sunflower seeds don’t do the job.”
A 1999 survey showed that one-third of Major League rookies are regular smokeless tobacco users and more than two-thirds had tried smokeless tobacco. Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement in 2001 mandates that smokeless tobacco be banned in all professional minor leagues. In 2011 Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to stop teams from providing tobacco to players and make it unavailable in clubhouses. Players cannot have tobacco tins in their uniforms or do interviews while using chewing tobacco. The players’ union prevents banning tobacco during games. “I use it as a stimulator when I go to hit,” Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz told the Boston Globe.
Tony Gwynn’s Cancer
Three times doctors removed benign growths on the right side of Gwynn’s face. In August 2010, a biopsy showed a malignant growth inside his mouth, and on Aug. 31, Gwynn had surgery to have most of it removed. Doctors found that the malignant tumor was wrapped around the facial nerve that controls all facial movements on the right side of his face. If they removed the entire tumor, the right side of his face would have been paralyzed permanently. They left the nerve, hoping that chemotherapy and radiation would clear the cancer.
After surgery, he said: “I couldn’t lift my eye or close my mouth.” He was unable to smile. After eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation he was told that there was no remaining evidence of cancer and he regained his ability to smile.
In January 2012, the cancer returned and the next month five doctors spent 14 hours removing the malignant tumor. The operation was done in three stages: First doctors removed the cancerous growth and scar tissues that had encased the nerve that controls facial movement on the right side of his face. Second they grafted a nerve from Gwynn’s neck to the remaining branches of the facial nerve both in the face and in the temporal bone of the skull behind his ear, and third, they reconstructed the huge hole left after the tumor was removed. The doctors told him that he could possibly resume his job as baseball coach at San Diego State University in about a month.
Other Medical Problems
Gwynn had 13 other (non-cancer) operations during his career, with eight being done on his knees. He had his torn Achilles tendon surgically repaired. He had recurrent hamstring tears during the latter part of his career.
After his playing career ended, Gwynn’s 5′ 11″ frame carried a peak weight of 330 pounds (150 kg). He had adjustable gastric banding surgery in 2009 to help him lose weight, but he regained most of the weight that he lost. In 2010, he developed a pinched nerve in his back and was unable to walk. After he had surgery to remove the damaged disc, he was able to walk again.
Lifestyle Changes to Help Prevent Cancer
Those who follow the cancer prevention guidelines of the American Cancer Society have a 17 percent lower risk of cancer, a 20 percent lower risk of cancer-related death, and a 27 percent lower risk of death from all causes (Cancer Prevention Research, January 8, 2014). The American Cancer Society’s cancer-preventing lifestyle factors include:
• maintain a healthful weight throughout your lifetime
• eat healthfully (eat five or more servings of produce daily, eat whole grains instead of refined grains, and restrict red meats and processed meats)
• limit alcohol (one drink per day or fewer)
• exercise moderately to vigorously for at least a half-hour at least five days a week
• avoid smoking and second-hand smoke
An unhealthful diet “represents 30-35 percent of risk factors that contribute to the onset of cancer in America today” (Maturitas, January 02, 2014). Phenolic compounds found in fruits and vegetables inhibit growth and spread of colon, lung, prostate, liver and breast cancer, so a diet high in these foods lowers cancer risk. The more red meat you eat, the more likely you are to suffer colon cancer. Moderate exercise after breast cancer diagnosis lowers your chance of dying from that disease by up to 40 percent. Sugared drinks and sugar-added foods raise blood sugar to increase cancer risk.
Being overweight markedly increases your chances of dying from all cancers combined (Methods Mol Biol, 2009;472:57-88; 191-215). Obesity raises insulin, insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-I, steroids, and male and female hormones that increase cancer risk. Obesity increases risk for cancers of colon-rectum, prostate (especially advanced prostate cancer), breast (in postmenopausal women), endometrium, kidney, esophagus, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. Obesity is not associated with lung cancer.
Anthony Keith “Tony” Gwynn, Sr.
May 9, 1960 – June 16, 2014