Gwynn Sr. on the mend from cancer surgery
SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn Sr. won’t be at Petco Park on Thursday when his Padres open the season against the Dodgers. But his son, Tony Jr., will be at the ballpark nestled on San Diego Harbor, wearing a Los Angeles uniform.
“Typical Aztec and Padre luck,” the elder Gwynn said on Wednesday.
Still, it was wonderful to see the eight-time National League batting champ, Hall of Famer and man called “Mr. Padre” board a bus outside the yard bearing his name Wednesday on the campus of San Diego State. Gwynn coaches the Aztecs, who were about to embark on a six-hour drive to Las Vegas where they are scheduled to play University Nevada-Las Vegas during the next three days while the Padres are battling the arch-rival Dodgers. That’s the way the baseball bounces.
It was little more than six weeks ago that Gwynn had a malignant tumor removed from inside his right cheek. The tumor was wrapped around a nerve that controls movement on that side of his face. Doctors transplanted a nerve from Gwynn’s right shoulder, hoping to limit the damage. Gwynn’s cheek is still swollen and that side of his face is lopsided. He also says his ear is numb. But he’s talking clearly and is slowly working his way back. He knows it could have been much worse.
“I could be dead,” Gwynn said bluntly.
Gwynn has had two serious surgeries on that cheek in the past 19 months. Doctors discovered cancer of the parotid or salivary gland when they removed a tumor in 2010. Because that tumor was wrapped around the nerve, doctors hesitated to remove it at the time, fearing permanent paralysis if they did. Instead, they opted for months of aggressive radiation therapy. That tact worked for awhile.
Gwynn went for monthly blood checkups and this past January doctors suspected that the tumor had recurred. That diagnosis was confirmed by a biopsy.
“I was stunned,” Gwynn said when he learned that the tumor was back. “I figured, ‘That’s it.’ Then you get over it, rebound and try to figure out what to do next.”
The procedure took 14 hours and began in the morning hours of Feb. 14. Gwynn, obviously, wasn’t aware of the length of the surgery until he finally awoke in recovery at 4:30 a.m. the next day.
“I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Great, I’m still here. I’m alive,'” Gwynn recalled.
He then reached for his right shoulder and couldn’t extend his left arm. He had been positioned on that arm all day. Now he’s in rehab to rebuild strength in his right shoulder. He’s hoping that the transplanted nerve will regenerate, giving him full function on that side of his face. That could take as long as a year. He suspects the cancer sprung from a lifetime of chewing tobacco and has quit the terrible habit, replacing it with a non-toxic herbal blend.
Asked last summer if he still thinks about chewing tobacco, he responded: “Every minute of every day.”
Still, life is good. He’s back teaching kids, which is what he loves to do best. And though he won’t be in San Diego on Opening Day, he hopes to be there on Easter Sunday so he can possibly see his son play in at least the finale of the four-game series.
He said his energy level isn’t nearly what it should be yet, but that hardly matters. “You just don’t know how good it feels to be back to work,” he said. “I’m busy and it keeps my mind off all these other things.”