PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was great news for Padres bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds, who is battling pancreatic cancer. The first CT scan after six chemotherapy treatments revealed that the tumor on his pancreas had shrunk by nearly a quarter, he said on Saturday.While that might seem to be a slight decrease, the drop from 4 centimeters to 3.1 could mean the difference between life and death. If the tumor continues to shrink during his final five of 12 treatments over the course of four months, he'll be able to have surgery to eradicate the malignant cells. The news for the 48-year-old former relief pitcher was like a breath of fresh air. "Oh, very much so," Akerfelds said on Saturday morning as the Padres prepared to play the Cubs at Mesa's HoHoKam Park. "I'm not really head over heels looking at a tremendous amount of statistics, because a lot of them are bad and I'm trying to be as positive as possible. But it was a really good sign."
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Here are the bad statistics Akerfelds alluded to:The American Cancer Society reported that in 2010, 43,140 people would be diagnosed in the U.S. with the disease. Of those patients, 36,800 were expected to die within five years. Still, there's the rare case of remission and those pancreatic cancer patients who do live beyond the five-year window, and that gives Akerfelds some hope. Akerfelds is among the fortunate 50 percent of pancreatic cancer patients who experience tumor shrinkage through chemotherapy in the months after it was diagnosed. "Right now, things are working well and we're going to re-evaluate after these next five treatments," said Akerfelds, who is flying back and forth each week from Arizona to Scripps Clinic in San Diego for his chemo sessions. "Surgery is the goal, but if not, we have a couple of other plans to try and help shrink the tumor. We can continue with the same treatment or go to radiation." Akerfelds is part of a recent Padres cell of cancer that includes first-base coach Dave Roberts and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Roberts, a Padres center fielder from 2005-06, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma this past May and underwent a summer of chemotherapy and radiation to try to arrest the disease. Roberts, 38, is currently in remission. Hodgkin's lymphoma attacks white blood cells and jumps from one lymph node to another. Roberts discovered he had the disease after noticing a lump on his neck. He said on Saturday that he feels great and physically looks the part. "I've finally gotten back to myself," Roberts said. Gwynn, an eight-time National League batting champion who played his entire 20-year career with the Padres, underwent radiation treatment this past offseason for parotid cancer, which attacks the salivary glands in the throat. Gwynn, 50, attributed the cancer to his long-time habit of chewing tobacco. He has had three large lumps removed from his neck during the past 13 years. The last one, excised this past summer, was cancerous. After back surgery, Gwynn has resumed his duties, at least on a part-time basis, as head coach for the San Diego State baseball team. "It's easy to get depressed when something like this is happening," Gwynn said after he finished his treatments. "Staying positive makes a big difference." Akerfelds also had back surgery to fix a disc this past November and thought he was having stomach problems from the pain-killing medicine when he finally went for a checkup. He had no idea that the symptoms he was experiencing were the warning signs of cancer. "When I went off the pain medication, I knew something was wrong," Akerfelds said. "That medication was masking some of the pain I was feeling in my stomach." Still, the diagnosis came as a shock. "Yes it did," he said. "[Padres internist Harry] Albers got me over to Scripps and we saw the surgeons, the oncologist and the radiation guy. We came up with a plan. It seems to be working well now. All indications from my scan are that we caught it fairly early." In the meantime, all Akerfelds can do is move forward. There is some fatigue from the chemo, but he says so far he's been spared most of the side effects such as nausea, although he has lost his hair. Baseball, which he still partakes in every day he can, has become a safe haven. He does a light workout each morning and says he has limited catching and hitting fungos. He knows it could be much worse. "The organization has been behind me 100 percent," he said. "I don't take this very lightly at all. I've been lucky not to be hit by the side effects, and that keeps me on the field. I'm very fortunate because my energy has been good."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.