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05/09/08 10:00 AM ET
Guerrier admires mother's strength
Reliever, mom grew closer during bout with breast cancer
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- In everyone's life, there are moments that can be recalled without any effort at all. For Matt Guerrier, there are two days where the memories seem as fresh as when they first happened. There is the one in which he got the phone call from his mom, Janet, saying that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And then there was the call five years later, saying that she had been fully cleared into remission. Both were equally emotional for the Twins' right-handed reliever. But it was the journey between those two calls that helped to strengthen a bond between mother and son.
The relationship between Guerrier and his mom had always been fairly strong. He's the younger of Janet and Charles Guerrier's two sons. Janet Guerrier had worked out of the house, sewing draperies, to make it easier for her to be there for her two boys. That included her trying to make every sporting event -- from Matt's high school baseball games to the ones he pitched at nearby Kent State University.
Matt Guerrier was always thankful for the support. But still, he admits that it took that first phone call and his mother's ensuing battle with cancer for him to truly appreciate the relationship that the two had.
That first phone call came in February 2001. The 22-year-old Guerrier was at Spring Training with the White Sox in Tuscon, Ariz., when he learned the news of his mother's illness.
"It's just kind of shocking," Guerrier said. "You don't really think about it until you hear that news. I mean, I never did. My dad's mom had breast cancer and had her breasts removed. My parents had friends that had the same things happen. Still, it was a surprise when it was my mom who was diagnosed.
"But my mom was somebody that didn't want us to be super upset about it. She knew what was going on and was real positive about it. She was like, 'I'm going to beat this and it's no big deal.' You want to think that, but you never know."
For Janet Guerrier, the diagnosis came at a time when things already were changing dramatically in her life. Her husband, Charles, had just taken a new job in Alabama and the two were preparing to move after having lived for the last 30 years near Cleveland.
It was during a weekend trip to find a house in Alabama in late January 2001 when she got the call that they needed her to come back to the doctor's office. A bad spot had been found on her annual mammogram and they wanted to do further tests to determine its cause.
Upon returning home, Janet Guerrier went to see the doctors at University Hospital in Cleveland with Charles, their oldest son, Brian, and his wife. who all came along for support. When the doctors came in to tell them what they had discovered from those additional tests, it was exactly as they had feared -- cancer.
Still, the road to recovery was far from over. While the cancer had been removed and the follow up treatments were less aggressive than what some cancer patients receive, both Janet and Matt admit that the illness was never far from their thoughts.
"I think that was the hardest part," Matt said of that time period. "For that next couple of months, it was just trying to see does she need to get more surgery or is she fine for the time being? It's a process where you just don't really know when she's going to be OK."
While he wasn't there for the original diagnosis or the surgery, Matt got a first-hand glimpse of that process. Returning to the White Sox Double-A Birmingham club for his second year, he took advantage of the coincidental timing of his parents' move.
In an effort to help their son save money since he was still on a smaller Minor League paycheck, the Guerriers told their son that he and another White Sox Minor Leaguer could live with them. He took them up on the offer and spent the first half of the season there before being called up to Triple-A Charlotte.
That time together, four years after he had originally left home, is something Matt feels allowed him to grow closer to his mom and dad.
He realized many of the similarities that he shared with parents. Most of all, he said, the traits he shared with his mom -- like her ability to put on a brave face even as she battled through a difficult period.
"My parents have always been easygoing and they've taught me to be that way, too," Matt said. "Even in the worst of times, I try to find something to cheer me up or anyone around me. It just makes getting up every day a little easier. You can have your time alone to do whatever you want -- pout or mope a little -- but it's when you get around other people, you at least try to put on a good attitude. It makes the day a little easier."
Matt understood having to put on a strong face as throughout the five years it took for his mother to be cleared into remission, he was going through his own struggles in his career.
The 2001 season was the last that Matt would spend with the White Sox. At the end of Spring Training in 2002, he was traded to Pittsburgh in exchange for pitcher Damaso Marte and infielder Edwin Yan.
Matt would spend two seasons with the Pirates' Triple-A Nashville club, and it was a time he admits he felt like his career had stalled. It helped that his new home was close enough for his parents to visit frequently. And they lived through his ups and downs as well -- whether that meant talking to him about it, listening to the games on the Internet or making the trips up to see him in person.
"I was going through a period where things weren't going great," Matt said. "They weren't going bad, but I wasn't getting where I wanted to be. I was stuck in Triple-A with the Pirates. I wasn't moving anywhere and my mom was always like, 'Why don't they call you up or why don't they do something to help give you a chance elsewhere?' I think it was something she could keep her mind on."
Janet agreed that the majority of her time over that period was focused not on the cancer, but how she could help Matt in his road to the Majors.
"We always would feel his downs when going to bed at night when he didn't have a very good outing and thinking, 'Oh, how can we help him be uplifted?'" Janet said. "Then I would get the call from him saying, 'Oh, it's fine, I'm doing fine.' But I think focusing on him helped me through the cancer because I didn't have to think about myself. I was always using my thoughts and prayers to get him through things in baseball and to move on to that next step."
But Matt seemed to take as much from his mother as she did from him. Janet's strength helped him to continue to press on in his pursuit, and it was in the midst of her battle that Matt finally got his opportunity to get to the big leagues.
Before the start of the 2004 season, the Twins picked Matt up off waivers. He began the year at Triple-A Rochester and pitched in 24 games there before learning on June 15 that he was finally headed to the Majors.
One of the first phone calls Matt made was to his parents, who were on their way to see him pitch in Rochester. And like Matt remembers every moment of the two phone calls from his mom, the same was true for Janet in this moment.
"We were sitting in a restaurant when he called us on the phone," Janet said. "He said, 'Well don't go to Rochester because I won't be there. I'll be up in the Major Leagues.' We were just so excited. I think the whole restaurant knew what had gone on."
As Matt's career took off, Janet's battle was slowly calming down. Initially, she had to go back every couple of months for a checkup. But the time between those appointments was gradually increasing, with trips to the doctors coming once every six months and then once a year.
That continued until February 2006, when Janet went in for her final checkup.
"It was something we didn't really talk about before it happened," Matt said. "I knew she had a doctor's appointment, but I didn't put it together that it was her last checkup. Then I got the call from her when she said, 'Today is the day, I'm cleared.' At that point it was just a relief. It was like, 'Oh man, now it doesn't have to be in the back of your mind every day anymore.'"
Janet is now seven years removed from her original diagnosis and has suffered no relapses. The concern over the cancer is no longer a daily concern, but that doesn't mean that anyone in the Guerrier family has forgotten its impact.
They will celebrate Janet's success story this Mother's Day weekend, when his parents make only their second trip up to Minnesota. The family has traveled often during Matt's past four seasons with the Twins to see him pitch in person, but often that involves going back Cleveland or nearby Detroit, where many of their relatives live.
But recently, Janet received a call from Matt's wife, Dejie, inviting her and Charles to come to the Twin Cities that weekend -- one in which baseball takes the time to honor mothers and helps support the fight against breast cancer.
For the Twins, that includes the Twins Cities' Race for the Cure to support the Susan G. Komen fund. Janet, Charles and Dejie, along with member of other Twins' families, will join in the event's walk on Sunday morning.
It's an opportunity for the Guerriers to celebrate as a family the blessings they've had in getting through Janet's illness. And for Matt, he hopes it's an opportunity for others to see not only a strong cancer survivor but a woman whom he's proud to call his mother.
"She's pretty amazing to me," Matt said. "You never really know what you can go through until you have something like that. She was so strong. You wouldn't even know she was sick. But it's been like everything I've seen her get through. She's had surgeries and other stuff going on and she's out that next morning, walking and doing her job. I don't know if I could do it."
And that's when they called Matt to deliver the news to him."He seemed more upset than we were, but I think that was because he was not with us," Janet said. "But I told him, 'I walk every day and I'm healthy and there shouldn't be any reason why I can't deal with this.'" Two forms of cancer were found in her right breast, but the doctors believed they had caught it early and that it was small. So just a few weeks after her diagnosis, Janet was scheduled to undergo a full mastectomy of the right breast.
|"She's pretty amazing to me. You never really know what you can go through until you have something like that. She was so strong. You wouldn't even know she was sick. But it's been like everything I've seen her get through. She's had surgeries and other stuff going on and she's out that next morning, walking and doing her job. I don't know if I could do it."|
|-- Matt Guerrier|
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.