All-Star pitcher Liam Hendriks shares how he closed out cancer at Mayo Clinic in Arizona

  • All-Star pitcher Liam Hendriks shares how he closed out cancer at Mayo Clinic in Arizona

Bigger than baseball

That’s how some describe Liam Hendriks’ battle against cancer.

At 33 years old, the All-Star Major League Baseball closing pitcher is a fan favorite and famous for throwing fastballs at blazing speeds. But, at only 33 years old, at the end of the 2022 MLB season, Hendriks made the sobering announcement – he had been diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The day after that announcement, Hendriks began cancer treatment at Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Phoenix, Arizona. His sight was set on beating cancer in time to rejoin his team for the 2023 season.

Hendriks struck out cancer

He did it. And, in traditional Liam Hendriks fashion – focused, fierce, with a warrior spirit determined to win the battle. His strength and resilience won him ESPN’s coveted 2023 Jimmy V ESPY Award for Perseverance. During his acceptance speech, Hendriks expressed his heartfelt gratitude for his wife Kristi, the Chicago White Sox organization and his healthcare team at Mayo Clinic.

Hendriks sat down to talk about his remarkable journey that has now become one of the greatest sports comeback stories of all time.

Watch: Liam Hendriks shares how he struck out cancer at Mayo Clinic

Journalists: Broadcast-quality video (2:48) is in the downloads at the end of this post. Please courtesy: “Mayo Clinic News Network.” Read the script.

Silver linings guy

Liam Hendriks is known for attacking the best hitters with unflappable composure when the stakes are the highest. That’s also how Hendriks closed out cancer.

“Hope is one of the biggest things,” Hendriks told Mayo Clinic. “I’ve always had the attitude that if it’s there, there’s nothing I can really do to change it. Why fret, why stress, why bother with a woe is me kind of thing, because me complaining about it isn’t going to change it.” Hendriks said he took an “all in” approach to fighting cancer. “I made sure that whatever happens, I’m 100% on board..I’m a big silver linings guy, so I said, this is happening to me right now, what else am I going to do, and how am I going to make any good out of this.”

The diagnosis

It was June 2022 when Hendriks noticed some lumps on the back of his neck. He didn’t think much of it. A blood test came back clean leading Hendriks to suspect it was just stress. When the season ended, the lumps had grown. A return visit to the doctor and additional tests this time revealed Hendriks had lymphoma. He then underwent a full-body PET scan to see if the cancer had spread. “The scan had black dots all over it. I looked like our dalmation, Olive.” The scan results showed that Hendriks likely played the entire 2022 season with cancer. Hendriks was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Hendriks and his dog, Olive

“I’m not worried”

“You have cancer” are not words anyone wants to hear. But Hendriks’ doctor, lymphoma specialist Allison Rosenthal, D.O., had three words for him that hit home. “Just after she told us we had stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she was like, I’m not worried. That has always stuck with me. I’m not worried.”

Dr. Rosenthal also told Hendriks she was a cancer survivor and former athlete herself. “She’s been through something similar, she’s still here now, she’s happy, she’s still pushing forward and fighting that fight,” said Hendriks. “When a professional who has gone through everything says I’m not worried, that was one of the biggest reliefs that came across me in the whole ordeal.”

Hendriks’ cancer treatment team at Mayo Clinic (L-R) Amanda Oprisiu, R.N., Kaylee Duvall, R.N.,
Allison Rosenthal, D.O., hematology/oncology, Liam Hendriks, Ashley Mello, R.N.C.

The comeback

It was like a scene out of a blockbuster sports movie. May 29, 2023, Hendriks returned to the field, cancer-free, and ready to pitch. A roaring crowd welcomed back Hendriks with a standing ovation, handmade signs of support, and cheering “Liam, Liam, Liam.” The moment drew the attention of thousands worldwide.

“I wouldn’t be here tonight without my wife, my incredible team at Mayo Clinic, especially Dr. Allison Rosenthal. She is one of the main reasons that I’m up here tonight.”

Liam Hendriks speaking at 2023 ESPN ESPY Awards

Cancer treatment plan of attack

Hendriks treatment included a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy. “That’s pretty standard for anybody who has enough going on or enough symptoms to warrant that kind of treatment,” said Dr. Rosenthal. “And so, what he received has been a proven therapy for a long time and we were hoping to get by with that being all he needed, and everything being all cleared up. Thankfully that’s where we ended up.”

Chemo couldn’t stop Hendriks

Throughout his four rounds of treatment, Hendriks continued to attend spring training practices with his White Sox team in Scottsdale. Dr. Rosenthal had given Hendriks green light, as long as he didn’t overdo it. “I try to understand for all my patients, what their life is like outside of here, what is important to you,” said Rosenthal. “I think them more we can keep people in their usual habits and patterns like that, it just helps things feel regular.”

Spring training with cancer

Hendriks said it was advice from a friend who had overcome testicular cancer that gave him confidence to train through treatment. “He told me no one can tell you what to do, all you can do is what you feel is right,” said Hendriks. “That was something that really hit me between the eyes. So I said, Ok, let’s see how far I can push it, how long can I go before I start feeling bad, and the more I did it, the more I did it, and I wasn’t reacting negatively to it, so I moved forward.” Hendriks said the normalcy of attending practices gave him strength. “I wasn’t there with the guys just in case because of my immune system, but they’d get there at ten, and I’d get there at ten to stretch. I’d be in the training room doing my stuff and getting my work in, I just wasn’t as much of the clubhouse as I would have liked. Hendriks believes his friend’s advice combined with Dr. Rosenthal’s support was a game changer. “It was great advice and I pushed it and hopefully I’m back a lot sooner that anyone had thought.”

Hendriks and his wife Kristi on the night he made his comeback to the mound in Chicago

Hendriks message to people fighting cancer

Weeks after a PET scan and bone marrow biopsy showed Hendriks was cancer-free, he was sent to North Carolina for a rehab assignment with the Charlotte Knights. By the end of May, he was put back on the White Sox active roster and headed for Chicago. Hendriks is now back to firing bullets from the mound at close to a hundred miles an hour.

Hendriks is also on a mission to use his experience to help others close out cancer. Hendriks had this personal message to anyone diagnosed with cancer.

“You’re never alone and don’t ever for a second think, why me. You are strong enough to be able to handle it and that’s why this happened to you. You are strong enough to be able to get through this. You are strong enough to be able to get to the other side and make a difference for the next person. That’s why you. It’s never why me, it’s why not me. I’m going to make this a positive.”

Liam Hendriks

Hear more of Liam Hendriks’ inspirational one-on-one conversation with Mayo Clinic.

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