When longtime Mariners trainer Rick Griffin completed his final treatment for prostate cancer in late June, he received a commemorative coin from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center. It has a prominent place of honor on his desk.
“I never got to go to a World Series, but this is like my own World Series ring,” Griffin said.
For 35 years as the Mariners’ head athletic trainer, Griffin was the one tending to the health concerns of Seattle players, from legends to journeymen. There was no distinction to Griffin; all received his tender, loving care. He still maintains a close relationship with scores of retired players.
Then in 2017, it was Griffin — whose only in-season off days since starting with the ballclub in 1983 were for the birth of a child and three graduations — who suddenly was the one being cared for.
“It was definitely an adjustment for me,’’ he said. “Because I’m usually the one making the decisions on what the treatments are going to be.”
Diagnosed with prostate cancer during spring training of ’17, and then enduring a reoccurrence two years later, the 64-year-old Griffin is telling his story in hopes both of motivating current cancer patients and encouraging men to get screened.
Early detection is a key element to harnessing prostate cancer; Dr. Ramesh Rengan, the Medical Director at the SCCA Proton Therapy Center, says all men should discuss screening with their primary care physician when they hit 50. But those in the high-risk category, which include African-Americans, those with a first-degree relative who has had prostate cancer, or those with the BRCA gene mutation, should get screened starting at 40.
“Screening is important, because prostate cancer is not something that knocks on the door,” Rengan said. “The prostate organ itself doesn’t have any pain receptors in it or sick receptors in it to tell you, ‘Hey, something’s wrong.’ So you won’t have symptoms unless it becomes very advanced.”
For all those years, Griffin was the one who helped examine blood work during the team’s extensive physical exams in spring training. He estimates that five or six coaches battled prostate cancer during his tenure, including hitting coach Lee Elia, whose treatment Griffin closely monitored.
“I was very aware that as you get older there’s a higher likelihood of you getting prostate cancer,” Griffin said. “So as I saw my PSA [prostate-specific antigen] slowly rising up, I’m very grateful I had that monitoring system built in place for me.”
It wasn’t just Mariners players and coaching staff who took the PSA tests each year. Griffin did, too, and his growing number was a cause of concern. In 2017 it was high enough to consult with a urologist in Phoenix. After repeated blood tests, an ultrasound, MRI and biopsy, Griffin got the dreaded phone call in the visiting clubhouse in Anaheim, California, during the first week of the season.
The biopsy was positive. He had prostate cancer.
“To go from never being sick to now all of a sudden having this, that was the thing that kind of floored me,” Griffin said. “When we returned to Seattle I did the baseball-player thing and got multiple opinions.”
Griffin eventually decided to undergo robotic surgery to have his prostate removed, missing five weeks of the season. He chose initially to keep the news mostly private but called what he described as “a very emotional meeting” with seven veteran players: Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz, Franklin Gutierrez, Robinson Cano, Mike Zunino and Steve Cishek.
“It was weird,” Griffin said. “It was like I couldn’t get out what I needed to say. It wasn’t because I was feeling sorry for myself. I was thinking about them and how I was deserting them and wasn’t going to be there for them. Because we had a good team that year, and I thought we had a good chance to go to the playoffs. I wanted to be there, and I wanted to be there for them. But I knew I had to go take care of myself and do this.”
Griffin marvels at the concern shown by those players and the rest of the Mariners when they found out. He was especially moved by the gesture of Seager, Cruz and Cishek, who arranged for a food service to deliver three meals a day for about two months.
“That was so amazing and thoughtful of them,” he said. “I’ll always be so grateful.”
The meal deliveries were a particular godsend, because Griffin’s newlywed wife Rachel was simultaneously undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
“We were having the doubleheader of cancer, I guess you could say. This was a little bit tough, dealing with that, because I’m someone who wants to take care of people,” Griffin said. “So I’m trying to take care of myself, but I also want to take care of my wife.”
Said Rachel Griffin: “I was ensuring him, whatever happens, we will deal with it. It will be OK. Everything will be OK. Stay positive, and I’m here. I’ll always be here to help you.”
Rick Griffin returned to finish the 2017 season, in which the Mariners finished 78-84. But his PSA slowly began rising back up in the next couple of years, to the point Griffin again started consulting with numerous doctors. He was well-equipped to do so because of his strong connections in the medical field.
Eventually, Griffin decided to undergo radiation therapy and opted for proton therapy, hoping to minimize the side effects. According to Dr. Rengan, proton therapy is a highly targeted form of radiation therapy that deposits the greatest amount of radiation directly into the tumor and then stops. That allows patients to receive high doses with the goal of reducing damage to nearby healthy tissue.
Griffin began his treatments at the SCCA Proton Therapy Center, located on the UW Medicine Northwest Campus, on May 4, right in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. That obviously required strict precautions, both on his part and the hospital’s.
Treatments were five days a week, with weekends off. One highlight was befriending a young boy who was undergoing radiation at the same time. He was wearing a Cubs hat, so Griffin decided to give him Mariners memorabilia to rep the home team. It was a real treasure: the lineup card from the game in which Alex Rodriguez reached the 40/40 club (40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in a season), signed by A-Rod.
“That made me feel really, really good to give that to him,” Griffin said.
Rachel Griffin underwent 37 radiation treatments for her breast cancer. Rick ultimately had 38 for his prostate cancer, and thankfully experienced no side effects. In fact, he was able to live his life normally, including a morning workout and the usual work regimen in his new position as Mariners’ trainer emeritus.
“I was so fortunate,” Rick Griffin said. “I kept saying to the doc, ‘Are you sure you’re doing anything to me, because I don’t feel anything.’ I never stopped doing anything I wasn’t doing before.”
Griffin will have to be monitored the rest of his life, but his prognosis is positive. He and Rachel, who just got a clean bill of health from her oncologist, are hopeful they are through the worst of their health travails — though Rick is helping nurse Rachel through one more challenge, a recent hip replacement.
“When it rains, it pours,” Rachel Griffin said.
Normally, Rick Griffin during the season would be working with trainers at the Mariners’ minor-league affiliates, traveling to the Dominican Republic, and attending Seattle home games. But with COVID restrictions, his duties are limited mostly to phone consultations.
It’s a good time to reflect on his health journey, which occurs at a fortuitous time in the ongoing fight against cancer. Rengan says we are seeing “fundamental paradigm shifts” in that realm.
“We are hopefully transitioning to a health-care future where cancer doesn’t mean the same kind of fear and anxiety,” he said. “I think it’s an exciting time to have the privilege of caring for cancer patients, and I think cancer patients have more cause for hope and for optimism than they have in years past.”
Griffin believes he is living proof. Beyond the obvious advice — get screened! — he has one other recommendation to those who are facing prostate cancer: Ask questions to get as much information as you can, and also to build a sense of comfort and trust in your care that is invaluable during treatment.
“All those years, 35-plus, working with the Mariners, I wanted the players to trust me,” he said. “I knew if they trusted me, I was going to get better compliance from them when they did their rehab; or better compliance on anything. And if they came to me, and they trusted me, they’re going to get better work done.
“I think that’s a really big deal, to learn how to ask the right questions and then get that trust factor going.”
This is a promising time for Rick and Rachel Griffin after a never-ending series of health challenges.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to normal, traveling and really appreciating the life we have,” Rachel said. “Life can throw you some curveballs.”
In this case, it’s been more like Randy Johnson’s devastating “Mr. Snappy.”
“We’ve had a fun first four years of marriage,” Rick Griffin said. “Hopefully all this is behind us now and we can move forward and have a more normal life.”
Griffin need look no farther than the coin on his desk to see how far he’s come.