A father's mission: Rod Carew's quest to end cancer

After losing a daughter to leukemia, Hutch Award Luncheon keynote speaker and Hall of Famer Rod Carew focused on advocating for awareness, cancer research

Rod Carew
Rod Carew has helped raise $3 million to support pediatric cancer research and is credited with inspiring thousands to register to be bone marrow donors. Courtesy of Rod Carew

There’s no question that Hall of Famer Rod Carew knows baseball. But he also knows cancer and the swath it can cut through families.

“I’ve been involved in cancer awareness since I was a young player with the Twins,” said Carew, keynote speaker Thursday at the 49th annual Hutch Award Luncheon, which recognizes the Major League Baseball player who best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire of the legendary baseball player and coach Fred Hutchinson. “The ball club would always send us out to visit with the kids at hospitals and I’ve had friends whose relatives had cancer and didn’t make it. Then in September of 1995, my youngest daughter Michelle was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.”

Carew’s 17-year-old daughter underwent chemo and radiation at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in California while the family mounted an exhaustive search for a bone marrow donor. Tragically, a match couldn’t be found due to Michelle’s rare genetic composition (Carew is of Panamanian and West Indian descent and Michelle’s mother is of Russian descent).  Michelle received a cord blood transplant in March of 1996 – a rare procedure at the time – but died the following month. She was 18 years old.

The transplant was starting to take, he later learned, there just hadn't been enough time for it to fully work.

Tragedy to triumph

Carew’s highly public plea for a bone marrow donor for his daughter – and others -- also had a positive effect on awareness, particularly with regard to encouraging ethnic minorities to register their marrow. Today, 7 percent of potential adult donors are African American or black; 7 percent are Asian, 10 percent are Hispanic or Latino and 4 percent are mixed race, according to Be The Match, the world’s largest and most diverse registry.

“There was a big surge,” said Carew of the increase in donor rolls. “Wherever I went – to grocery stores, restaurants, car washes – I’d always talk to people about it. I’d ask, ‘Have you helped a child today?’ to let them know there were so many young children that needed their help and needed them to get involved.”

Christine Fleming, president of Be The Match Foundation (operated by the National Marrow Donor Program), said an “overwhelming” 70,000 people responded to Carew’s very public search for a donor, which involved multiple television appearances, PSAs and countless media interviews, an unusual step for the normally private baseball player.

“Rod Carew’s dedication to raising awareness about the need for volunteer marrow donors began with an impassioned public plea to save his daughter’s life,” said Fleming. “Now, more than 15 years later, his efforts are still making a difference in patients’ lives. Rod’s heartfelt and personal contribution to saving lives has been instrumental in growing the Be The Match Registry – giving thousands of patients a second chance.”

Carew, now 68, said the many donor-recipient reunions he’s attended have helped him deal with the loss of his daughter.

“All these kids finding donors to give them a second chance at life, I feel like they’re all my kids,” he said. “I’m a dad to all these people who are having success.”

Honoring ‘a very special person’

At the Hutch Award Luncheon, held at Seattle’s Safeco Field, Carew will be honoring another baseball player who has dedicated his life to giving back: three-time Seattle Mariner Raúl Ibañez, whom he called “a very special person.”

“He gives of himself so that others can be better,” he added. Ibañez, who recently signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, has actively supported a number of causes over the years, raising awareness and funds to fight everything from cystic fibrosis to domestic violence.

Carew said the greatest award he has in his home is the Roberto Clemente Award, given by Major League Baseball to a player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, and community involvement. Like the Hutch Award, that one is special “because it’s about giving back to others,” he said. “That’s what Raul has done and continues to do.”

On Wednesday, Carew and Ibañez will be touring the labs and meeting researchers at the Hutch, including Dr. Colleen Delaney, cord blood transplant program director.

Equalizing the playing field

Delaney and her colleagues pioneered a technique that expands the amount of stem cells in cord blood, which can help transplants take hold more quickly. Cord blood is now accepted as a source of blood stem cells for patients in need of a bone marrow transplant who have no other suitable donor. This is of particular importance in patients who are of mixed ethnicity or minority background and are unlikely to find a suitable unrelated donor for bone marrow transplantation, like Michelle Carew.

Rod Carew and daughter Michelle
Rod Carew shown with his daughter Michelle while she receives an umbilical cord blood transplant at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange, Calif., on March 22, 1996. Michael Caulfield / AP file

“Things have changed dramatically since the time Michelle needed a cord blood transplant,” said Delaney. “Primarily, advances in cord blood transplant have come with better understanding of how to perform these types of transplants, better medications and supportive care, and more cord blood donors to choose from.

“There are some significant advantages to using cord blood donors, but disadvantages too such as the length of time it takes for the donor cells to take. However, through novel methods in growing cord blood stem cells developed at the Center, we’re also really changing the outcome for cord blood recipients. In fact, their outcomes are as good as conventional unrelated bone marrow donors. We’ve equalized the playing field.”

Carew, who early on recognized the value of cord blood, said he’s excited to tour the Hutch and meet the key players on the research team.

“As a young player, I knew Fred Hutchinson from across the dugout and I know the great things the Hutch has been doing and the lives they’ve been saving throughout the years,” he said. “You can’t ask for any more than that.”

Giving on and off the field

Carew signed with the Minnesota Twins in 1964 on the same day he graduated from high school. He played 12 seasons with the Twins, mostly as a second baseman, and earned a reputation as one of the most talented players ever to don a major league uniform. In 1979, he signed with the California Angels and spent seven years there as a first baseman. In addition to being selected to play on 18 All-Star teams, Carew was named Rookie of the Year in 1967 and the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1977. In 1991, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Since then, the heavy hitter known for stealing home has been tenacious in his support of cancer research. Today, in addition to his work with Be The Match and the American Cancer Society, he’s a major fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and has been the driving force behind the Rod Carew Children’s Cancer Golf Classic which has raised $3 million to support the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation over the last 18 years.

“That’s the only way we’re going to help,” he said of his lifelong push to fund cancer research. “More people getting involved, more people donating money so the doctors can go into the labs and continue their research and then maybe one day we’ll beat this. It’s a war.”

Reach writer Diane Mapes at dmapes@fredhutch.org.

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