Back in the game

Pitcher raises funds to battle cancer

Monday marked five years without cancer for former Gaels pitcher Alex Mann. Mann is currently raising funds for a pair of charities that supported him when he was diagnosed in 2009.
Monday marked five years without cancer for former Gaels pitcher Alex Mann. Mann is currently raising funds for a pair of charities that supported him when he was diagnosed in 2009.
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Six years ago, Alex Mann had a full head of hair and dreams of playing NCAA baseball.

Those dreams were dashed when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma — a rare form of bone cancer — in spring 2009, near the end of his grade 11 year.

The future Queen’s baseball reliever needed to undergo surgery and several months of chemotherapy to save his left arm. It was an arduous 10-month process — one that forced him to miss a year of high school and left him unable to pursue his athletic ambitions.

“I don’t remember this, but my parents told me that as soon as I woke up out of surgery I immediately asked the surgeon, ‘Am I ever going to play baseball again?’” Mann said. “And she just basically said, ‘No.’”

It took two years to prove her wrong. After a year of physiotherapy and an adjustment to his throwing style, Mann cracked Queen’s baseball team as a rookie in fall 2011, and played for three seasons.

He was the Gaels’ most battle-tested relief pitcher — and he never forgot the people who helped him overcome his illness.

Now, he’s giving back through an online campaign, raising funds for two charitable organizations. It has raised over $6,750 so far, and closes on March 20.

The campaign coincides with a notable milestone. On Monday, Mann celebrated his fifth anniversary of being proclaimed cancer-free — though he’s still without his luscious brown locks.

“I had this poofy flow sort of thing, and I always had to cut it for baseball,” he said. “I always hated [cutting the hair].

“When I finished therapy I was basically like, ‘Alright, when’s it coming back?’”

In the months leading up to his diagnosis, Mann was playing high school and competitive baseball in Oakville. He was regarded as a standout local prospect, with the opportunity to play for a high-level American college.

That was before his diagnosis. When the word came down, he immediately started researching Ewing’s sarcoma.

“Before my surgery, I was watching videos of the procedure and my mom was like, ‘You’re crazy. What are you doing?’” Mann said. “I always needed to know the outcomes.”

In surgery, an 18 cm long section of his left humerus was successfully removed, to be replaced by a steel prosthetic. Doctors left his elbow joint untouched, but removed part of his deltoid muscle — something that impedes his mobility to this day.

“I can’t grab a glass out of the cupboard with my left hand,” Mann said. “Can’t brush my teeth with my left hand. I’m left-handed and I’d always brushed my teeth with my left hand. That was a huge change.”

Mann had always pitched with his right hand, but after surgery, he had to readjust his technique. He began to prop up his glove with his right hand when catching the ball, since his left arm was too weak to support itself.

On top of Queen’s practices, Mann went through a physiotherapy routine that included bands to stretch his left side. He also dedicated a summer before coming to Queen’s to improving his pitching speed.

His pitches maxed out at 87 miles per hour in high school. Since his surgery, he has topped out at 83 on the radar gun.

“It wasn’t ever going to get to a point where I would be back at the level I used to be at,” he said. “That sucked.”

When Mann travelled to Kingston for baseball tryouts in the summer of 2011, he yearned to return to a competitive team.

He didn’t see much playing time during his first season with the Gaels, but that did nothing to dampen his spirits.

Ben Schoening played with Mann that year, and coached him the following season.

“He was a great guy to have on the team. He’s a pleasure to play alongside and a pleasure to coach because of how mentally tough he was,” Schoening said.

“It’s such an incredible story — to see someone’s opportunities and their potential dip off, but then watch them work their ass off to regain them.”

Even after surgery, Schoening said Mann seemed to have retained his fundamental baseball skills. It was his contributions off the field, though, that became especially invaluable.

“I think everyone really fed off his energy from a playing standpoint, and once everyone became aware of his story, it became really motivating,” Schoening said.

“The team really looked to him as an inspiration.”

Mann’s campaign educates and reciprocates

Alex Mann’s fundraising campaign is all about giving back.

The crowdfunding campaign — launched this week through Tilt — is entitled “Alex Mann: Five Years and Counting”. The proceeds will be split between Children’s Wish and Childhood Cancer Canada (CCC) — both of which are charities Mann connected with when he was initially diagnosed with cancer.

It’s an opportunity for him to not only raise money, but to thank the people who supported and treated him. It’s also a chance to explain his story to the people he meets at Queen’s.

“The campaign is a word-of-mouth thing. I’m just trying to spread awareness,” Mann said.

After his diagnosis, CCC helped him network with fellow cancer survivors and people who were going through treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma — including two other children with the disease.

Children’s Wish sent Mann and his family on a trip to Hawaii during his grade 12 year to celebrate six months of being cancer-free.

Mann held a Reddit: Ask Me Anything (AMA) on March 4, during which he communicated with some people who had experienced the same type of cancer. The session received 154 comments.

Much like the Tilt campaign, the AMA was an opportunity for Mann to explain Ewing’s sarcoma to people who may not know much about it.

Mann posted several photos, a link to the Tilt campaign and an article from the Oakville Beaver that was published in 2011.

One recent photo shows Mann without a shirt or hat — the surgical scar on his left arm less evident than his hairless head. A yellow LiveStrong band is wrapped around his left wrist.

In one comment, Mann said the most difficult part of having cancer was the after-effects of his treatment — the hair loss and limited mobility in his left arm.

Another commenter asked how Mann and his family initially reacted when they heard the news.

“I didn't really process it,” Mann responded on the forum. “I didn't cry, wasn't upset, I just figured that I would be out of commission for a year and then once my treatment was finished I would be back to normal life again.”

“After about a month everything started to sink in. As soon as I started losing parts of me (hair, bone, physique) it became real. I wasn't sad per se, I was more frustrated.”

Five years down the road, he’s channelled the emotion towards a good cause.

— Brent Moore

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