Baseball wasn’t what Kyle Cameron worried about last spring. Life turned in a moment for the Alabama pitcher. He and his family were preparing to fight for his life.
It started with a minor lower back injury that was taking longer than normal to heal early in the season. The Alabama medical staff sent Cameron to have an MRI and a CT scan done as a precaution.
Instead, those x-rays sent Cameron’s 2017 careening off course. Team physician Dr. Jeff Laubenthal and the radiologist noticed enlarged lymph nodes in his groin. They feared those signs pointed to Hogkin’s lymphoma or leukemia.
Laubenthal called Cameron’s father, Jeff, and told him the news. They planned on telling Kyle during that night’s game. Jeff Cameron called his wife, Diana. She was unable to pick up, so Jeff sent her a text that said “Kyle. Cancer.”
“I just lost it,” she said.
It was March 9, 2017. Alabama was beginning a four-game home series against Arkansas-Pine Bluff that night. Kyle was scheduled to pitch if healthy. He was in the dugout in uniform when Laubenthal called him into the training room. His family was waiting.
“He’s like ‘Your back is going to be fine, but we think there’s a possibility you could have leukemia or Hodgkin’s lymphoma,’” Kyle Cameron said. “I never expected that. At 20 years old, you’re not expecting to hear news like that at all.”
He was still wearing his uniform, planning on pitching until he heard the news. It was quiet in the training room for some time when Laubenthal gave him the news. Then Kyle responded.
“He looked up and said ‘I got this. Let’s do it,’” Jeff Cameron said.
It blindsided Jeff and Diana, too. Kyle had been healthy his entire life. That came crashing down that day.
“It was one minute being so caught up in aspirations of being the best SEC player he can be, maybe making it to professional baseball,” Jeff Cameron said. “All that came to a screeching halt and my priorities were rearranged. It became that I wanted to see my son smile. I wanted him to tell me he felt good. Hearing your son may have cancer isn’t something you ever want to hear.”
Doctors wanted to perform surgery to remove one of the lymph nodes. They’d run a biopsy to check for cancer. But tests found that Kyle’s blood platelet count was dangerously low. He would have been at risk to bleed out during surgery. Low platelets were also another symptom of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
There was no confirmation yet, but the signs looked bleak.
“He was checking the boxes for Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Jeff Cameron said.
The Camerons were ready to fight. Diana is a nurse and knew what the road ahead may have looked like, which made some things more difficult.
His oncologist assured Kyle that there were still other possibilities. There was no definite diagnosis of cancer yet.
Doctors were eventually able to have surgery and perform a biopsy on one of his lymph nodes. It came back benign.
The Camerons celebrated, but it wasn’t the end. Doctors still wanted to check his biggest, most-inflamed lymph node to be sure. His platelet levels still weren’t high enough for that surgery. It had to wait.
The Camerons were mostly quiet about Kyle’s situation last season. They rarely went to baseball games.
The family still found support from Alabama and baseball in their own ways. Jeff read about MLB stars Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, who both had lymphoma. David Kindred, a former Alabama player who had been the director of baseball operations during Kyle’s freshman season in 2016, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his college career. Kindred reached out to the family, as did former head coach Mitch Gaspard and his assistants. Teammates checked in often.
Jenny Sanders, the academic program advisor for the baseball team, was in contact with Kyle regularly. She checked in with him and helped him stay on top of schoolwork. Joe Suiter, Lisa Hart and Jessie Gardner from Bryant Hall visited with Kyle. Athletic trainer Joe Hoffer kept in touch with Kyle and his family even though he was barely around the team anymore. They spoke about once a week.
“The way I always approached it, regardless of whether he was playing or not, we were the ones that found it and he’s their son,” Hoffer said. “Sometimes they’re looking for answers and stuff like that. I was just trying to be kind of the calm voice in the room.”
Treatment for his platelet levels was difficult. It began with an oral steroid. Side effects from the steroid sapped his energy and disrupted his sleep. He gained 26 pounds and was too tired to go to most of his classes.
He moved back in with his family in Tuscaloosa so they could keep a closer eye on him. They tried another medication which temporarily boosted his platelet count, only to see it fall back down again.
Those months were difficult for the family. They were unsure if Kyle was facing cancer. He was weakened by medication. Diana was visibly struggling when they returned from the doctor one day.
“He grabbed me by my shoulders and made me look at him and was like ‘Mom, I’ve got this. I need you to stop crying,’” Diana said. “His strength, knowing that he felt like he had to fight, that he thought he was fighting cancer, it was really a motivation for me to put things in perspective for me and try to be stronger in that situation.”
They finally put him on a medication that is normally part of chemotherapy treatment. Kyle described it as “a version of chemo.” That raised his platelet levels enough to have surgery for another biopsy.
It confirmed the results of the first biopsy: It was benign. He didn’t have cancer.
“It was the longest two weeks of my life, waiting for those biopsy results,” Kyle said. “… Walking out of there knowing that I did not have any sort of cancer, that was a humongous relief off my chest.”
That finally came in the first week of June, three months after he’d been pulled into the training room by Laubenthal. It was the end of months of uncertainty and fear for the Camerons.
They still weren’t sure what had caused the lymph nodes to be inflamed, so he visited an infections specialist.
“They ran every test that had a name and nothing came back,” Jeff Cameron said.
There’s still no definite diagnosis. The best guess was that Kyle had been exposed to mononucleosis. Instead of an immune response, Kyle’s body turned on itself. It attacked his platelets, causing them to drop and the lymph nodes to swell.
“It’s still a mystery,” Kyle said.
By the time it was done, Kyle had gone six months without pitching. He went four months without throwing a baseball at all. He appeared in two games in the first two weeks of Alabama’s 2017 season, qualifying him for a medical redshirt. He’ll be a redshirt sophomore this spring.
Summer conditioning was difficult, but he eased back into it as he recovered. Kyle started to feel better in July as side effects from his medication dissipated. He estimated he was 75 percent recovered in fall, but is getting closer to 100 percent now. His check-ups with doctors are becoming less frequent.
He could help a thin Alabama pitching staff. He threw 24.2 innings as a freshman in 2016. Cameron faced live batting for the first time in a scrimmage on Jan. 28 with his parents watching. Even in an empty stadium during a practice, it was emotional.
“I think he’s at a point now where all of that love and passion that he’s had for baseball and his commitment to this team is fixing to be very obvious to everyone,” Diana Cameron said.
It was a horrible time for Kyle and his family.
“It definitely brought me closer to God with my faith,” Kyle said. “Going through that really taught me that everything really does happen for a reason. I was pretty upset, just being injured with my back and not being healthy from that. Two weeks passed and I was like ‘I should be pitching.’ I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t getting any better. But if you think about it, if I had never been hurt, I would have never known.”
The Camerons gave credit to Alabama’s medical staff for being proactive from the start and raising red flags when warning signs began appearing. Kyle didn’t have cancer, but their diligence and attention could have saved him.
“We were fighting for our life at one time,” Jeff Cameron said. “It made everything relevant to me, as far as what perspective baseball is in the grand scheme of things. We complain a lot less in our house about things now, because we know it could be worse.”
His family will be there this weekend when Alabama opens the 2018 season against Valparaiso. It will be nearly a year since the last time Kyle appeared in a game. It will be nearly 11 months since everything changed for the Camerons.
Alabama is getting a pitcher back. Jeff and Diana got their son back.
“Everything else became secondary,” Diana Cameron said. “You don’t really need something bad to happen to know that you love somebody, but it definitely does reinforce the love and support that family
gives to you in trying times. For Kyle, I don’t know why when I look back and say ‘Why did this happen? What purpose did this serve?’ The only thing that comes to mind is that Kyle now has a testimony of what it’s like to fight. What it’s like to have a dedication and determination to overcome a huge obstacle that you’re given and still come out on top.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.