By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
For the second time in less than a decade, Mark Menendez will sit out a season of fishing at B.A.S.S.' top level on a medical exemption. This time it's not him, but rather his wife, Donna, who's battling the ailment.
On the upside, Donna Menendez's situation is now much more positive than it was 2 months ago, when a severe case of itching and some dark-colored urine landed her in the hospital for tests. A series of exams eventually revealed pancreatic cancer – a deadly form of the disease that rarely allows its victims to live 5 years past diagnosis.
Fortunately, the ping-pong ball-sized malignant tumor on Donna's pancreas was merely sitting atop an important vein and had not infiltrated it. The entire mass was removed during a 3-hour, 15-minute operation,
and she's currently undergoing chemotherapy in a quest to clean up some nearby infected lymph nodes. Up next is radiation, which will be followed by more chemo, with the entire protocol set for completion in February. A few weeks later, the monitoring process will begin.
"The thing that's been the hardest for us is that when you look at the statistics for pancreatic cancer, you're facing Mt. Everest," said Mark, who met his wife when they were schoolmates in the second grade. "Only 1 to 4 percent of the people beat it, and that's because it's very seldom found when it's not already at stage 4 or stage 5.
"Donna was diagnosed at stage 3, but once a second CT scan was done and the surgical oncologist reviewed everything and saw there was a (tissue) margin there to get it off that vein, they backed it down to stage 2. Had the mass attached to the vein, it would've been much, much worse. She wouldn't have been a candidate for the surgery.
"We're not out of the woods yet, but right now we're dealing with a best-possible-case scenario."
Another on a Long List
The Menendezes, both 48, have certainly been beset by more that their share of serious health issues. Mark missed the 2005 Bassmaster Tour campaign due to a bout with meningitis and he's also endured two cases of skin cancer. Donna, meanwhile, has battled heart and neurological conditions.
They've spent so much time in hospital wards that children Caroline, 8, and Max, 7, have become almost numb to the routine.
"They've seen both of us in and out of the hospital their entire lives," he said. "I didn't tell them it was cancer this time until Donna had come home after the surgery. Caroline was astute enough to understand the seriousness of it and she got pretty worried, but I was able to tell her that her mother came home with no cancer in her body."
Donna Menendez's cancer was originally diagnosed as stage 3, but was later downgraded to stage 2.
The surgery was performed at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn. Ms. Cannon was better known by her stage name, Minnie Pearl, the comedienne who starred at the Grand Ole Opry for half a century and on the TV show Hee Haw. She died in 1996 of complications from a stroke and left much of her fortune to the facility where she'd been treated for breast cancer.
"I can't say enough about the support we got there, both physically and psychologically," Mark said. "We had a wonderful surgeon and a wonderful nurse navigator (a patient educator and advocate).
"Personally, I would not have been able to handle the pressure this put my family under without those people. The direction we got was spot-on."
Another Year Away
Two days after his wife's cancer diagnosis, Menendez called B.A.S.S. tournament director Trip Weldon to tell him he'd need another medical exemption. He won't fish the Elite Series or the PAA Tournament Series next year as the needs of Donna and his children will become his sole priority.
"I'm so grateful to B.A.S.S. for understanding that we as fishermen can't be fishermen alone," he said. "I'm the only one in the boat, but I'm representing a whole group of people, which is my family. I'm grateful that I'll be able to be here where I'm needed.
"When this all started, obviously one of the first things I did was contact all my sponsors to tell them the odds were that I would not fish next year, and I've had 100 percent support from every one of those companies. I've been told that I don't have to worry about my contracts and that my only concern should be my wife's health and keeping my family together. That means so much to me."
Max Menendez and his sister Caroline have become accustomed to having one parent or the other in the hospital.
He's fished only three times since late September, and only for a couple of hours on each occasion, just as a respite from all that his family's been going through. On one of those excursions he caught his first-ever bass on an umbrella rig.
"Early on in this process I was standing in my front yard, where I've got a quarter-acre pond. I don't have any real big fish in there, but there's several 3-pounders and they were just schooling on the bluegill, knocking them up on the bank. That's what we live for as fishermen, and it would've taken me 20 seconds to run down to the boat and grab a rod.
"I had no desire to try to catch them, though. I just stood there and observed and admired the scene, and that was when I knew my head was in the right place. I had, quote-unquote, bigger fish to fry with Donna.
"The bass can just wait for me."
> The family was able to take a pre-planned trip to Disneyworld between Donna's diagnosis and the surgery. "That was as therapeutic as anything could've been," Mark said. "The doctors told us to go and make memories and have fun, and it turned out to be the best piece of advice we could've gotten."
> The operation, called a Whipple surgery, involved removing Donna's gall bladder, along with part of the pancreas, the duodenum and the bile duct. "Only 1 in 6 patients is eligible for it, and by a millimeter (of healthy tissue between the tumor and the vein), Donna became a candidate. I knew it was major surgery, but I didn't understand at first just how major it really was."
> Donna has started a Facebook page called Cancer: Battle Royale. "She's giving updates about her condition as she goes through this and we're adding information about pancreatic cancer as we learn it. There's funny things, monumental achievements she's made during the protocol and things that the kids say. It's not for any kind of publicity, we're just trying to cut down the learning curve for people who find themselves in the same shoes."
> He might try to fish the 2013 Northern Opens, depending upon Donna's condition when spring arrives. "If we're getting good health reports I may consider it if I'm lucky enough to get a spot, but I can't plan that far ahead."