Four Strikes and You're Out? Not By a Long Shot!

Four-time cancer survivor Scott Baker recounts his battles with the disease and what they’ve taught him about life, love, and gratitude.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Survivor Scott Baker with his wife, Sue
Scott Baker with his wife, Sue

I know it sounds counterintuitive when I say this, but I have actually found the greatest happiness over the past two years, despite two of my most difficult battles with cancer. I know that I have been a better husband, father and friend than at any other time in my life. And while I don’t recommend it, this experience has taught me the importance of finding inner peace and commitment to change where it is needed.

The journey began in 1999, when I was 29, working as a bridge engineer for the New York State Department of Transportation and dating the woman who is now my wife and mother of my two sons, seven and eight years old. I was diagnosed with systemic non‐Hodgkin lymphoma, underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and was out of work for five weeks. Then, in 2006, I suffered a recurrence, which required a stem cell transplant, and I was out of the game entirely from about April to July.

The one thing that kept occurring to me during my second illness was that there was a lesson there. I was being told, in no uncertain terms, that I needed to change and be the best person I could possibly be. But despite that knowledge, I kept going back to my old self. So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise when in 2012 I was once more diagnosed with cancer — this time in my central nervous system, my brain. This recurrence brought me to Memorial Sloan Kettering for treatment and a second stem cell transplant.

Treatment was aggressive and rigorous and by now my sons — who had already lived through three of my cancers — were old enough to know just how sick their dad was. I was in the hospital for more than 100 days in one calendar year. My wife was by my side for most of this time. How that looked from my boys’ perspective, I can’t imagine. When we spoke to their teachers, they said they didn’t even know anything was going on in the family. Was this denial or faith? I may never fully know.

For my part, I never believed that my life was over, only that I needed to change it, and for good. It took hard work and a complete reprogramming of the way I think and respond to the world. I became painfully aware of how much pressure and stress people put on themselves and I knew I had to remove that factor. I used to try to impose my views on others. I used to be quick to anger. My life depended on learning to change these things.

One moment that I recall vividly: I was sitting in a chemo treatment room with other patients. We began to talk and then to laugh. Not one of them was bemoaning their fate. In fact, they were some of the happiest people I’d ever met. Why? I asked them. And the answer was a single word: gratitude. We were all grateful to be alive. I carry that memory with me daily.

Since treatment, I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, which has allowed me to build a strong relationship with my boys. We talk. They tell me how they feel. We discuss mistakes we’ve all made. We grow together. With the help of my family, I have steadily improved, physically and cognitively, to the point where I’ve been coaching my sons’ baseball teams and have now been cleared to return to work. I can once again play golf, a game I love.

I also maintain a solid connection to the community of cancer survivors. I have been fortunate to work with a number of support groups, including the LIVESTRONG program at the Saratoga YMCA, where I am a mentor to other survivors. That work has really brought me back to life.

This article was reprinted from Bridges, an MSK publication written by cancer survivors. Learn more about Bridges and other services available within the MSK Survivorship Center, created for anyone who has completed cancer treatment.

Every year, we come together as a community to mark National Cancer Survivors Day by celebrating and honoring survivors’ strength, courage, and resilience. You are invited to join us on June 24 for this year’s Survivorship Celebration. Olympic gold medalist, ovarian cancer survivor, and mom Shannon Miller will deliver the keynote speech.