LAKELAND, Fla. -- Rafael Belliard will have to wait another week before he takes his post coaching at first base for the Tigers. That's fine with him. He'll wait.
The surgery behind the wait, and the speed with which Belliard had it, saved his life.
While Belliard takes a spot on the bench in the Tigers dugout Sunday afternoon at Joker Marchant Stadium, the doctor who removed a pair of tumors from his prostate just a few weeks ago will be sitting in the stands as his guest. Dr. Vipul Patel conducted the procedure on Jan. 31, just 13 days after Belliard received the diagnosis that he had prostate cancer, and just a few months after the routine end-of-season physical that led to doctors taking another look.
So while Belliard waits his turn to take his spot at first base, he is standing as a living, breathing example of the benefits of regular examinations and early diagnosis. He didn't feel any discomfort, he said, and didn't have an idea how serious of a situation it was until doctors told him in mid-January. Once the tumors were removed at the end of the month, doctors found the cancer was an aggressive form.
"If I had waited until after [this] season [to have the surgery], it would have spread all over my body," Belliard said Saturday morning.
Instead, Belliard said he has been told he has a 95 percent chance of survival.
Like Tigers players, coaches undergo two physical exams a year -- one at the start of the season, another at the end. It was the latter, Belliard said, that showed team doctors a reason for another look from a specialist.
After blood tests showed elevated PSA levels, doctors took a look around the new year. They didn't find anything alarming, but suggested a biopsy to give him some peace of mind. Belliard, however, had offseason plans, including a two-week trip to China with his wife. They took the biopsy just before he left.
While Belliard walked along the Great Wall in January, doctors looked at a dozen samples taken during the biopsy. Two came back positive. When Belliard was finally back in the states, touching down in New York in January, he had a half-dozen messages asking him to get in touch with doctors.
Belliard called from New York, and the news jolted him. At age 51, with a job he loves, he went from not feeling any sign of trouble to wondering about the rest of his life.
"I was scared," Belliard admitted.
He doesn't know of any history of cancer in his family, but he had a friend who passed away from prostate cancer. By the time his friend had been diagnosed, it was too late to stop.
That was one reason Belliard didn't want to waste time when doctors recommended tumor removal. A bigger reason, though, was his job.
"I just wanted to get the surgery right away," Belliard said, "because with my schedule, we were starting to go back to work."
While doctors set up the surgery for the end of January, Belliard went north for the Tigers' winter caravan. All the while, he was thinking of the surgery.
Belliard underwent the procedure in Celebration, Fla. The doctor told him it was the quickest a patient of his had ever gone from diagnosis to surgery. Once they realized the aggressive form, he was clearly thankful he didn't wait.
"Thank God he did it quick," Belliard said.
Belliard is moving around well and taking part in workouts. Doctors don't want him coaching on the field yet because they don't want a quick reaction, such as getting out of the way of a foul ball, to open up anything and lead to bleeding. Basilio Cabrera, a coach for the Tigers' Gulf Coast League team, has filled in the last couple days. Until recently, doctors didn't want Belliard to hit with the fungo bat.
If that's the greatest of his worries from here on out, he'll be happy. He'll be examined regularly for at least the next few months, starting in March. When the season begins, he'll be referred to a doctor in the Detroit area.
While Dr. Patel is around the park Sunday, Belliard will try to see if he can do more activity. Before he does, though, he'll probably give another thank-you.
"It's crazy," Belliard said, shaking his head.