Rare bone cancer doesn't diminish determination of rodeo champ Juan Torres
Just a few months before his September Zoom meeting with L.A. Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, Juan Torres got the worst news of his life.
The 21-year-old champion of Mexican Rodeo, who was undergoing chemotherapy for bone cancer, learned that despite the aggressive drugs, the cancer had returned after a brief remission. To save his life, doctors would have to amputate his left arm at the shoulder.
Not only had his medical team banned him from riding horses during treatment, but the lasso events he excelled in would now be next to impossible.
“I was shocked when I got the news,” says Torres. “The first time, I didn’t cry, to be honest with you. I was just shocked. And I was like, ‘Well, whatever comes next, I’m definitely going to have to give it my all, because it’s not going to be easy.’”
Torres was diagnosed in 2019 with osteosarcoma, a rare, aggressive form of cancer that almost exclusively strikes teenagers and young adults. There are fewer than 1,000 cases a year in the United States and the survival rate is 70%.
His determination to recover and thrive inspired his doctors, nurses and fellow patients at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. His oncologist, Noah Federman, MD, recalls that Torres’ distress at his diagnosis was quickly replaced by his will to overcome the disease.
“I remember him saying, ‘I’m going to beat this because I was put here for a purpose,’” says Dr. Federman, director of the Pediatric Bone and Soft Tissue Sarcoma Program, supported by UCLA Health, the JCCC and Mattel Children’s Hospital. “And those are the things that inspire us as physicians when we get worn down.”
Torres’ inner strength and optimism aren’t the only attributes that led to his Zoom meeting with Kershaw, a visit organized through the team’s Blue Wish program and its partnership with UCLA Health. Torres is also a lifelong Dodgers fan who comes from a long lineage of Dodgers devotees.
“My mom used to go (to Dodger Stadium) when it was only $3 to get in,” Torres says.
In seasons past, Torres and his family were regulars at games, where they’d roll eight deep, decked out in their blue-and-white caps and jerseys. This year they’ve had to watch from a distance, as the pandemic has prevented fans from attending games.
“If you talk to me about the Dodgers, I’ll talk to you about Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner and the older players, too, like Matt Kemp,” Torres says. “He (Kemp) actually left to San Diego and came back (before leaving again for Colorado). But with our Dodger Nation family, once you’re a Dodger, you’re always a Dodger, in my opinion.”
Torres’ deep knowledge of the Dodgers showed during his conversation with Kershaw. With the stadium closed to fans, he and the star pitcher connected virtually, with Kershaw taking him on a private Zoom tour of the clubhouse, batting cages, gym and bullpen.
Wearing a black headband, sleeveless Dodgers T-shirt and blue paper medical mask pulled down beneath his beard, Kershaw greeted Torres with a warm grin.
Torres also was appropriately adorned: with a blue Dodgers hat, a custom jersey with his name on it (gifted by the team) and an ear-to-ear smile that stayed in place throughout their meeting. His 5-year-old niece, Lucia, sat by his side the whole time and chimed in with such contributions as, “I have a Dodger hat that says Little Miss Sassy!”
Torres wanted to see the Dodgers’ bullpen, so Kershaw took the long route while serving as tour guide. “There’s no one around, so I can just go wherever I want in the stadium. It’s awesome,” he said.
His first stop was the team’s trophy case to show off a collection of Silver Slugger and Cy Young awards. “Are those real?” Lucia asked. When told they were, her jaw dropped.
Then they were on the field, where Kershaw pointed to a crowd of cardboard-cutout fans. “It’s better than nothing, I guess,” he said, referencing the absence of real fans in the ballpark.
Torres asked if the pressure to perform was different without fans in the stands. “I still get those butterflies for sure,” Kershaw said. “Because you want to win and you’re still facing another team. So there’s still some pressure.”
Kershaw walked Torres through the bullpen and past the weight room. As they turned down a hallway, they ran into third baseman Justin Turner, one of Torres’ favorite players. “We love the beard,” Torres said. “Don’t take it off!”
“That’s a nice outfit you got on today, buddy,” Turner replied. Torres beamed.
When Kershaw asked Torres who else he wanted to meet, he named Joc Pederson. A blink later, the outfielder was on camera. The two met once before, when Torres was being treated at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
“I know you saw me before my surgery, but now I’m only right-handed,” Torres said, gesturing toward his missing arm. “I used to have both, remember?”
It was the only time during the 20-minute conversation that Torres mentioned his health, and he did it with a laugh.
His sense of humor has remained intact throughout his ordeal, Dr. Federman says.
“I think that helps us and him,” he says. “But we’ve certainly had our moments and shed tears. He may have the air of being superhuman, but he’s definitely human and he’s gotten a lot of bad news.
“Being faced with the idea that you may not be here a year or two from now is really tough to stomach,” the doctor says. “I know he’s thought about that. But, to him, not being here is not an option.”
Torres continues to receive chemotherapy at UCLA Health and credits his parents, sister and niece for helping keep his spirits up through the process. He’s also celebrating his one-year anniversary with his girlfriend.
And Dr. Federman recently cleared him to ride horses again.
“That just made my day,” Torres says.
“At the end of the day, I always had my family’s support,” he says. “I did have moments when I would cry and just want to give up. But I always remember that physical pain is just temporary. It’s not going to be there all the time and it will eventually ease off. It might come back, but you get a break and that break gives you more strength to keep pushing.”
Torres closed out his visit with Kershaw by making plans to meet again. “I know with COVID I couldn’t see you in person. Maybe when it’s done we could hang out, like in the bullpen or something?” he asked.
Kershaw told him to come out to the first game he can after the pandemic. And Torres took it from there: “We could just hang down there and eat some sunflower seeds.”
For more information about sarcoma and treatment, visit the UCLA Health sarcoma program website.