FOR MICKEY MANTLE, JR., CARRYING AROUND THE GENETIC load of one of the century’s most famous pro athletes has been a mixed blessing. It has given the 45-year-old Dallasite the guileless good looks and aw-shucks nonchalance that made his father one of our most beloved celebrities. And as he himself admits, “People will return your call, no matter what you’re calling about.”
But genetic inheritance cuts both ways, and in Mickey Junior’s case, it has also left him vulnerable to two vexing diseases: alcoholism and cancer. In fact, when Mickey Senior passed away, on August 13, 1995, it was difficult to know which of the two finally did him in, since he died of cancer of the liver, an affliction that can be genetically predisposed but is also precipitated by chronic alcohol abuse. (Mickey Senior also carried the hepatitis C virus, which is a leading cause of liver cancer.)
Mickey Junior dealt with his own alcoholism (and drug abuse too) not long after his father’s death by seeking help for his addictions, just as his parents and brothers had. But the cancer was not so easily dispensed with. Cancer makes you wait on it, and even if you’ve waited all your life, it can sneak up on you. Mickey Junior first noticed the lesion on his neck last June. “Frankly, I didn’t worry too much about it at first,” he recalls. “It looked like a minor skin cancer, but I’d had lots of those—maybe twenty or twenty-five small lesions over the past eight years. They had all been little things that my dermatologist had excised, and that was that. But this one turned out to be different.”
For the Mantles, the news that Mickey Junior had cancer was a frightening instance of déjà vu, the unwelcome return of a disease that has killed too many men in the family. In addition to his father, Mickey Junior’s grandfather and two of his uncles all died at relatively young ages of Hodgkin’s disease, a lymphatic cancer, and his younger brother Billy battled Hodgkin’s on and off before dying of a heart attack at age 36. “No question about it,” says Mickey Junior. “You have as many people die of cancer as we have and you always will think the worst.”
Anyone who heard or read of Mantle’s brush with the Big C had to ask the same awful question: If cancer begins to turn up in my family, does that mean I’m doomed? Until recently, there wasn’t a clear answer—and in some respects, there still isn’t. In the past few years the disciplines of oncology and genetics have made breathtaking inroads into the previously impenetrable mysteries of the disease: Scientists have figured out what sort of damage to which genes may foment a malignancy, marked numerous genes as the primary carriers of the major cancers from one generation to the next, and identified which “syndromes” of cancer in families are most likely to afflict future generations. But as always seems to be the case with each new cancer discovery, the additional insight has given rise to new questions, ambiguities, and outright misconceptions. More than most other diseases, cancer has the ability not only to maim and kill but to terrorize. As a consequence, fear of cancer in the abstract has always been a kind of pathology unto itself, the chief symptom of which is the hysterical exaggeration of a modest body of firm fact into myth.
The explosion of knowledge about heredity and cancer has been no exception. The confirmation that some cancers are hereditary has led people to believe that all of it must be, at least to some extent. Some hyperneurotic souls conclude that even a handful of isolated instances of cancer in their family tree represents a hereditary pattern and that they are therefore condemned. Others fear an invasion of privacy in an age in which one’s predisposition to cancer can be predicted: If a genetic screening for, say, breast cancer turns up positive, won’t that finding provide the basis for job and health insurance discrimination—even if the disease never materializes?
None of these worries is any more valid than our worry a few decades ago that cancer was contagious and could be caught like the flu. Indeed, one of the more interesting things that the brief history of clinical cancer genetics has taught us is how relatively infrequent true hereditary cancer is. And further, how even in a seemingly obvious case like that of Mickey Mantle, Jr., things aren’t always what they seem.
WHEN MICKEY JUNIOR’S CANCER WAS DIAGNOSED IN MID-1998, he’d finally settled into a comfortable routine. He’d been clean and sober for three years. Though he’d been divorced for six years, his relationship with his nine-year-old daughter, Mallory, had never been better. His work life—split between working with the Mickey Mantle Foundation and helping run the family businesses that licensed the use of his father’s name—was busy and productive. But things hadn’t always been so orderly for the namesake of the baseball hall-of-famer. Mickey Senior had observed not long before his death that if he’d known he was going to live so long, he would have taken better care of himself. While Mickey Junior had never lived his life with quite the same reckless abandon, he’d had trouble figuring out what he wanted to do.
Perhaps that was because of a childhood necessarily spent on the move. Mickey Junior was born on April 12, 1953. (“Just in time for opening day,” his mother, Merlyn Mantle, wrote in A Hero All His Life , a 1996 tribute to her husband. “In June, I flew with him to New York so he could finally meet his daddy.”) As a kid, he was shuttled between the Mantles’ home in Commerce, Oklahoma (and later, their adopted hometown of Dallas); New Jersey, where they lived during the summer while Mickey Senior played at Yankee Stadium; and St. Petersburg and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Yankees’ spring training sites. Young Mickey had at