A baseball family's young son fights a courageous battle with cancer
In October 2014, as Kansas City was in the midst of its first playoff run in nearly three decades, Royals farmhand Clayton Mortensen received devastating news that would change his and his family’s lives forever.
At the time, Mortensen was a 29-year-old reliever for the Omaha Storm Chasers, a Royals affiliate that had just won its second straight Triple-A national championship weeks earlier. Mortensen, a right-hander, had appeared in 74 career major-league games with the Cardinals, A’s, Rockies and Red Sox prior to an August 2013 trade that sent him from Boston to Kansas City.
Mortensen and his wife, Janna, had become concerned when their son, Miles, ran a week-long fever and started experiencing stomach pain. After two trips to urgent-care clinics and a meeting with their pediatrician, the Mortensens decided to take Miles to an emergency room near the family’s home outside Phoenix.
There, doctors performed an ultrasound, which revealed a tumor. Soon after, an oncologist diagnosed Miles with Stage IV neuroblastoma, a cancer that affects one in 7,000 children, 90 percent of whom are younger than 5. Doctors initially gave Miles, who was 2 at the time, a 40 to 60 percent chance of making it to his fifth birthday.
“There’s nothing in this world that can prepare you for things like that,” Mortensen told FOX Sports in a recent interview. “We both felt completely blindsided by it. Just the words 'tumor' or 'cancer' or anything like that that popped up, it was just mindblowing. It was almost like they were speaking a different language.”
“I was just in utter shock,” Janna Mortensen added, describing her reaction to her son’s diagnosis. “I couldn’t believe it and I questioned it — 'No, this can’t happen. This doesn't happen to kids.’ I mean, he’s two years old. It can’t happen to him.”
There was little time for disbelief, though. Two days after his diagnosis, Miles underwent surgery to assess the tumor and insert a port to be used during his chemotherapy regimen. On Oct. 9, he began his first round of treatment. That was followed by a second round of chemo beginning on Halloween, a third round just before Thanksgiving and a fourth a week before Christmas.
During that time, the Royals also re-signed Mortensen to a one-year deal for the 2015 season. There was concern, Mortensen said, that teams wouldn’t want him after a disappointing 2014 effort following major hip surgery the previous offseason. But the Royals stepped in early in the process, assuring that the Mortensens would have health insurance to help cover Miles’ treatment.
“I can’t explain enough how much the Royals mean to me and what they’ve done for me and my family,” Mortensen said of the club. “We got a call when the news had come out about Miles, they contacted my agents and told them that they’d love to sign me back so we can keep our insurance throughout the offseason and going into the next year. It was like, 'Family is first, and we’ll worry about the whole baseball part later.'”
Kansas City, however, didn’t view the signing as a charity case — far from it, in fact. Although the gesture was made in part to assure that Miles was getting the best care possible, the team had seen Mortensen’s potential during his previous big-league stints and believed he could still be an asset on the mound.
“Part of our mantra is that we want to build an organization that we want our own sons to be a part of, so there’s always that sense of family, and having two young boys myself, it hits really close to home,” Royals assistant GM Scott Sharp told FOX Sports. “Because you can realize, very quickly, that what are very healthy kids one day could not be the next day, and everyone is susceptible to this. Everybody has the possibility of going through it.
“Pitching in the PCL is not the easiest thing to do, and obviously he had a lot of things on his mind that could detract from baseball,” Sharp added of Mortensen’s 2014 season, during which he went 5-4 with a 4.74 ERA in 15 starts. “One thing to know is that he’s a very focused individual, and he said, 'Look, if I’m going to pitch, I’m going to give it my all.' So we knew we weren’t going to get a lack of focus. We knew that we weren’t going to get an athlete that was half in it.”
That’s a statement echoed by Mark Leinweaver, Mortensen’s agent at Beverly Hills Sports Council.
“When they acquired him, he was less than 12 months removed from his best year in the big leagues,” Leinweaver said of Mortensen’s 2012 season, in which he went 1-1 with a 3.21 ERA in 26 appearances for the Red Sox. “So if you’re the Royals, why would you give up on a guy who we acquired, who was a former first-round pick in a position where, one day, you might look like you’re a heartbeat away from your career being over, to actually being one of the best guys in the bullpen?”
Particularly, Leinweaver pointed to Mark Melancon, who overcame early career struggles with the New York Yankees to become one of the game’s top closers in Pittsburgh.
“I think the Royals looked at it from a perspective of, 'If we can get the Clayton Mortensen back who we acquired, that’s just going to bolster our bullpen,' but at the same time, he’s dealing with something that I’ll argue that no other professional baseball player was dealing with off the field,” Leinweaver said.
“So it wasn’t a charity,” he continued. “They knew if they could get this guy back, they were going to get a heck of a player, but the bigger scope is, 'We’ve got a heck of a human being here too, and he’s going through a tough time. So if we can help him navigate that tough time and he’s able to find a way to be the pitcher he was in 2012, we’re really going to have something special here.'”
Meanwhile, as the season drew closer, Miles’ treatment continued to progress, and on Jan. 20, 2015, one day after his third birthday, Miles underwent surgery to remove 95 percent of the cancerous tumor. Then in February he had his fifth and final round of chemo, and in mid-March, he received a stem cell transplant.
Following the transplant, Miles had to be isolated from most outside contact, meaning even his father could only pay occasional visits to his room at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The procedure had compromised Miles’ immune system and Mortensen, who was in the midst of spring training, was too much of a risk to bring in disease.
“They call it your second birth, because it kills off everything in there and brings you back to life,” Mortensen said of the stem cell transplant. “So his immune system was down to zero, nothing, and he had to be basically quarantined for a whole month, and my wife had to be in there every day with him.
“I was only able to get in there, I want to say, three times, because I’m around 160 other guys all day, and sickness is always keen running through spring training,” Mortensen continued. “With that many people around, when one person gets it, everyone gets it, and we couldn’t run the risk of me getting him sick. Because if he got sick, even just a common cold, it could have been lethal.”
The process was also complicated by the fact that the Mortensens’ daughter, Harper, also needed care throughout Miles’ ordeal. Harper was born in May 2014 and was five months old at the time of her brother’s diagnosis. Clayton and Janna were thankful to have help from family members who had come into town to help look after Harper, but said they still felt guilty about the impact Miles’ condition might have on his sister.
“It’s definitely been a major juggling act,” Mortensen said. “And we feel bad, as parents, not being able to give Harper the attention that we’d like to give her.”
“That’s probably one of the hardest things besides actually caring for Miles,” Janna added. “I just wonder the effect that it has on Harper, because I spend so much time and am so focused on Miles that it’s hard for me to balance out still being a great parent to her and not letting her feel like she comes in second to him.”
Finding that balance was only made more complicated when Mortensen had to return to Omaha to be with the team. But later that summer — after a four-day ICU stay due to septic shock and 20 subsequent days of radiation treatments — the Mortensens received some good news from Miles’ oncologist, Michael Graham. The treatments seemed to be working, and his scans were looking good.
Then on Dec. 23 of last year, the family got the update they’d been waiting to hear for over a year: Miles’ latest MIBG scan showed him to be cancer-free, and he was declared to be in remission.
The Mortensen family.
“Once we got the news, it didn’t really sink in at all,” Mortensen said. “At that point, after all the treatments of stuff, I don’t know if I was expecting him to say, 'Well, of course he should be cancer free.' But a day or so later, we were sitting down just me and my wife, like, 'Hey, he beat it.' We just kind of soaked it in, and to come into the next year with that on our mind, it was a very happy feeling.”
“To hear the doctor say that was such a relief,” added Janna, whose father, Bob Burtrum, is also in remission after a recent prostate cancer diagnosis. “But just because they said, 'You’re cancer-free,' we knew it wasn’t guaranteed for any amount of time. And I think that’s the hardest part, knowing that it could come back at any time. We just weren’t prepared to hear that it did.”
Following the news of Miles’ remission, the Mortensens spent a week at Disney World on a Make-a-Wish trip. With his contract up, Mortensen initially explored free agency, but ultimately re-upped with the Royals, and the family returned to life as normal.
“It was really cool to see Miles, especially, be able to experience something like that and just run around, have fun, play, and see him just enjoy life after being in the hospital for a year,” Mortensen said of the Disney trip. “Just getting him out and seeing him smile and play, it was incredible.
“It was kind of a taste of what life should be like,” he continued. “We’ve got both our kids, they’re both healthy, both happy and able to live a normal life, so to speak. It was a little taste of what we should be having.”
In May, however, the Mortensens received news that stopped them in their tracks.
Though Miles hadn’t been exhibiting any of the symptoms that led to his original diagnosis, a routine scan revealed what appeared to be a mass on the now-4-year-old’s femur. Mortensen was on the road with the Storm Chasers in Memphis when Janna called from Arizona with the news, which she said came with “absolutely no warning.” The tumor had appeared on a 24-hour scan, but doctors were awaiting the results of a more comprehensive 48-hour scan to confirm a diagnosis.
“Sitting in Memphis in the locker room, the whole day the next day was just terrifying,” Mortensen said. “It was like, 'I can’t believe this, no way this is going to happen,' and I had that feeling that there’s not going to be anything in there, that he’s going to come back clean, that it was a misread.
“I remember the game was starting at 7, and I told my guys, 'Hey, I’ll be down in the bullpen a little later, but I’ve got to hang out here until I get this call,'” Mortensen continued. “Then my wife called me around 7:20, the first or second inning, and I could just tell by the tone. She just said, 'Hey,' and I said, 'Oh no, they found something, didn’t they?'
“She said it was a tumor,” he said. “And it was like an anvil just dropped on me from the ceiling. It just crushed me, and I knew I had to come home. It was like, 'What the hell? How does this happen?'”
Once he got off the phone with Janna, Mortensen placed a call to Ronnie Richardson, the Royals’ director of minor league operations, to break the news.
“Then I went out to the dugout and told my trainer, and when I got back in the clubhouse, just kind of packing my stuff up, I just started hysterically bawling,” Mortensen said. “It was really tough to process at the time. Why is it happening to this perfect little four-year-old boy? He’s grinded it out for four years, he’s done everything he needs to do, there’s so much optimism, and then a damn relapse? I felt really, really bad for my son. I wished there was something I could do to make him not have to go through this.”
Mortensen returned to Arizona the following morning and stayed by his son’s side for more than a week. He returned to Omaha on May 14, and soon after, his family arrived in Nebraska, where they’ve been living for the last few weeks.
“We had planned on moving out to Omaha with Clayton, and this was going to be the first time in two years that we were going to be together as a family, and we were just so excited to finally get some normalcy back to our lives,” Janna said. “We know now that if we don’t have very much time, that the time that we do have has to be together. So whatever sacrifice we have to make — I had to load up a trailer by myself and move us out here — then that’s what we had to do.”
At the end of May, Miles underwent his first round of chemo at University of Nebraska Medical Center, kicking off a cycle of treatments that will require him to be in the hospital for five days at a time, then home for two weeks. He’s scheduled to return for another stint next Tuesday. The family is also exploring the option of MIBG therapy, which is only available in certain cities and would require yet another move should they need to proceed.
It’s a heartbreaking turn of events for a family that so recently thought it was in the clear, but if there’s a bright side, it’s that Miles remains in good spirits.
“We always call the hospital the hotel. He loves going to stay in hotels, so the hospital, now, is the new hotel, and he actually loves going in there,” Mortensen said. “It’s crazy to think that, but thank the Lord he blessed him with that.
Clayton and Miles Mortensen.
Clayton Mortensen pitching for Omaha.
“We just had to tell him, 'We’ve got to go in and go take care of your owies, OK?' and he’d shake his head and say yeah,” he continued, describing how he broke the news to Miles. “Going into the hospital, that’s second nature to him now. It’s almost like his norm, and he didn’t skip a beat. It’s like, 'OK, we’re going to the room, we’ll post up, get his movie box going, his iPad, decorate his room a little bit.' He loves the hospital beds where he can mess with the up and down buttons, and for him, it’s comfortable.
“I don’t know if it’s a safety net or just a feeling of comfort that he’s getting taken care of in there,” Mortensen added, “but he really responds exceptionally well.”
Miles’ time in the hospital over the last two years has also helped lead to a program called Mighty Miles’ Must Haves, which the Mortensens started to help families of pediatric cancer patients with essential items that help make hospital rooms feel more like bedrooms to the kids. For Miles, those items include his sheets and pillows from home, his pajamas and slipper socks, his name on the wall and photos and decorations around the room.
Miles’ recent relapse has put plans to expand the effort on hold, but it’s one that’s near and dear to the Mortensens’ hearts.
“We questioned why this would happen to our family and why this would happen to our son, but our bigger picture is that Clayton is in a position, playing professional baseball, where he can bring awareness to Miles’ situation and to childhood cancer in general,” Janna said. “And we just feel that maybe that’s a reason why we're going through what we’re going through, because we do have that platform. Clayton and I had never thought about childhood cancer until it affected us, so if we can bring that awareness to other people, maybe it’ll be in people’s minds.”
First and foremost, however, is Miles’ own health. And while the prognosis from doctors isn’t necessarily encouraging, the Mortensens are holding out hope that their son can beat the disease once again.
“To be honest, Clayton and I kind of avoid those numbers, because if we dwell on them, they’re just going to really depress us,” Janna said, noting that doctors initially put survival chances at 10 to 15 percent after a relapse. “We just feel like as long as we’re doing the best we can without taking away his quality of life, as long as we’re making sure that he’s happy and spending time and making memories with him, and as long as we’re hopeful and together as a family, that’s really all we have to go off of.
“Sometimes numbers can lie,” she continued. “Sometimes a pitcher has an inflated ERA when he’s really amazing. And that’s how we relate baseball to our current situation. Sometimes you have a slump, and Miles’ relapse is just kind of a slump for him, but we feel like he’s really going to come out swinging after this.”
For Clayton, who is currently in the midst of a particularly brutal stretch of the schedule that features just eight home games the entire month of June, positivity is the only option in a case like this. And just as he remains determined to have his son someday see him pitch in the big leagues again, he clings to hope that Mighty Miles can beat the odds once more.
“There are definitely times when I catch myself thinking about the future, and I get mad at myself for thinking about the worst-case scenario, not having my son,” Mortensen said. “Times like that, that’s when I’ll break down and start crying. That thought of that happening, it’s almost unbearable. I can’t imagine life without my son, so you’ve kind of got to shut it out.
“There is a reality, and I accept the fact that it could happen, but I’m not going to say that it’s going to happen,” he continued. “We will do anything and everything we can to make sure that he can beat this, and the rest is up to God.”
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.