They met in high school near San Diego, and their lives, from that point forward, were intertwined. As Joel Skinner worked his way up the Minor League ranks and into a big-league career that saw him serve as a catcher for three teams over nine seasons, his wife, Jennifer, was by his side.
And when shoulder surgery derailed that playing career and forced Joel to head back to the Minors, this time as a coach, Jennifer remained a rock in his life. "Whether dealing with my retirement at age 34 or going back to the Minor Leagues to manage or her having to homeschool the kids in the spring, she's been there," said Joel, now the third-base coach for the Indians. "She's been there the whole way." But in early 2003 came a frightening diagnosis that had the Skinners and their four young children wondering if Jennifer would continue to be there. At 40 years old -- still much too young to be thinking about such grave matters -- Jennifer got the grim news that she had breast cancer, a disease that will kill 40,460 women and 450 men this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. For Jennifer, the news couldn't have been less expected. No one in her family tree had dealt with breast cancer, so she had no reason to believe it would happen to her. "I didn't fit into the profile of women that can develop breast cancer," she said. "It was a major, major shock to everybody. We were very uncertain when we first found out. We didn't have experience with cancer at all, so we didn't have a clue as to what we were getting into." The diagnosis came in early February 2003, shortly before Joel was to report to Spring Training in Florida. This, obviously, was no time for a family to be torn apart by the business of baseball. Fortunately, the Indians were supportive enough to allow Joel to cut loose from Winter Haven, Fla., and return to Cleveland to support his wife through six weeks of radiation treatments. "The Indians were just falling over backwards making sure we had everything we needed and that he had time to come home when he needed to," Jennifer remembered. "That helped him mentally, too. He certainly held it together more than I realized. I knew it was affecting him, but he didn't ever break down or curl up in a ball. He was always very strong for me." Likewise, it was Jennifer's strength that impressed Joel. He knew her as a friend and companion and mother to his children, but he quickly discovered something else: She was a fighter. As part of their education in the wake of the diagnosis, the Skinners learned that those affected by breast cancer -- or any serious disease -- deal with it in different ways. "They were upfront with us about that," Joel said. "Some women wouldn't even go through a waiting room. They would come in through the back door and leave through the back door. Not that one way is the right way and one is the wrong way, but all these things were explained to us." Jennifer chose to meet the disease head-on. And that meant having the necessary tough conversations with her children -- daughters Kate, Erin and Tara and son Cameron. Just as those battling breast cancer have varied reactions to the experience, Jennifer found each of her kids had a different concept of what their mother was going through. The 17-year-old Kate, for instance, was much more worried than the 11-year-old Tara, only because she had a better understanding of the disease's scope. "I just tried to explain as much as I could to all of them what I was going to have to go through," Jennifer said. "Tara didn't want to talk about it at all, except we'd be having a conversation about the weather or the dogs, and all of a sudden she'd say, 'Are you gonna die?' That was her way of dealing with it. She wanted just enough information to know what was going on." Once the chemo treatments were complete, Jennifer was placed on medication that prevents her body's estrogen from stimulating the growth of breast cancer cells. She's been on that medication for four years now and will continue to take it for another year. And even though radiation treatment appears to have vanquished the disease from her body, Jennifer is still affected by the ordeal on a daily basis. "It's always in the back of your mind," she said. "I'm four years out, and if something is going on inside my body -- if I have a long cold -- the first thing I think of is cancer. You live with cancer for the rest of your life, even if you don't have it anymore." Jennifer is currently undergoing gene testing to discover if her body has genes that predispose her to breast and/or ovarian cancer. The testing should help the Skinners know if their children and their children's children might be at risk, as well. Breast cancer taught the Skinners what it teaches so many other families -- that life is fragile and should be appreciated. Just as importantly, it helped the two former high school lovebirds mature as people. "This is real life," Joel said. "Whether it's a bout with cancer or any type of accident that's dealing with life or death and tough situations, this is what happens. In baseball, there's ups and downs and tough roads, but that's just employment. That doesn't compare to this."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.