Battling pediatric cancer
By Katie Scarlett Brandt
Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo started a tradition in his frequent visits to the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. He brings his jersey and offers each child a trade: He’ll sign something for them, if they sign his jersey in return.
“Now I have this jersey with more than 100 signatures on it that reminds me every day how truly lucky I am,” Rizzo says.
Rizzo knows what the kids who sign his jersey are going through. He has been where they are—a startling diagnosis, a future suddenly uncertain.
In April 2008, at age 18, Rizzo was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. His life changed in an instant.
Through it all, no matter how he felt, the process was even more challenging for his family, he says. “I stayed as positive as possible so that everyone around me, especially my family, did not worry about how I was feeling.”
The encouragement from his family kept him motivated even after his treatment stopped. Rizzo pledged to continue to help kids with cancer, giving them that support.
In 2012, four years after he was told he was in remission, Rizzo started the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation to raise money for cancer research and help kids with cancer and their families. His family and close friends run the nonprofit, and Rizzo provides oversight.
Strong family support when a child has cancer makes the situation easier on everyone, says Jennifer Reichek, MD, MSW, a hematologist/oncologist at Lurie Children’s. “A diagnosis really is a family affair. It takes a toll on the whole family.”
In those early conversations with parents about their child’s diagnosis, Reichek asks them to bring extended family. “That support is really important. This is the diagnosis that every parent fears, and having to tell the story over and over and over again is exhausting and emotional.”
But for some families, constantly being at the hospital with their child isn’t possible. Parents may have to work and care for their other children. Extended family may live too far away to offer on-site support.
In those situations, Reichek says, the staff steps in as substitute family. “One of the things that drew me to be an oncologist was seeing the staff rally around a 2-year-old when I was a medical student. We see these kids at the worst times of their lives, and we really get attached.”
Rizzo has become a role model for kids with cancer. But he had a role model of his own during his fight.
In May 2008, Rizzo was playing for the Boston Red Sox organization in the minors. Theo Epstein, then general manager of the Red Sox, invited Rizzo to be his guest at Fenway Park. During a rain delay, Epstein introduced Rizzo to Jon Lester, who was pitching for the team.
As we know in Chicago, magic happens in rain delays. Rizzo learned that Lester had fought and won his own battle with cancer—anaplastic large cell lymphoma. Lester talked to Rizzo, boosting his morale. Lester also told the young athlete about his NVRQT (Never Quit) campaign, which is run by the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation.
“I promised that when I beat cancer and made it to the majors, I would do everything I could to help kids the way Jon helped me,” Rizzo says. The rest is history—World Series history, as Rizzo, Lester and Epstein were all reunited on the Chicago Cubs.
Rizzo has made good on his promise. Reichek says that patients and staff at Lurie Children’s were cheering for Rizzo last season and felt honored to wear Cubs gear during the playoffs.
Rizzo’s visits to the hospital, she says, are “an unbelievable gesture for our kids and their families. Our staff is star struck, too.”
For families who have just been diagnosed or are in the thick of battle, Rizzo says, “I believe that by staying positive, I actually felt better and ultimately won my battle against cancer. I know that they, too, can do the same.”
Originally published in the Spring 2017 print issue