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10 Famous Athletes Who Managed to Beat Cancer
The recent revelation that Eagles running back Jerome Harrison has a brain tumor — hopefully it’s not cancerous — underscores the reality that athletes are just like you and I. They suffer through the same traumas and dramas, and are vulnerable to the general unpredictability of life. Despite their physical and mental toughness, each of which they’ve forged through years of athletic competition, nothing can prepare them for undertaking the fights of their lives. The following athletes accepted the challenge presented by cancer, triumphantly defeating it as we cheered them on. Not all athletes are role models, but these guys — just a handful of the many cancer survivors in sports — exhibited traits everyone should emulate.
- Unquestionably one of the best hockey players to ever lace up the skates, Lemieux’s health was his most fierce rival. During his career, he battled chronic back pain, chronic tendinitis, a spinal disc herniation, and most daunting, Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Diagnosed during the 1992-93 season, in which he was on pace to eclipse the single-season goal and points records, he was sidelined for two months as he underwent aggressive radiation treatments. Incredibly, he played on the last day of the treatments, scoring a goal and tallying an assist against the Flyers.
- Most 26-year-old athletes are entering the primes of their careers — Koivu, instead, simply wanted to stay alive. As with Lemieux and many other players in the intensely physical sport of hockey, he constantly battled injuries, which, in a way, may have prepared him for his bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While on a flight to the U.S. from Finland, he experienced tremendous stomach pain and vomiting — clear signs that something wasn’t right. As a result, he received aggressive treatment with radiation and drugs, causing him to lose significant amounts of weight and energy. With the motivation provided by the support of fellow athletes who endured the disease, he managed to return before the end of the 2001-02 season. He helped the Canadiens reach the playoffs, and played the best hockey of his career — to that point — the following season.
- The length at which a cancer patient is required to fight the disease varies. Cullen’s harrowing 18-month battle included numerous peaks and valleys, none of which disrupted his focus. Initially, a baseball-sized tumor was found in his chest, but chemotherapy treatments eliminated it in just a few months. Because cancer cells were still present in his body, he sat out the 1997-98 season to continue his fight. During that time, he suffered cardiac arrest — needing a defibrillator to revive him — and he later received a bone marrow transplant, which severely weakened him. His hockey career wasn’t over, however. When he was declared cancer free, he trained for a comeback, eventually signing with the Lightning.
- It’s difficult not to concede that women are the stronger humans. Breland is proof, as she too successfully defeated Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma while she was just 21-years-old. A student at the North Carolina at the time, she spent six months receiving chemotherapy treatments, missing the entire 2009-10 season. The Tar Heels leading scorer and rebounder in 2008-09 returned for her redshirt senior season, performing well enough garner a selection in the WNBA draft by the Minnesota Lynx, which traded her to the New York Liberty.
- Breast cancer in the most common form of cancer diagnosed in women. Most of us personally know a woman who has dealt with the disease, whether it’s a family member, friend, coworker, or acquaintance. Campbell certainly touched the lives of her teammates and fans as she battled the disease during her fourth season in the league. Incredibly, she continued to play through her treatments, serving as inspiration to the many women in her situation. Through the years, the WNBA has had a close relationship with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, utilizing its players to promote awareness of the disease. Campbell became the league’s national spokesperson for the effort, a job she embraced.
- A former chewer of tobacco, Butler was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsils during the latter of stages of his accomplished Major League career. After having a tonsil removed due to what the doctors thought was an infection, it was found to be cancerous, and he was forced to sit out while undergoing intensive treatment. Sidelined in May, he returned in September, finishing the season in which he encountered the biggest obstacle of his life. The 39-year-old went on to play one more season in the Majors.
- Coming off of three consecutive seasons in which he hit 40 or more homeruns, Galaragga was enjoying the greatest success of his baseball career. However, just prior to the 1999 season, he experienced nagging back pain that wouldn’t go away. It turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he missed the entire season as he underwent chemotherapy treatment. On Opening Day in 2000, he returned to hit a game-winning homerun, setting the tone for an unexpectedly successful season in which he made his fifth career All-Star appearance and won the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award.
- In 2006, the Red Sox prospect earned a promotion to the big leagues, but his rookie season was disrupted as he was faced with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During a late-season game, he was scratched from a start due to a sore back, which he thought was caused by a car accident that occurred a month earlier. Enlarged lymph nodes and subsequent tests indicated it was more serious, and he received chemotherapy treatments during the offseason. Fortunately for Lester, it was gone before the 2007 season, enabling him to work his way back up to the bigs. The payoff was huge, as he won the clinching game of the World Series.
- Herzlich’s senior season at Boston College was supposed to be an audition for the NFL — a chance to catapult himself into the first round. In the previous season, the linebacker made major strides, receiving First-team All-American honors. Seemingly indestructible, he shocked Eagles fans when he revealed prior to the season that he had Ewing’s sarcoma. Just a few weeks into the season, and four months after the diagnosis, he declared that he was cancer free. He then focused on preparing for the 2010 season — he eventually started all 13 games and recorded 65 tackles. He was signed by the Giants before the 2011 NFL season, and he remains on the team’s 53-man roster.
- At the age of 25, well-before he fulfilled is cycling potential, Armstrong was diagnosed with stage three Embryonal carcinoma. Because the cancer had spread to his brain, lungs, and abdomen, he was forced to immediately undergo surgery and chemotherapy. Even after the exhaustive response, he was given just a 40% chance of survival. He chose to undergo an alternative form of treatment that would preserve his lungs and thus his cycling career. Defying the odds, his cancer went into remission, and returned to training. Now, as a healthy 40-year-old, he boasts seven Tour de France victories, the most ever.