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Athletes Who Beat Cancer May Help Cancer Kids Do the Same


WebMD Health News

July 14, 2000 -- Thirty-nine year old Andres Galarraga is having a banner year. As the first baseman for professional baseball's Atlanta Braves, he's putting up great numbers, and just this past week, he started in major league baseball's All-Star game. Of course, the astounding fact of it all is, just a year ago, Galarraga was steeped in chemotherapy drugs, fighting non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Just as remarkable is the comeback of 28-year-old Lance Armstrong from advanced testicular cancer. The bicyclist won the Tour de France last year after vanquishing the disease, and day-by-day, he's threatening to again wear the winner's yellow jersey when he crosses the finish line in Paris.

Inspiring stuff.

Now imagine what it means to a child with cancer.

"I think children have always looked to sports heroes. Our children, when asked for Make-a-Wish and other things like that, request to meet sports figures. They want to meet certain athletes and have been able to do that, and that's been very good experiences for the kids," social worker Maura Savage tells WebMD. Savage works with children at the AFLAC Cancer Center at Egleston Hospital in Atlanta.

"But then, adding on to that," Savage says, "there's definitely been identification, particularly here in Atlanta with Andres Galarraga ... he came and met the children, and how inspirational it is for kids. They always enjoy seeing athletes do superhuman things, and want to be like them, but particularly when they've had cancer themselves, the kids were just thrilled by that, and talking about him, and knowing he, too, had cancer."

For the younger kids, the cancer actually may be secondary to the fact that they're just simply in the presence of one of their heroes. "The younger ones are just thrilled that this is a sports athlete and this is somebody special and is spending time with them, and they think this is real neat, and that makes them feel good," Savage says.

Wendy Hobbie, CRNP, agrees. Younger kids "decide who their idols are. If the cookie monster comes to see them, they're really excited." Hobbie works at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and is co-author of the book Childhood Cancer Survivors: A Practical Guide to Your Future.

For the older kids battling different cancers, the fact that an admired person not only had cancer, but also beat it, can be very important. "A lot of times, the teen-agers really need to meet people who have made it, because the teens are so introspective. ... The little ones distinctly get the seriousness and the stress of their situation, but it's the teen-agers who can kind of vocalize that. They want to meet people who have survived and who have exceeded [expectations], and done so well," Savage tells WebMD.

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