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Cancer-free eight years, Rizzo is grateful for the journey

Anthony Rizzo hits a two run home run Tuesday against the Pirates. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

There are times when the last eight years seem like a blur to Anthony Rizzo. There are others, though, when they do not.

The 27-year-old Cubs’ first baseman has been cancer-free for eight years as of Friday, the anniversary of when he learned the Hodgkin’s lymphoma he battled for six months was in remission.

Before Friday’s game against the Giants, Rizzo stood near home plate watching young children currently fighting cancer throw out a pair of ceremonial first pitches. As the kids stood on the infield grass a few feet in front of home plate where Cubs’ mascot Clark waited for their pitch, Rizzo watched and applauded each effort.

It’s in these moments, Rizzo said Friday, that he remembers how grateful he is to be healthy and where his journey has brought him.

“I’ve obviously come a long way,” Rizzo said. “I’ve done a lot of really good things on the baseball field, but a lot of way better (things) off the field. I’m obviously really grateful to be where I’m at.”

In 2012, Rizzo established the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, which provides funding for cancer research and to assist families that are dealing with different forms of childhood cancer. To date, the foundation has raised more than $2 million.

Rizzo said that September 2 carries a special meaning each year, marking another 12-month stretch since Rizzo learned the cancer he dealt with was in remission. But it also serves as a reminder of the time he battled lymphoma, which he said puts any on-the-field struggles he may go through into perspective.

“It’s a lot easier to go through ruts and say, ‘it’s just baseball’,” Rizzo said. “Eight years ago plus, I was sick, getting treatments every two weeks. It’s things like that that put (baseball struggles) into perspective and it puts you right back on track.”

Rizzo meets with cancer patients as much as time allows as a way of giving back. He remembers when he was dealing with his illness, then-Red Sox pitcher and Rizzo’s current teammate Jon Lester took time to meet with Rizzo. At the time, Rizzo was in the minors at South Carolina. The visit came not long after Lester battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a rookie in 2006.

Lester said Friday he’s been impressed with the manner in which Rizzo has carried him in the months since.

“All the baseball stuff is great, but I like what he’s done and what he has grown into as a man and as a person,” Lester said Friday after throwing a three-hit, complete game in the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Giants. “A lot of guys that age don’t think about that kind of (charitable) stuff and so for him to put in that effort, that time, that’s pretty special.”

The practice of visiting cancer patients as Lester did is one Rizzo now continues himself, trying to provide hope through a positive message to the patients he comes into contact with. While each person he meets means something special, it’s the visits with teenagers dealing with cancer like Rizzo did when he was 19 are the ones that often hit Rizzo the hardest.

“Sometimes, I’ll meet some 15-16-17-year-old and it hits me right in the head,” Rizzo said. “It is tough because these kids are going to college and their dreams are to do this and that.

“They are sick and battling – in many cases, battling a lot more than I had to. I just try to give them positive reinforcement that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

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