Family steps up to the plate to support young man fighting Hodgkin lymphoma

The Bendy family

It hasn’t always been easy to be a Cubs fan. From the time Anthony Bendy was little, the Chicago Cubs were his team — even though his parents and seven siblings cheered for the White Sox.

“Well, I’ve always been a big fan of underdogs,” said Bendy, now 21. “Now, I’m really happy I’m a Cubs fan.” 

It’s not just because the Cubs won the World Series in the fall of 2016. Just a few months earlier, on the day the then-19-year-old Bendy started treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma, he got a personal message from Cubs’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who also was diagnosed in his teens with the same type of cancer.

Bendy’s mother, Jennifer, had heard about the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation’s work on behalf of cancer patients. Desperate to lift her son’s spirits the night before his initial chemotherapy, she wrote the Foundation: “My son hasn’t smiled in weeks. He’s always been a happy kid. Could you just send a get well card and put a smile back on his face?”

The next day, after the family arrived at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital, a photo of Rizzo holding a big poster with the words “Stay Strong Anthony” arrived by email.

“It was awesome,” Bendy said, feeling a special connection with the baseball player who not only shared the same first name but also had been there before. “It probably got me through the first round of chemotherapy because I had something else to think about.”

His mom choked back tears as she recalled, “That was the first smile I had gotten out of Anthony since the day we found out he had cancer.”

As both Bendy and Rizzo know, a cancer diagnosis affects the entire family. And as cancer experts know, support from loved ones combined with leading-edge research, treatment and care strengthens a patient’s ability to successfully fight cancer.

Today, cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo is teaming up with the Chicago Tribune, along with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, Mariano’s and the University of Chicago Medicine in a campaign to raise money for cancer research and support for families like “Team Bendy” as they fight cancer together.

Rizzo hits cancer ‘head on’

“I was 18, playing professional baseball and on my way to living out my dream,” said Rizzo, 29. “Getting the diagnosis was surreal. I decided to hit it head on.”

Fortunately, the cancer went into remission after six months of chemotherapy, and Rizzo was able to pursue his career.

Remembering how difficult the fight against lymphoma was not just for him but also for his family, he established the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation in 2012. “We raise money for cancer research and help families out during a very difficult time,” he said.

Being a Cubs’ player also has given Rizzo a platform for providing hope to cancer patients.

“If I can make a patient smile for five minutes, that’s a win for me,” he said. “I tell them to do their best during treatment and have a good attitude.

“Cancer can’t compete when you, your medical team and your family work together and stay optimistic.”

Team Bendy battles lymphoma

During his freshman year of college, Bendy often called his family complaining of fatigue and upper respiratory symptoms. But it wasn’t until their son came back to his home in New Lenox, Ill., after final exams that his parents became alarmed.

After noticing a large lump on Anthony’s neck, Jennifer and Jeffrey Bendy took their son to a specialist who admitted him to Silver Cross Hospital. A biopsy revealed Hodgkin lymphoma.

Cancer can’t compete with a strong family and a strong patient who is ready to fight the battle.

“The doctor takes you in a little room to tell you what’s going on,” Jennifer said. “I went back up to the patient floor and I’m just crying and shaking. How do I tell my son he has cancer?” 

UChicago Medicine oncologists at Silver Cross reassured the family and referred them to the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) oncology program based at Comer Children’s on UChicago Medicine’s Hyde Park campus.

“And that’s how we met Dr. McNeer,” said Jennifer. “She has been amazing. She saved Anthony’s life. Twice.”

Pediatric hematologist/oncologist Jennifer McNeer, MD, is an expert in childhood cancers including leukemia and lymphoma. As a member of the AYA care team, she helps teens and young adults navigate the cancer journey while still moving forward with their lives.

“I told Anthony and his family that the cancer was a pause in his life to get through and then life would continue on,” McNeer said.

But the pause took longer than Bendy, his family and his care team had hoped. Although the cancer went into remission after five cycles of chemotherapy, a routine scan and biopsy one year later revealed it had come back.

The next course of treatment, which began in March 2018, included chemotherapy to get him back into remission, followed by a stem cell transplant.

UChicago Medicine has one of the leading stem cell transplant programs for adults and children in the Midwest. Bendy’s transplant was performed by John Cunningham, MD, and James LaBelle, MD, PhD, both nationally known clinicians and researchers in pediatric stem cell transplantation and other types of cellular therapies for childhood cancer.

The Bendy family
Team Bendy

Bendy is now receiving more chemotherapy along with a new immunotherapy that directly targets Hodgkin lymphoma cells. HIs medical team at Comer Children’s is optimistic that he will be cured. He looks at this second round of therapy as another battle to prepare for and get through as quickly as he can.

“I feel like I just want to finish school and live a good life,” Bendy said. “Wherever life takes me, it will take me and I’ll make sure to be happy.”

Team Bendy — Mom, Dad, six sisters and a brother — is steadfast by his side.

The cancer diagnosis and the months spent in treatment “ripped our hearts out,” said his mom. "But it brought us closer, a lot tighter.

“Cancer can’t compete with a strong family and a strong patient who is ready to fight the battle.”

Cancer Can't Compete

Cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo is teaming up with the Chicago Tribune, along with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, Mariano’s and the University of Chicago Medicine, in a campaign to raise money for cancer research and support for families as they fight cancer together.

Cancer Can't Compete
Sonali Smith, MD, talks with Clayton Harris, a lymphoma patient

Lymphoma care

Tremendous strides have been made in the treatment of lymphoma — a group of blood cancers that begins in the white blood cells that fight infection in the body. UChicago Medicine lymphoma experts are among the first in the nation to offer innovative treatment options, including CAR T-cell therapy.

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