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20 Sports Figures Who Fought Cancer and Continued to Pursue Their Careers

Dave GrotzContributor IIJanuary 13, 2017

20 Sports Figures Who Fought Cancer and Continued to Pursue Their Careers

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    Jimmy V Week honors Jimmy Valvano and the countless other sports figures whose lives, friends and families have been affected by cancer.

    Valvano is a former college basketball head coach whose life and coaching career was cut short because of cancer. Ten years after winning the NCAA National Championship, the former coach died of cancer.

    Just before his death, Valvano and ESPN created The V Foundation for Cancer Research in 1993. His speech at the 1993 ESPYs, weeks before he died, has and will continue to inspire millions of people today.

    The V Foundation has raised more than $90 million and contributed to more than 100 facilities nationwide to fight cancer and promote cancer awareness.

    Numerous athletes and sports figures today have been affected by cancer. While some were able to bounce back and still compete, others’ careers were cut short.

    In honor of Jimmy V Week, you can check out 20 sports figures who fought cancer and continued with their careers.

    Note: The list is not a ranking, but in descending alphabetic order.

20. Eric Shanteau

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    Eric Shanteau is an American swimmer who competed the 2012 United States Olympic team. He earned a gold medal as a member of the 4x100-meter medley relay team this past summer.

    The 2012 Summer Olympics in London weren’t the first Olympics the swimmer qualified for.

    Shanteau placed second in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trails, earning himself a spot on the team to compete in Beijing.

    However, one week before the Olympic events, the 24-year-old was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

    With the inspiration from his dad, a fellow cancer survivor, Shanteau still chose to compete and risked the cancer worsening.

    “You have cancer. It doesn’t have you,” Shanteau recalled of the first things his dad told him, according to Coping with Cancer. “Cancer is one of those things that can control your life if you let it.”

    The American swimmer missed the finals by a mere 0.13 seconds and posted a personal best time, despite having cancer.

    After the Olympics, the brave swimmer opted to immediately undergo surgery.

    In the 2009 World Championships in Rome, Shanteau broke two American records. He posted a time of 2:07.42 in the 200-meter breaststroke and a time of 58.96 in the 100-meter breaststroke. On top of that, he was also on the 4x100-meter medley relay team that broke the world record.

    Now that Shanteau is cancer-free, he’s competed in a second Olympics and won a gold medal.

    On top of that, he’s been involved with The LIVESTRONG Foundation and created his own event called Swim for Your Life to promote cancer awareness.

19. Stuart Scott

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    Stuart Scott is a current ESPN SportsCenter anchor and host of several other ESPN shows, including Monday Night Countdown.

    However, the famous sportscaster underwent an emergency appendectomy in 2007 that revealed he had malignant cancer tissue surrounding his appendix.

    While constantly undergoing chemotherapy years later, Scott still pushes his body to his limits. He claims via Twitter that he regularly exercises with P90x and practices mixed martial arts.

    The active TV anchor is also a motivational advocate of cancer awareness on Twitter, regularly retweeting and sending praise to those who reach out to him about how cancer has affected their lives.

    The 47-year-old is not and never was a professional athlete. But, the Orlando Sentinel once wrote that “Scott is to journalists what Lance Armstrong is to athletes,” for his fight against cancer and doing what he still loves.

    The Jimmy V Foundation honored the journalist with the 2011 Spirit of Jimmy V award for his unrelenting fight against cancer. The anchor annually presents during the ESPYs, as well.

    If you watch Scott closely during any ESPN segment, you can see the LIVESTRONG bracelet on his right wrist.

18. Chuck Pagano

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    Chuck Pagano is arguably the most famous sports figure fighting cancer right now.

    Not many sports fan knew who the Colts coach was entering the 2012 NFL season, but after a postgame locker-room speech, most of the nation's sports fans know who the current cancer fighter is now.

    Following the Indianapolis Colts' 23-20 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 4, Charles “Chuck” Pagano walked into the Colts locker room and delivered an incredible, inspiring speech about battling “circumstances” and following “visions.”

    The speech was directed to his team, but it will impact every individual who watches the video.

    The Colts’ “circumstances” of being doubted and “visions” of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy are minuscule compared to Pagano’s.

    Pagano’s “circumstances” are that he was diagnosed with leukemia in September. As a result, he had step down as an NFL head coach, so he could undergo four to six months of chemotherapy.

    His “vision” is trying to survive and beat the cancer, so he can dance with his two daughters at their weddings some day.

    Fortunately, as of Nov. 5, Pagano’s cancer is in remission, according to the Indy Star. His bone marrow revealed no sign of the disease, but Dr. Larry Cripe said he couldn’t use the word “cure” just yet.

    Interim coach Bruce Arians recently said that Pagano will “make calls” and be the head coach if he comes back, according to ESPN.com and the Associated Press.

17. Billy Mayfair

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    Billy Mayfair is an American professional golfer with five career PGA Tour wins.

    Mayfair has never won a major, but he’s has placed in the top five three times.

    The highlight of his career was defeating Tiger Woods in his prime, in a playoff during the 1998 Nissan Open.

    However, the toughest competition of his career was not playing Tiger Woods in a sudden-death duel.

    On July 31, 2006, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery just three days later.

    “I went from playing golf to wondering if I was going to be able to see my son grow up,” Mayfair revealed to Coping with Cancer.

    But, just two weeks later, Mayfair toughed it out once again and returned to play in the PGA Championship. He was only two strokes back through 36 holes.

    Mayfair still plays golf professionally and is now cancer-free.

16. Mike Lowell

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    Mike Lowell is a four-time All-Star, a Gold Glove Award winner, a Silver Slugger Award winner, a two-time World Series champion and a World Series MVP.

    But prior to the 1999 season, the third baseman was diagnosed with testicular cancer five days short of his 25th birthday.

    Lowell underwent treatment and missed the first two months of the 1999 season, and he returned to play 97 games that year. After the season, he received the Tony Conigliaro Award, as the player who best overcame an obstacle and adversity.

    It was still a tough year for the 25-year-old.

    “Scariest thing I've ever gone through,” Lowell said about his battle with cancer in 2006, according to The Boston Globe.

    Lowell then played at least 140 games in each of the next eight seasons, from 2000 to 2007.

    The third baseman had a career year with the Red Sox in 2007. He was named to the AL All-Star team and hit a career-high .324 with 21 homers and a career-high 120 RBI during the regular season. On top of that, the veteran was also named the World Series MVP.

    After playing his last season in 2010, Lowell joined the MLB Network as an analyst on MLB Tonight.

15. Jon Lester

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    Jon Lester is a current Red Sox starting pitcher, two-time All-Star and 2007 World Series champion.

    But in 2006, the 22-year-old ace was diagnosed with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

    He missed the first half of the 2007 season to undergo treatment, but he returned in the middle of June and pitched the Red Sox to a Game 4 victory in the 2007 World Series against the Rockies.

    Since 2007, the two-time All-Star has been one of the best pitchers in the American League, tallying a 65-32 record and a 3.33 ERA from 2008 to 2011.

    Lester also threw a no-hitter on May 19, 2008, against the Kansas City Royals.

    In 2009, the lefty joined Nike Team LIVESTRONG to help raise cancer awareness. The NIKE team also includes Larry Fitzgerald, Lamar Odom and several others, but Lester is the only member who was actually a cancer survivor.

    On Sept. 10, 2012, the 28-year-old celebrated his sixth year being cancer-free and hosted his first annual LIVESTRONG baseball camp for kids ages 10-14. All benefits of the camp proceed to NVRQT (Never Quit), which raises funds for pediatric cancer research.

    On top of all that, in 2011, Lester released his own wine label under the Longball Cellars brand. All proceeds support the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash., where the pitcher was treated.

    He recently teamed up with Clay Buchholz in his wine business. Lester’s wine is called “CabernAce,” and Buchholz’s is called “ChardonClay.”

14. Mario Lemieux

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    Mario Lemieux is one of the greatest NHL players of all time. To name a few of his achievements, he’s a Hall of Famer, two-time Stanley Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist, three-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner and six-time Art Ross Trophy winner.

    However, Lemieux is also the recipient of the Bill Masterton Trophy, which honors a player who best exemplifies “the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.”

    He earned the award for returning to hockey after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993.

    Before the cancer diagnosis during the 1992-1993 season, Lemieux was on pace to break Wayne Gretzky’s prolific record of 92 goals in a single season. But, he was forced to undergo radiation treatments, which sidelined him for two months.

    Lemieux was in his prime and playing one of the best seasons of all time until his diagnosis.

    “Notwithstanding Gretzky’s abiding majesty, posterity will never forget that no athlete, not even the sainted Lou Gehrig, has ever before Lemieux been struck down by a deadly disease at the very moment when he was the best of his sport at the best he ever would be,” wrote Frank Deford in Newsweek, according to an ESPN SportsCentury Biography.

    Lemieux returned later that season, and the Penguins won 17 games in a row. Despite missing two months of hockey, he still won the Hart Memorial Trophy that season, which is awarded to the NHL MVP.

    In 1993 following his diagnosis, the hockey great created the Mario Lemieux Foundation to fund medical research projects and several other cancer organizations, including LIVESTRONG.

    Mario Lemieux also helped create Athletes for Hope with Lance Armstrong, a charitable organization run by some of the greatest athletes of all time. The purpose of the foundation is to inspire non-athletes to volunteer and support the community.

13. John Kruk

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    John Kruk is a former three-time MLB All-Star and current baseball analyst on ESPN.

    Before the 1994 season started, the first baseman was diagnosed with testicular cancer during Spring Training.

    The fan favorite had to have a testicle removed because he took a baseball to the groin area, which broke his protective cup, from a wild pick-off throw by Mitch Williams.

    Kruk played just 75 games in 1994, and he retired after playing just 45 games in 1995.

    The 51-year-old joined the Phillies’ Wall of Fame in 2011 and has been with ESPN’s Baseball Tonight since 2004.

12. Saku Koivu

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    Saku Koivu is a former NHL first-round pick, All-Star and captain of the Montreal Canadiens.

    When the center was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, in 2001, he missed 79 games during the 2001-2002 season. Fortunately, he returned on April 9 for the final three games of the regular season.

    Koivu also played in the 2002 playoffs and helped lead the No. 8 seed Canadiens over the top-seeded Boston Bruins. He received the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy after the season.

    The Finnish center played a full season the following year and posted a career-best (at the time) 21 goals, 50 assists and 71 points.

    The 38-year-old still plays in the NHL, now for the Anaheim Ducks. Koivu was honored on March 12, 2011, for playing 1,000 career games.

11. Phil Kessel

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    Phil Kessel is a former fifth overall pick from the 2006 NHL draft who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in his first season with the Boston Bruins.

    Fortunately, he was pronounced cancer-free five days later and missed just 11 NHL games. The Bruins' 19-year-old rookie received the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy at the end of the 2006-2007 season.

    Since being pronounced cancer-free, Kessel has been a two-time All-Star and a silver medalist in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

    The right winger has scored 135 goals in the last four seasons, posting career highs in goals (37), assists (45) and points (82) in 2011-12 as an NHL All-Star with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

10. Mark Herzlich

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    Mark Herzlich is a former All-American linebacker from Boston College and a current New York Giant who won the Super Bowl in 2012.

    After a stellar 2009 season, the star linebacker was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and was a potential “top 10 pick” for the 2009 NFL draft.

    But just after the season, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, in 2009.

    The 21-year-old underwent intense chemotherapy and radiation, and he sat out the 2009 season. However, the Eagles linebacker announced on Oct. 3, 2009, on national television at College Gameday at BC that he was cancer free.

    Despite sitting out the 2009 season, Herzlich still received the Disney’s Wide World of Sports Spirit Award for overcoming cancer and being “college football’s most inspirational individual.” He also earned the honorary Lott Trophy in 2009 for “his perseverance, attitude and good works (that) are an inspiration to all of us who love college football.”

    It’s an incredible award that only Pat Tillman’s family has received (2004), because Tillman left the NFL, volunteered for the United States military and was killed in Afghanistan.

    Herzlich came back in for the 2010 season at BC, but he did not return to his elite form. Still, he never gave up on his dream to play college football.

    Herzlich was not chosen in the 2011 NFL draft, but he was still signed by the New York Giants and started two games in the following season for the NFL champions.

    Herzlich went from cancer survivor to Super Bowl champion in two years.

    “2 years ago I was told I might never walk again,” he tweeted before the 2012 Super Bowl. “Just WALKED off plane in Indy to play in the SuperBowl. #TakeThatSh*tCancer”

    Since his diagnosis, Herzlich has also hosted celebrity golf tournaments, volunteered with the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation and spoke with hundreds of young pediatric cancer survivors. He is also the face of Uplifting Athletes and has inspired other cancer patients through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

9. Scott Hamilton

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    Scott Hamilton is an American figure skater and 1984 Olympic gold medalist. In 1990, he was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.

    After turning professional, Hamilton co-founded, co-produced and performed in Stars on Ice for 15 years.

    However, in 1997, the figure skater was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

    Hamilton also developed a brain tumor in 2004. He underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor, which resulted in an aneurysm, in 2010.

    Since being diagnosed with cancer, Hamilton has contributed to St. Jude’s Children Hospital and is an honorary member of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

    After missing five years on the ice, Hamilton returned for  his 10th annual cancer-fundraising skating show, called “Scott Hamilton: Return to the Ice.”

8. Andres Galarraga

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    Andres Galarraga is a former MLB first baseman who was an All-Star, Gold Glove Award winner, Silver Slugger Award winner, batting champion, home run champion and Comeback Player of the Year.

    From 1993 to 1998, the slugger hit .314 with 216 homers and 700 runs batted in over the six seasons. He recorded incredible single-season highs of .370 AVG in 1993, 47 HRs in 1996 and 150 RBIs in 1996, as well.

    However, the slugger missed all of the 1999 season after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Just before the diagnosis, he averaged 44 homers and 137 runs batted in over the previous three seasons.

    Galarraga came back one year later and had an incredible 2000 season.

    He hit .302 with 28 HRs and 100 RBI after a full season missed because of chemotherapy. He earned the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award

    At 40 years old, Galarraga was declared cancer free in 2002. The long-time slugger played his last season in 2004 for the Angels, and he retired with the Mets before the start of the 2005 season.

7. Dave Dravecky

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    Dave Dravecky is a former MLB player and All-Star whose promising career was cut very short.

    The southpaw has a career 64-57 record with a 3.13 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. Not once in his career did he post an ERA greater than 3.60.

    But just before the 1989 World Series, the San Francisco Giant was re-diagnosed with a cancerous desmoid tumor in his left arm.

    After the first diagnosis in October 1988, doctors had to remove half of his deltoid muscle from his throwing arm, according to The New York Times. He was told by doctors that he would likely never play baseball again.

    However, he proved them wrong.

    Dravecky returned in July 1989 to the minors and in August 1989 to the majors. But just a few weeks later, the cancer reappeared.

    This time, the cancer and injury ended his career.

    After delivering a pitch just weeks after making a comeback, the Giants pitcher’s arm snapped, and doctors had to immediately remove the cancerous growth. Weeks later, he would re-injure his arm while celebrating with his team, which just won the National League pennant.

    The 33-year-old’s career ended in 1989 after just eight seasons. In his final season, he earned the Hutch Award, for best exemplifying fighting spirit and competitive desire in 1989.

    Dravecky has written two books about battling cancer, and he is now a motivational speaker.

6. Eric Davis

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    Eric Davis is a former MLB player, two-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove Award winner, two-time Silver Slugger Award winner and World Series champion.

    Davis became the first player to ever hit 30+ homers and steal 50+ bases in a season in 1987. He also became the first player to hit 25+ HRs and steal 80+ stolen bases in a season in 1986.

    From 1986 to 1990, the five-tool player hit 148 homers and 475 runs batted in with 207 stolen bases over the five seasons.

    During the 1997 season, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. In between practices and games, Davis underwent chemotherapy and played through the cancer.

    He received treatment all season, missed 120 regular-season games and courageously returned for the playoffs. Davis hit a game-winning home run in the ALCS that postseason.

    After his comeback season, the brave outfielder was given the 1997 Roberto Clemente Award and the 1997 Tony Conigliaro Award

    In the following season, Davis hit .327 and slugged .582 with 29 doubles, 28 HRs and 89 RBI, earning the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award.

    Former teammate Paul O’Neil said the five-tool player was “the best hitter, best runner, best outfielder, best everything I ever saw,” according to a Detroit sports blog.

    David currently serves as an honorary member of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

5. John Cullen

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    John Cullen is a former Boston University standout and NHL center who played for the Penguins, Whalers, Maple Leafs and Lightning.

    Despite experiencing illness at the end of the 1996-1997 season, he played through the condition and led the team in scoring, while Tampa Bay was fighting for a playoff spot.

    Just after the season ended, Cullen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The center battled cancer for 18 months and sat out the 1997-1998 season.

    The Canadian-born player received the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy after returning to hockey in the 1998-1999 season, and the IHL renamed its Comeback Player of the Year award to the John Cullen Award.

    Cullen’s battle inspired the Moffitt Cancer Centre in Florida to partner with the Lightning. Soon after, Hockey Fights Cancer was created, a fund Cullen has helped promote.

4. Edna Campbell

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    Edna Campbell is a former WNBA player and current league spokeswoman.

    In 2002 before her fourth professional year, the 33-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer, the most common form of cancer with women.

    She played just one game in 2002.

    One season later, Campbell returned to the WNBA and continued to play, despite her cancer diagnosis and ongoing treatment. She received the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award in 2003.

    Campbell also became the WNBA’s national spokesperson for its anti-cancer efforts with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 2003.

    Campbell would eventually defeat cancer, and she retired after the 2005 season.

    Campbell’s victory over breast cancer was nominated by WNBA fans in 2006 as the “most inspirational and one of the top four WNBA Decade Anniversary moments.”

    After retiring from the WNBA, Campbell still continues to inspire with the story of her life and her battle and defeat of cancer. She became a licensed nurse in 2008 and later authored The Breast Cancer Recovery Manual.

3. Jessica Breland

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    Jessica Breland is a former college basketball standout from University of North Carolina and a former WNBA first-round pick.

    But at just 21 years old, the hoops star was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009.

    While in college, the junior received six months of chemotherapy and was forced to miss the entire 2009-2010 season.

    The cancer survivor returned for her senior year, and she led UNC to the ACC Championship game and Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Tournament.

    Breland is now 100 percent healthy, was drafted 13th overall in the 2011 draft by the Minnesota Lynx and most recently played for the Connecticut Sun.

2. Josh Bidwell

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    Josh Bidwell is a former NFL punter who was drafted by the Packers in 1999, played for the Buccaneers for six seasons and finished his career with the Redskins in 2010.

    The former second-team AP All-American was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the first month of his rookie year. The cancer spread beyond his testicles and forced Bidwell to undergo emergency surgery.

    Instead of being the starting punter, the 23-year-old was placed on the reserve/non-football illness list and sidelined for the entire season.

    “In the course of a few days, I went from the starting nod to being told I had cancer and would be fighting for my life,” Bidwell said, according to an ESPN article by Anna Clemmons.

    The Oregon native underwent chemotherapy in his home state and was treated by the same oncologist who operated on Lance Armstrong.

    After losing 50 pounds from the treatment, Bidwell trained and successfully tried to make an NFL comeback.

    One year later, he returned to the team and earned the starting job.

    Bidwell would play for 11 NFL seasons and later be named to the 2005 NFC Pro Bowl team.

    The former NFL punter has hosted seven celebrity golf tournaments, in which all the proceeds go to the Josh Bidwell Foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to not only raise money, but also engage the community and reach out to those who are less fortunate.

1. Lance Armstrong

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    Lance Armstrong is the most famous, and now the most notorious, athlete who’s survived cancer.

    The cyclist completed the 1995 Tour de France but dropped out of the 1996 event for becoming ill.

    Months later, the 25-year-old was diagnosed with stage three (advanced) testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. He underwent 12 weeks of chemotherapy.

    Three years later, Armstrong shocked the world and won his first of seven Tour de Frances titles in 1999.

    Three years before his first title, he had a 40 percent survival rate. After his first title, the cancer survivor was well on his way to become the most dominant athlete in the history of his sport.

    Unfortunately for Armstrong, after years of allegations, testimonies and investigation, the cyclist was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. He also lost most of his major endorsements and has received persistent criticism for allegedly cheating.

    His records and achievements as an athlete may be erased forever, but his memory and inspiration as a world-renowned philanthropist will never be taken away.

    Armstrong is no longer is the face of LIVESTRONG, but his battle against testicular cancer to still compete in the Tour De France and inspire millions of other cancer patients and survivors around the world is still incredibly praiseworthy.

    After serving 2.5 million cancer patients, raising almost half a billion dollars for cancer, selling several hundred million famous yellow bracelets that read “LIVESTRONG,” donating $5 million of his own money and inspiring millions of others affected by cancer for 15 years, Armstrong stepped down as Chairman of LIVESTRONG and transferred his duties to Vice Chairman Jeff Garvey.

    You can call him a cheater in his sport, but Lance Armstrong is still a cancer survivor who’s inspired many millions of people around the world. Not only has he given hope to cancer patients to fight for their lives, but also he has influenced healthy people to join the fight against cancer and promote awareness.

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