My grandmother loved watching Tiger Woods. This was back when he was winning every tournament and Phil Mickelson was always in the mix. She loved Phil, too. Those are my favorite memories of her. We’d sit on the couch — both sick from the chemo — and watch all the biggest golf tournaments together.
She was the first to find out she was sick. I was getting tests done, and my mother was asking why I was getting CAT and PET scans because she had just gone through the same tests with my grandmother. It was 2008 — my first spring in the Red Sox organization — and I felt tired and run down. I was 18, and I usually had enough energy to go all day but this was the first time I was playing every day, so I just chalked it up to it that. I’ll get used to it, I thought.
Then, out of nowhere, I gained 15 pounds. My legs started swelling up. I was playing well and I was killing the ball, so the last thing I wanted to do was take myself off the field. But the swelling got so bad that I had to stuff my ankles into my spikes. I went to the trainer and the team sent me to Boston to have some tests done. We thought maybe I had a kidney infection, so the doctors did a kidney biopsy but it turned out to be much worse.
Six weeks after my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, the doctors told me I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
I didn’t know anything about cancer. I thought “chemo” was a kind of cancer, not a treatment. It caught everyone — especially me — by surprise.
My family is extremely close. When my parents moved to Florida from New Jersey, my grandparents followed, so they were never far away. My grandmother was at my side every day at baseball games and other sporting events, bringing my brother and me food and sandwiches. My grandparents practically helped raise us.
When my grandmother found out I had cancer, she was very positive and supportive, but I know she was probably hurting inside. The rest of my family was the same way. When you’re sick, you get that feeling that everyone feels sorry for you. I hated that feeling. But my family did a good job of not letting it show.
My grandmother was tough as nails. She never really talked about her cancer, but when she did, she’d downplay it. She would never say she was hurting. You’d ask, “How you doing, Grams?” and she’d always say, “I’m fine. I feel great. I feel like I’m getting better.” But we knew from the doctor’s reports that she was getting worse. She would never let her guard down and say she wasn’t doing well. She could be in the most pain but she would never show it.
And I kind of took after her. Even when I felt like crap, I just told everyone I felt fine and that it was the medicine that was making me sick, not the cancer. In a lot of ways, we got strength from each other. We never complained but it was nice to know that if we ever wanted to, we had someone else there who could relate.
We didn’t have treatment together — she had her doctors in Boca, and I was doing treatment in Miami — but we hung out a lot in between. It was a really special time we spent just relaxing together, mostly watching golf. She would get into it, too. The best was when Tiger was in the hunt for the lead and Phil was chasing him. She’d yell at the TV, and when Tiger or Phil would make a big shot, we’d go crazy.
I can still hear her voice today whenever I watch golf.
My mother was a rock through the whole thing. I can’t imagine what it was like for my mom to watch her mother and her son battle cancer at the same time. At first, my parents didn’t even tell my brother and me about my grandmother’s cancer. I think, like most parents, they just didn’t want us to worry. That’s just how they are. Even today my parents worry about us, always making sure we’re happy and comfortable. It doesn’t matter how old we get. That’s just what parents do.
When you’re sick, you get that feeling that everyone feels sorry for you. I hated that feeling.
My mother and father were always there to help me stay positive during my treatment, and it was going really well. At the same time I was going through chemo, my grandmother was doing radiation. For a while it was going well for her, but eventually it took a turn for the worse and she started getting sicker and sicker. She wasn’t really eating much, and I’d go to see her in the hospital and say, “Grandma, how you doing?” She’d respond by asking me how I was doing, and we’d both lie and say, “Great!” But the reality was that she was 78 years old, and you could see by the weight loss and deterioration that she wasn’t doing well.
My grandparents lived for my brother and me. No matter what we needed, whether it was help with our homework, snacks during sporting events or typing something up for us, they were always there. It was hard for us to see my grandmother not be able to do the things she’d always done for us — the things she loved so much.
It was September 2, 2008, and I had endured four months of chemo. My family and I had just gotten on a plane to go to one of my brother’s football games at the University of Texas— he played for Florida Atlantic University — when my mom got a phone call. It was my doctor.
Four months after my diagnosis, the tumors were gone. I was in remission.
My mother went crazy. We celebrated right there on the plane. After everything I’d been through — and after everything we’d been through as a family — I was cancer-free.
About two weeks later, my grandmother passed away.
I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason. My grandfather passed away about two years before my grandmother. It was one of those situations where when one goes, the other goes. That’s just the relationship they had. They lived for each other.
I truly believe that my grandmother was holding on to be there and take care of me so I didn’t have to fight my cancer alone.
Once she got the news that I was cancer-free, she could finally just relax and let go.
In every big moment in my life — like when I got called up to the big leagues — I always think about my grandparents. Every big game I play in, during the national anthem, I always say a little prayer and speak to them, and it’s hard not to choke up and think about how proud they’d be to see what I’m doing now because they know how much I love this game.
I couldn’t be more grateful to have grown up with the grandparents I had, and my grandmother is a big reason why I do what I do now off the field. The way she gave back to my brother and me and my mom was just incredible. As we battled cancer together, I realized what a team effort it was — not the two of us as a team against cancer but our whole family as a team, fighting together.
Every time I think about my grandmother, I think about those long afternoons watching golf together. I also think about the strength and selflessness she showed not just during her battle with breast cancer but throughout her entire life. I think about what I can do to carry on that legacy of strength and selflessness. That’s what she would have wanted.
Anthony Rizzo has been cancer-free for nearly seven years and is the founder of The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, whose mission is to raise money for cancer research and provide support to children and their families battling the disease.