Rizzo, a survivor, lends hope to cancer patients

Rizzo, a survivor, lends hope to cancer patients

PARKLAND, Fla. -- Most kids have long lists of toys they want for the holidays. The gift Anthony Rizzo gives is hope.

Mike Fiorello's son Adam was hopeful after talking to the Cubs' first baseman. Adam was diagnosed in December 2013 with a rare cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, and needed treatment at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Rizzo and Adam went to the same high school in Parkland, Fla., and Rizzo, a cancer survivor himself, called Adam when he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

"Anthony called my son -- I'll never forget when he got the call," Mike Fiorello said. "[Adam] was taking chemo and he was just miserable. He was just getting his body destroyed by this poison. He didn't answer the call, but he got this message from Anthony and he didn't return the call because he didn't know what to say. The Rizzo family found out about Adam, and they helped us through a really tough time."

The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation helped pay for the travel expenses so Adam could get his treatments in New York. The foundation paid for a room at the Miami hospital when Adam was transferred there for care.

Last year at Rizzo's fourth annual "Walk-Off for Cancer," held in his hometown of Parkland, "Team Adam," which was walking on behalf of Adam Fiorello, was the top fundraising group. Adam couldn't do the 5-kilometer walk himself; he was too weak.

"The Rizzo family did a lot of good things for us," Mike Fiorello said. "They had a real impact on me and my family."

Rizzo, 27, saw Adam before he left Florida to start Spring Training this year at an event sponsored by the city of Parkland.

"I knew he wasn't doing well," Rizzo said. "He looked good, but I could tell he wasn't doing good. His spirits were through the roof and he was appreciative and thanking everyone. A few weeks later, he passed away."

Adam died on March 8 at the age of 22. The Rizzo Foundation stepped in again and helped pay for the funeral costs.

"[Anthony's brother] Johnny Rizzo spent time with my son Nicholas at Adam's viewing," said Fiorello, 60. "Nick talks about it all the time. [The Rizzo Foundation] is truly a family affair that all four of them are involved in this process."

The four include Anthony and his brother plus their parents, John and Laurie. This year, they have created the "Hope 44" program at the University of Miami Sylvester Center, where Rizzo received treatment. Rizzo has firsthand knowledge of cancer and the nightmares connected with it. In April 2008, when he was a Minor Leaguer in the Red Sox organization, Rizzo was diagnosed with limited state classical Hodgkins' lymphoma.

Rizzo was lucky. He survived. A three-time All-Star, winner of his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards, and now a World Series champ, Rizzo is trying to give cancer patients some hope in their battle against the deadly disease.

At the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, the Rizzo Foundation sponsors Lura Carstensen, a child life specialist, whose job it is to explain cancer to children and their parents. Rizzo is a monthly visitor to the "Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders" on the 18th floor at Lurie's. The ARFF has tried to make it more comfortable there by sponsoring a room that provides snacks for family members and patients. The message on the wall is: "Stay Strong, Dream Big."

Rizzo doesn't focus on just the patients, but on the families.

"When I was sick, I saw my mom and dad and brother and grandparents, and I felt they were way worse than I was," Rizzo said. "When you love someone and they're suffering and there's nothing you can do about it, it's hard. That's definitely one of our biggest missions.

"At Lurie's and down here [at Sylvester], we have social workers who will be calling families," Rizzo said. "Down here, we started [the "Hope 44"] program so that within 48 hours, a social worker will call a family member after they're diagnosed and try to explain every single thing and the finances and how it's going to work and the planning, and basically everything you need to know. Maybe the doctors didn't explain it -- or even when the doctors do explain it to you, your head is in a million places. We want to give them assistance right away."

Why 44? That's Rizzo's uniform number with the Cubs.

"They really do a good job of making people feel loved," Mike Fiorello said of the Rizzo family. "[Anthony] went and saw my son at the hospital on multiple occasions -- that had a real impact on us. He made my son feel so good."

Rizzo gave him hope. It's a perfect gift during the holidays.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.