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Hoo is the REAL Phony Bennett? And why I need your help…

At the University of Virginia, they teach us that education is a lifelong process. What they didn’t tell me was that, sometimes, we get educations that we never wanted.

For me, that dreaded education started on June 20, 2011, the day I learned that a baby could be born with cancer. It was a revelation that left me in shock. I figured, cancer is something that develops over time, no one starts life with it. But I was wrong, and the next day Audrey was born and diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system that affects infants and children. I learned that, despite there only being 500-600 cases per year in this country, it is the most common solid, non-cranial cancer among children. I learned a whole lot more that year.

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When a skilled surgeon removed the primary tumor a mere six days into Audrey’s life, I learned about cancer staging. What they presumed to be Stage 1 before the surgery was now upgraded to Stage 2b. Because, while the golf-ball-sized tumor had been completely removed, the cancer had already spread to nearby lymph nodes. A couple weeks later, I learned about Stage 4s when I was informed the cancer had continued to spread and was now in other lymph nodes along with her skin. 

I learned that bone marrow samples in infants are taken by inserting a needle into her pelvis at the small of her back. I learned that an injection of meta-iodobenzylguanidine and radioactive iodine will bind to the cancer cells and allow doctors to see where the cancer is on a special type of scan. I learned that catecholamines, such as adrenaline, break down into the metabolites homovanillic acid and vanillylmandelic acid, and tracking those levels can be a good indicator of cancer activity. 

All these things and so much more made up an education that I never wanted. And, today as I type this, 42 more children in this country will be diagnosed with cancer, and their families will begin their own unwanted education.

At the end of my daughter’s first year, I learned that the words “no evidence of disease” from her oncologist would bring me to my knees, unable to even say “Thank you.” My daughter was officially a cancer survivor. She is one of the lucky ones. 

For 12% of children diagnosed with cancer, those words will never come. Even as progress is being made, comparatively little money goes to developing new treatments, as there are simply not enough cases to make it profitable. 

An experience like that changes you. It forced me to give up some of my cynicism and emphatically embrace hope. I resolved to find the beauty in the experience, to celebrate every milestone, and to be a voice of positivity, even when every ounce of my being just wanted to curl up and sob on the floor (and, at times, I did). 

Virginia sports, particularly basketball, was my escape that first year. It provided the opportunity to tune out all the worries, stress, and darkness for two hours and cheer on my alma mater. Win or lose, those breaks were vital for me to get away from what so often felt like a crushing burden to bear. 

As that first year wore on, and the aforementioned catecholamine numbers improved, I tried to pull myself out of the darkness. My daughter was getting better, and I needed to as well. I began performing stand-up again, something I had left behind in the years prior, but now needed more than ever. Laughter is the best medicine, and I was self-medicating. 

I had also taken to communing with strangers on twitter during games, and in a moment of silliness, I created a twitter account called Phony Bennett. I had no plans for it, no expectations that I’d still be doing it 8 years later (8 years!), and only the slightest hope that anyone would want to follow it. Yet, here we are. 

Which brings me to today. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. You may have noticed that I maintain a gold ribbon, for children’s cancer, on my Twitter avatar. I used to only keep it there for September, but it has been a permanent addition for some time now. 

For me, my daughter’s experience and Phony Bennett are forever linked. I started the account when she was still at Stage 4s. In those early days it was therapy for me. And now, thanks to Locker Room Access, I have the opportunity to combine those two passions and do something good. And fun.

Today, we unveil a special, limited run of “I am Phony Bennett” t-shirts. All profits from the sale of these t-shirts will go to the oncology center at UVa Children’s Hospital. The folks that work children’s oncology are a special breed of helper. I was continually amazed at their positive attitudes, their compassion, and their humanity. And since my experience with my daughter, I have sought ways to give back to those folks and the children they help. And with this project, I get to combine two passions: fake coaching, and children’s cancer support. 

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A few years ago, Tiger Woods had the “I am Tiger Woods” ad campaign. But the fact is, deep down, we all knew we weren’t Tiger. A few swings at the driving range told us that. But being a fake coach? That’s different. As sports fans, we’re all fake coaches. Who among us hasn’t suggested a substitution, questioned a play-call, or recommended an area for a player to focus on improving? 

We are all fake coaches, and as UVa fans, we are all Phony Bennett. So, with that in mind, today I ask you to support the children’s oncology department at UVa Children’s hospital by purchasing a t-shirt. 

Thank you, and as always, Go Hoos!

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