COLLEGE PARK Receiving a cancer diagnosis at the age of 14 — or at any age — can tear someone down.
It also can spur them on. For College Park native Benjamin Watson, now 21, it was a catalyst for his determination to survive and help others like him through his own journey and experiences.
Things first took a turn when, three weeks leading up to Ben’s diagnosis in October 2010, he started feeling sick. His parents took him to a local walk-in clinic, where they took X-rays and diagnosed him with pneumonia. Ben was prescribed an antibiotic and sent home.
But a week later, he was only getting worse. A return visit to the clinic ended in the prescription of a different antibiotic.
The next week, Ben still was home from school when he woke up screaming to his mom, Becky: “I can’t take it. I can’t breathe!”
“She called me, and I ran home; we rushed him to the ER at Florida Hospital, and in a few hours, he was passed out in his room from the exhaustion,” said his dad, Barry Watson. “They came to us and they said, ‘We need to admit him immediately. He has cancer, and there’s a mass the size of a grapefruit on his chest.’ We immediately hit the floor. It’s like getting hit with a sledgehammer when someone tells you that.”
Ben had received the diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s large B-cell lymphoma. An aggressive, fast-growing lymphoma — the most common blood cancer — this type can appear either in lymph nodes or outside of the lymphatic system.
“Basically, there started our journey,” Barry said. “From Oct. 1 to April 15, we were in nonstop treatment, chemo, radiation and everything else. He was up in Florida Hospital on the cancer floor with 20 or 30 other kids going through treatment.”
ON A MISSION
Part of what helped get Ben through the treatment process, Barry said, is his love of music. Ever since he was a child, he played multiple instruments, sang and participated in musicals and plays.
“He’s just always loved music,” Barry said. “He used to come home after chemo and radiation, take one-hour showers and just sing. The music helped get him through all this.”
Along with the power of music, Ben carried on with the support of his friends, family and community. But he also watched other pediatric cancer fighters who didn’t have the resources he did.
Ben had a handful of friends there with him every day after school sitting and praying with him but noticed that many of the other kids on his floor had no one. The parents couldn’t be there part of the time, and Ben took note.
“I was up there for weeks when I was first being diagnosed (and treated), and I had more visitors than all the other kids combined,” Ben said. “It was weird to me and a new idea that so many people couldn’t take the time to be with their sick kid in the hospital. It just crushed me, so I wanted to be able to do something. I thought it was devastating to these kids to not have someone there with them, going through something so terrible.”
That’s when Ben knew he had to do something. Now in remission, he is the founder of the Benji Watson Cancer Foundation, which hosts annual fundraisers to work with local oncologists, community members, hospitals and other nonprofit organizations in assisting families affected by pediatric cancer.
These needs can include rent and mortgage payments, household bills, food and even special medicines or other medical equipment that aren’t covered by insurance. While Ben and his family had the resources necessary for his treatment, it became his mission to support families who didn’t.
And although he’s now a full-time music student at the University of Central Florida, Ben remains actively involved as a board member and representative of the Benji Watson Cancer Foundation. He also is a certified EMT and is working on getting his real-estate license.
In the last seven years, the foundation has raised more than $400,000 and helped more than 400 families. Some of the biggest requests from affected families include gas and food cards, as well as help with making electric bills and rent payments.
“It is wonderful and uplifting to be able to see all these people you’re helping,” Ben said. “At the same time, it’s sad to know that there’s so many people that need all this help. But it’s a good feeling knowing that there are so many people out there that are willing to lend a hand to all these kids and families in need.”
Seven years later, Barry said he still gets overwhelmed when he thinks about the fact that it all is the brainchild of his son, a cancer survivor.
“It made us so proud of him and the fact that he reached out beyond his thing and wanted to help, that they (he and his friends) wanted to do something to give back and help (is incredible),” he said. “I still get choked up about it.”