Non-sports fans will often scoff at the idea of an athlete having to deal with adversity. "They are paid millions upon millions of dollars to play a sport," they might argue, "what adversity could they possibly be facing?"
For starters, if you think you get home feeling sore from a day at the office, imagine what it feels like to get home from a day of getting body checked, tackled for several hours at a time - not including actual games. Picture the hours put in lifting weights, straining muscles, breaking down the body just to build it up for game-day. Picture the intense media scrutiny, the lack of a normal, private home life, and the expectations of any entire city on an athlete's shoulders.
Granted, yes - they signed up for it. It's part of the job (a job which most do in fact get paid handsomely for, no doubt), but just because it's a dream job does not make it an easy job. Professional athletes often have to sacrifice quite a bit of their personal lives to achieve their goals, a commitment not everyone is capable of.
What is not part of the job, though, is dealing with a life-threatening illness while trying to play out the life of a high-performance athlete. When it comes to cancer, it doesn't matter who it is - everyone has to fight the same brutal battle, and while the stories of the average person defeating the wretched disease are just as inspiring, the battles won by professional athletes often lead to raised awareness and sources of inspiration for those also battling for their lives.
So while the average professional athlete might not get credit for coming back from a broken bone because he has a multi-million dollar contract to continue earning, no one can scoff at these athletes who found a way off the precipice of death and back to successful athletic careers.
15 Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel had everything going for him in the mid-2000's. He was a star in the making for the Boston Bruins, a historic hockey franchise that was slowly on the upswing. His world came to screeching halt in the 2006-2007 season when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Fortunately for Kessel, the disease was found early enough that he was cancer-free a week after the initial diagnosis. Kessel, a somewhat polarizing figure in hockey circles, not only beat the disease but bounced back on the ice as well, having been a productive scorer since his rookie season.
14 Eric Shanteau
Eric Shanteau spent most of his younger years dominating other swimmers in the pool. He was good enough to earn a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic swim team. It was a stroke of bad luck that would put a damper on his Olympic dream, but ultimately would not end it - he was diagnosed with cancer a week before the Beijing Games. Cancer would not stop Shanteau from missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime though - Shanteau went to Beijing and almost made it to the finals of the 200-meter breaststroke event.
13 Edna Campbell
Edna Campbell is one of the more familiar names in WNBA circles, as she was a prominent player in the league during the early 2000's. In her fourth year in the league, though, she captured headlines for reasons she never could have predicted - she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not only did she come back to play a year later, she did it while still undergoing treatment for her cancer. She ultimately beat the disease and played a couple more seasons before retiring.
12 Eric Davis
Eric Davis wasn't the flashiest player in the majors during the late 80's and early 90's, but few matched the courage he displayed on and off the field during the latter parts of his career. Early in the 1997 season, Davis was diagnosed with colon cancer; while most would be simply focused on getting back to normal, Davis pushed himself to be back on the field before the end of the season. Not only was he on a tear to end the year (hitting .310 in his last eight regular season games), he was a playoff hero with the go-ahead home-run of the ALCS.
11 Mark Herzlich
With all the nonsense that has marred the NFL over the past few weeks, it's nice to sit back and fondly remember a feel-good story like Mark Herzlich's. Herzlich did yeoman's work for the Boston College Eagles in 2008, but he was forced to miss the entire 2009 season with Ewing sarcoma. He returned to Boston College in 2010 before joining the New York Giants as an undrafted free-agent, and was part of the Giants Super Bowl winning squad in 2011.
10 Jessica Breland
It's hard enough to athletes to swallow the hard truth of being diagnosed with cancers in the middle of their playing careers, but it's another thing completely when it happens to a 21-year old ready to start her life as a professional basketball player. That's what happened to Jessica Breland, who was still in college when she found out she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She underwent six months of chemotherapy, which led to her missing her entire junior year. She made her triumphant return as a senior the next year, leading University of North Carolina's women's team to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, and was eventually drafted in the first-round of the WNBA draft.
9 Andres Galarraga
Andres Galarraga's return from his bout with cancer is one of the most inspirational stories in recent Major League Baseball history. Galarraga was establishing himself as a star power hitter after three consecutive seasons with 40+ home runs. A trip to the doctor before the 1999 season stopped him in his tracks, however, as he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He missed the entire season, but came back the next year and surprised many but returning to all-star form (he played in his fifth career all-star game that year) and also won the National League Comeback Player of the Year award.
8 Mike Lowell
Mike Lowell is better remembered for his stellar years with the Red Sox during the early and mid-2000's, but many forget his greatest victory of all. Before the 1999 season, Lowell was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He missed the first two months of the season recovering from his treatment, but managed to play in 97 games that year. He went on to become one of the most consistent and reliable third basemen of his era, and was able to add two World Series rings to his trophy case during his team in Boston.
7 Saku Koivu
Saku Koivu's battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was one of the more well-documented cancer battles of the early 2000's. Koivu was the face of Montreal Canadiens, their star player and captain. The news was Earth-shattering for his teammates and fans alike. Koivu spent the entire 2001-2002 season battling the disease, but managed to return for the final 2 games of the regular seasons and a playoff run that saw the Habs knock off a vaunted Bruins lineup in dramatic fashion, mostly thanks to Koivu's strong play in the series.
6 Josh Bidwell
As a punter, Josh Bidwell was only getting in the limelight when things were going bad - a shanked punt, a missed tackle as the last line of defense - but nothing could prepare him for the attention he received in 1999. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, but the cancer spread and forced Bidwell into emergency surgery. It took an entire year to go through the necessary treatments and get back into playing shape, but Bidwell was back on the field the next year.
5 Billy Mayfair
Billy Mayfair's story may not be the most prominent or well-known to sports fans, but his battle with cancer not only shocked the golf world but also showed the Mayfair's toughness and courage. In July of 2006, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He underwent surgery for the disease three days later, and within two weeks he was somehow back on the golf course. Most take months to come back from cancer treatment, but Mayfair did everything he could to get back on the course in time for the PGA Championship - he was even in contention after the first two rounds but ultimately fell off towards the end. No one can doubt his dedication to the sport after that kind of comeback.
4 John Cullen
If there was ever a debate as to who was the toughest hockey player of all-time, John Cullen would not be part of the discussion - unless someone brought up the fact that he played through the early stages of a life-threatening disease at the end of the 1996-1997 season. He led the Tampa Bay Lightning in scoring that year, but once he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma he was forced to sit out 18 months before returning in 1998-1999. Cullen was one of the first and more prominent promoters of Hockey Fights Cancer, the NHL's cancer research foundation.
3 Jon Lester
Jon Lester's battle with cancer unfolded during the 2007 Major League Baseball season, just three years removed from the Red Sox first championship in 86 years. He missed the first half of the season undergoing treatment for Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma, but made a triumphant return to the starting rotation in June of that year. Lester's battle with cancer had a fairy-tale ending as he started and won the Red Sox World Series clinching win at the end of that season.
2 Lance Armstrong
These days, almost everyone remembers Lance Armstrong as a liar and a cheat (and for good reason). However, no one can deny his contributions to cancer research and the fight against the disease. Formerly one of the cancer communities biggest role models and inspirations, Armstrong overcame a harrowing battle with testicular cancer and a brain tumor through 1996 and 1997, only to come back and win seven consecutive Tour de France championships between 1999-2005. While his riding legacy may be tarnished forever, his efforts towards raising funds and awareness for cancer research while never be forgotten.
1 Mario Lemieux
Perhaps the greatest hockey player of all-time (or at least part of the discussion), Mario Lemieux somehow managed to do it all while having to battle cancer. As it was, Lemieux was oft-hampered by a devastating back injury that plagued him for most of his career. Lemieux announced his cancer diagnosis midway through the 1992 season, but was back the same year (somehow playing on the same day as his last chemo session), and he dragged the Penguins into the playoffs with 17 straight victories to end the season, while also recapturing the scoring lead and winning the Art Ross trophy. Lemieux might have been a fearsome powerhouse on the ice, but he was the ultimate inspiration off of it.