Sept. 24 is always a day that Chicago Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson appreciates – for the good and the bad memories – as the date, now almost exactly 10 years ago, when he learned he was cancer-free.
“I don’t give a s—t about my birthday. This is the day I care about each year,” he said, last week, as it drew near. “That date is the date that turned me into who I am now. So that’s the date I really care about.”
Lampson was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma in high school. And a decade after beating it, he woke up on Sept. 24, 2017 and spent the Sunday traveling back from a Chicago Fire 3-1 loss in Philadelphia. He spent the rest of the day sitting on a “flying trashcan,” as he described it, next to a woman who took up his armrest, waiting on the tarmac for 40 minutes and then watching his beloved Miami Dolphins lose in the NFL.
Still, he didn’t mind — a long-standing family tradition awaited.
“One of my sisters [Mallory] gets me a cake with, ‘suck it cancer’ on it,” Lampson said the week before.
Even though this was the first time Lampson said he has spent his cancer-free anniversary traveling, he still arrived home to cake — one from his sister, and another made by a Fire staffer. There was also a lengthy video tribute coordinated by the club with messages from family, friends, and teammates from throughout his career.
Lampson said that as always, celebrating the milestone was bittersweet.
“It’s somber, because you’re grateful to be alive but also I always remember how much it sucked at the time and how miserable I was at the time,” he said. “But ultimately I got up and I was alive so that was good.”
The Biggest Year Yet
As his own cancer fight has receded a decade in the rear view mirror, this year has proven a big one for the foundation Lampson founded as a result in 2014.
In April, he and LampStrong Foundation made its largest single donation to date, giving $20,000 and beginning a partnership with the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. In recent months, he and his teammates have done fundraisers at local donut shops — one of Lampson’s personal favorite haunts — and he has an upcoming donut-decorating party planned at the hospital for Halloween.
Still, the 2016 MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year sounds frustrated that he hasn’t been able to do even more thus far.
“I wanted to do one gigantic fundraiser this year but it’s been very difficult to do; haven’t gotten the necessary backing that I needed to do it,” Lampson said. “I’m just trying to grow the foundation and grow the reach and the awareness and inspire as many kids as possible.”
Lampson got connected with Lurie’s shortly after he arrived in Chicago from Columbus Crew SC ahead of the 2016 season. Though he was fighting for a starting job on just his second MLS team, the cancer survivor knew he wanted to start visiting patients there. Those visits every month or two evolved into discussions about a partnership which came to fruition this year.
The money Lampson has donated is directed toward Lurie’s HOT (Hematology, Oncology, and Transplant) Healthy Living Initiative. The program promotes wellness and healthy weight management for kids during treatment, keeping them active, and educating them about healthy snacks and stretching they can do in their rooms.
Lampson himself recently shot a set of short videos on stretching and activity that will eventually be played on the department’s closed-circuit TV channel.
The focus on fitness is personal for Lampson, who “gained a s—t-ton of weight,” as he describes it, going through treatment
“Chemotherapy basically kills you to save your life. You have very little ability to stay in shape,” Lampson said. “You don’t want to change your body even more while it’s going through such a difficult time. But you can still be healthy when you’re going through treatment. So that will make once you’re done with treatment, getting back to where you were before, that much easier.”
Community Ties That Bind
Michele Schaefer met Lampson a little more than two-and-a-half years ago.
In early 2015, her son William Schaefer was playing for a Columbus Crew SC juniors’ youth club team when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“He had a passion for soccer and that was what he loved to do,” Michele Schaefer said by phone on Monday. “In fact, when he was diagnosed, he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, does this mean I’m not going to soccer practice this week?’”
In the hospital, Will’s doctors mentioned that they might know someone from the Crew first team who could stop by. A few days later a member of the club’s front office came to visit and mentioned Lampson as well.
It took a few months for them to finally meet because of Will’s treatments, but eventually they connected after a match. That’s when Lampson hosted Will as his Hero of the game: a program in which Lampson hosts patients, survivors, and their families at games and meets with them afterward.
“Hearing Matt’s story gave our family hope that this [wasn’t] going to be an endall,” Michele said, adding that it comforted her additional three daughters. “Getting to know Matt and following his career and his strength gave us hope that, ‘Hey, William’s going to be able to get back and play soccer.’ And that determination strengthened William’s determination to do that.’
Will made it through treatment successfully and, now 16, is a junior in high school, two-years cancer free and playing soccer and football again in high school. Now, he’s raised money himself for the LampStrong Foundation, and once again got to be a Hero this year when the Fire visited the Crew in August.
The Schaefers aren’t the only family with whom Lampson keeps a special connection – and if the goalkeeper has his way, they won’t be the last.
Big Future Dreams
Lampson, as he has become a more prominent starter and his story has been told more and more, hears regularly from child athletes and their parents across the country who see themselves in his story. Eventually, he wants to be able to create a special treatment center for those, like himself, who get diagnosed at a young age but are determined to keep playing afterward.
He envisions a future where the LampStrong Foundation can welcome athletes from any sport, providing physical therapists and strength and conditioning coaches specifically educated for hematology/oncology patients that, all supporting their return to the game.
“It’s something that does not really exist and I would need a s—t-load more funding. I would need, like, Anthony Rizzo-type funding,” Lampson said, referring to the Chicago Cubs star, also a cancer survivor who’s a donor to Lurie Children’s. (In fact, Lampson says, he’s hoping to connect with Rizzo himself.)
Still, talking about a future where he helps even more young athletes beat cancer and return to the field, Lampson is confident.
“That’s my ultimate goal and once I achieve that – and I think I will eventually – that will be my crowning moment,” Lampson said. “Things like that last forever, whether I’m here or not."
Besides making a donation to LampStrong, you can also support the fight against childhood cancer through MLS's Kick Childhood Cancer and the social campaign Scarftember. Artist Maria Lauren Lambilis has created a Kick Childhood Cancer benefit T-shirt and a scarf for every MLS team, with proceeds from their sales to benefit the Children's Oncology Group, one of the leading childhood cancer experts in the world and a partner of MLS WORKS.
In addition, you can also support Kick Childhood Cancer by posting a photo of yourself with your favorite MLS scarf to Twitter or Instagram, using the hashtag #ScarvesUp and tagging @MLS. The league will donate for each post.