Ben Pawluk, a 17-year-old lacrosse player from Victoria, B.C., watched Sunday as his British Columbia teammates won gold at the 2022 Canada Summer Games on the other side of the country.
Two of his jerseys hung behind the team’s bench throughout the tournament.
While his friends competed in box lacrosse in Niagara Falls, Ont. — and ultimately took out Team Ontario in the final — Ben was undergoing chemotherapy in a Vancouver hospital.
“It sucks not being able to make the memories with them there, but I know they’ll crush it,” he said through tears Sunday morning, shortly before the gold medal game.
One week after he found out he made the team, Ben was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, an aggressive form of blood cancer that attacks the bone marrow and the central nervous system.
Sunday afternoon, Team B.C. took home gold with a 7-6 win over their Ontario rivals.
“It’s terrible that we can’t have him here with us right now,” said Ben’s childhood friend and Team B.C. captain Luca Pavetta after the game.
“But we’re living through that spirit that he’s fighting with us and for himself. That’s why we gave that extra effort in the end and through the whole tourney.”
Anita Pawluk says finding out her son had cancer came as a shock to the family and everyone who knew him.
“Ben’s health was declining since the beginning of 2022,” she said. “He was sleeping all the time and it got to the point where his teeth started bothering him.”
After several visits to the dentist where everything appeared to be normal, Ben’s teeth got so loose he wasn’t able to eat. Within a few weeks his condition had gotten even worse.
“By the time we found out, Ben was in a place where he could no longer walk, no longer talk, and he had a feeding tube installed,” said his mother.
“We have cried a lot over Ben’s diagnosis and I do believe we have cried just as much over the outpouring of support from our friends, family and the sports community,” she said. “We could not be more grateful.”
Ben agrees, saying the video chats he’s had with the team throughout the Canada Games and their constant words of encouragement are motivating him to get better.
Before his diagnosis, he was drafted 16th overall by the New Westminster Salmonbellies in the B.C. Junior A Lacrosse League and he’s hoping to be back on the field next year — after another round of chemo and some physiotherapy.
At each of their games this week, Team B.C. asked opposing teams to sign one of Ben’s jerseys and cheer him on in his fight against cancer.
“[It] definitely helps a lot. Keeps my spirits high,” said Ben. “Just to know how many people are out there supporting me.”
Even though he wasn’t able to be there in person, Team B.C. coach Grant Hamilton says the entire team felt Ben’s presence in the final.
“He really motivated us today, he’s out here on the floor with us,” Hamilton said.
“Ben, this is for you.”