Ben Botelho is described by those who know him as an extraordinary person. And his story of survival is exactly that: extraordinary.
When Botelho was 14 he was diagnosed with Burkitt’s-like lymphoma, a fast-growing cancer that affects the body’s B-cells. The Richmond Hill teen underwent five months of intensive chemotherapy and six months after he was diagnosed he was cancer-free.
In March, Botelho traveled to Washington, D.C. as Georgia’s representative with the Children’s Miracle Network and visited with President George W. Bush and members of congress to share his story and his win over cancer.
"It was amazing, the whole thing," said Botelho. "It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
After leaving Washington, Botelho and child representatives from other states went to Orlando where they, along with Miss America Lauren Nelson, participated in family events and taped segments for the National Children’s Miracle Network telethon.
The telethon airs in the Savannah area on Saturday, June 2 and Sunday, June 3 starting at noon each day on WTOC.
Botelho and other survivors also participated in various radio interviews and worked with country music star Richie McDonald, network co-founder Marie Osmond and Olympic gold-medalist Mary Lou Retton.
On the last night in Orlando before returning home Botelho, who sings and plays guitar, was able to perform for everyone involved in the program. He sang "Look After You" by The Frey.
"The last night was the most memorable because I had the opportunity to sing and play guitar for an enormous crowd…and they gave me an entire backup band," he said. "As I was playing, a bunch of kids made signs. That was really amazing. It made me feel like a star."
Botelho said after his performance he was approached by Scott Welch, the manager of such musical groups as the Goo Goo Dools, who saw Botelho perform and learned he writes his own music. Botelho said Welch gave him his card and asked him to send in some music.
"I didn’t know what to do with myself at the time," Botelho said.
Throughout his battle with cancer, Botelho stayed upbeat and positive.
"When I went into the hospital there was no real point in worrying," he said. "I knew I had to go through treatment and I would be fine. That was something I decided from the beginning. Going through it wasn’t such a bad thing but something I had to do."
He said the cancer experience has given him a new view on some of his personality traits.
"(Having cancer) brought life into perspective," he said. "I have always been a laid back person and now I’m even more laid back and I realize some things are just not that important."
Botelho’s mother, Maria, said the experience her son and family went through is something she hopes no other family has to go through, bud said the outcome had been great.
"We’re just thankful he’s doing so well and had the support from the people at the schools and church," she said. "The schools were great and kept him up to date and let him make up everything so that be the fall he was right back on track with school when he returned in the fall, still holding a 4.0 gpa."
She also said the doctors at Backus Children’s Hospital were amazing in working with her son and her family.
An avid athlete who plays on the varsity soccer team and wrestles at Richmond Hill High School and plays on a lacrosse team in Savannah, Botelho said when he first returned to sports after cancer treatment his body wouldn’t allow him to do what his mind was telling him.
"My season of playing sports right after treatment was more difficult because I couldn’t perform at the level I was used to…as much as my mind and body wanted me to perform," he said.
Wade Wright, who coaches varsity soccer at RHHS, said Botelho is an outstanding person and athlete.
"When Ben came to the program as a freshman he made the varsity team half-way through the year," Wright said. "I have him his varsity uniform on a Tuesday and he brought it back on a Thursday and told me he had cancer."
Wright said when Botelho first started playing soccer again he wasn’t himself but quickly became one of the team’s best players.
"He’s a proven team leader and much of our success is due to him because he can play different positions and is a great athlete," Wright said. "He’s an inspiration to a lot of the kids around here whether he knows it or not, and he inspires me. He never gets down on anything. I guess when you’ve been what he’s been through every day is a great day."
Looking at his future, Botelho said he’s looking at a few different options for what he may do after high school. One involves an application to the Air Force Academy and the other a career in music.
"At the moment we’re going ahead with the process of applying for the Air Force Academy. I really enjoy physics and plan to go to school for engineering," he said. "But music seems like a very real tangible future too."
Botelho said he plans to attend a summer session at the Air Force Academy to help him decide whether or not he wants to go there but said since he’s made a contact in the music industry he’ll see where that leads as well.
On his 17th birthday coming up in May, Botelho said he plans to shave his head and donate his hair to an organization that makes wigs for children with cancer.
"It’s nothing I’ve done before but just decided to do it," he said. "It probably has a lot to do with my experience of being in the hospital. It’s something little and something I thought was right to do."