When a Pittsburgh woman hit the 11.4-mile mark of the Akron Marathon on Saturday, she was almost ready to call it quits.

But as Barbara Ford, 57, hobbled past one of 13 Hero Zones manned by Akron Children’s Hospital patients along the race course, a young cancer survivor came to her aid.

James Wilson, 15, of Hudson, noticed Ford was the very last racer. So he decided to join her.

For the remaining 1.7-miles of the half-marathon course, James walked with her, offering words of encouragement as she struggled with pain in her knee and hamstring.

James, a sophomore at Hudson High School, is no stranger to painful journeys. About two years ago, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer of the bone or soft tissue.

“If it hadn’t been for my little angel, I never would have finished the race,” Ford said this week. “Everything hurts right now — but not my heart. My heart is filled with such joy that this young man had the fortitude and strength to battle Ewing’s sarcoma and yet was trying to help this old gal.”

‘Hero’ patients

James was one of 24 “hero” patients selected by race series sponsor Akron Children’s Hospital to cheer and encourage Akron Marathon racers. Each of the heroes was chosen for showing strength and courage while overcoming major medical issues.

James’ cancer was discovered when his family was house hunting during their relocation to Akron from Wyoming a little more than two years ago after his father, Matt Wilson, joined the University of Akron to head the law department. He recently became UA’s interim president.

James’ mother, Noriko Wilson, said their son didn’t want anyone to think he was a weakling so he continued his regular routine, including going to a two-hour baseball practice from 6 to 8 every morning in spite of his stomach pains.

But medical tests revealed a golf ball-sized tumor lodged in his lower abdomen.

After the diagnosis, James was in and out of Akron Children’s for the next year.

“He’s a remarkable kid,” said his doctor, Stephanie Savelli. “During his 12 weeks of chemotherapy and then surgery to remove the tumor, James went through it all in typical James fashion. He never complained. He’s just not that type of kid. So even when he wasn’t feeling well, he was still one of the loveliest, most pleasant and polite kids that I have had the pleasure of working with. He was quite an inspiration to others on the floor because of his piano-playing abilities. It was what he did to keep himself busy while he was in the hospital.”

His nickname is the “piano man.”

He’s been playing since he was 3. He even played at Carnegie Hall at age 11.

James developed some numbness and loss of sensation in his fingers as a side effect from his cancer treatments, but he never let that affect his ability to play, Savelli said.

“Hearing him, you would never know,” she said. “He has regained most of that so he is back to his baseline ability to play the piano. He’s been off therapy for about 15 months now and he’s been doing great.”

Staying strong

During the Akron Marathon on Saturday, James was encouraging the last few runners when he decided to join Ford for the final leg of the half marathon.

“She told me during mile 7 she blew out her knee and her right hamstring was giving her problems so she wasn’t doing her best,” James said. “She had quite a bit of pain at the time so we just walked, The thing is I didn’t know where the finish line was. I thought it was right above the hill and that was the end, but that didn’t happen ... So we get up this hill and the end is not there and people all around us are saying, ‘You have two miles to go, keep it going,’ so I continued to follow this person. I sort of nodded to my mom to come too and she followed me the whole way.”

James compared the runner’s accomplishment to cancer patients’ journeys.

“We have to stay mentally strong and physically strong. We can’t let cancer conquer our state of mind and we can’t quit no matter what happens,” he said. “We have to continue to try. There are family members, friends and even strangers out there to help you and raise you up.”

His mother said she was proud of her son.

“It’s wonderful to see your kids grow up understanding other people’s struggles and want to reach out and help,” she said. “We had a purpose at the race and he understood that purpose. I am the proudest mom ever.”

Ford was so impressed by James that she wrote letters to marathon officials and the mayor of Akron to share her experience. She also mailed her finisher metal to James.

“He deserves it a lot more than I do because I wouldn’t have done it without him,” Ford said. “There are good people out there and he’s one of the good ones. I’m guessing his whole family is because the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. That’s one special family if you ask me.”

Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or mmiller@thebeaconjournal.com.