Two decades ago, Billy Best made national headlines as the Norwell teenager who ran away from home to avoid chemotherapy.
Now he’s telling the story of his life after that episode, in a self-published memoir available online.
He came home, found alternative treatment from Canada, and graduated from Silver Lake Regional High. He mostly stayed out of the spotlight until he supported a Minnesota boy who had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He works at Whole Foods and lives in Newton with his toddler-aged son and the boy’s mother, Maya Chaprut. Best’s adoptive parents, Bill and Sue Best, now live in Bridgewater.
NEWTON - On a warm, sunny day, Billy Best walked his toddler son, Max, down the street to visit neighbors. As he rode the boy on his shoulders on the way back home, he was the picture of a happy, healthy life.
Best’s life was neither healthy nor happy for a few weeks in 1994. At 16 he was thrust into the media spotlight when he ran away from his adoptive Norwell family to avoid chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He meant to take a bus all the way to California, where his family lived for a while, but he ended up in Houston, hanging out with other skateboarders. He didn’t know the sensation he’d created until a buddy’s father saw a story about him on the network TV show “A Current Affair.”
By the time he returned home, the Norwell teenager had become a symbol of the rights of young cancer patients to choose their form of treatment. His family was getting 100 phone calls a day from “Good Morning America” and other national media.
Now 34, Best remains a firm believer in alternative treatments like the one he chose after he was back home – a Canadian immune-system injection called 714-X, which is still not approved in the U.S. He believes the injections completed his Hodgkin’s cure and says he’ll keep it every few years, “so I can be around to watch my son grow up.”
The life changes that 14-month-old Max brought have also left him with a different view of his own youthful behavior.
“I was very selfish,” he said. “I didn’t give any thought to who I was going to hurt by running away.”
His adoptive parents, Bill and Susan Best, live in Bridgewater, and often see Billy, Max and Max’s mother, Maya Chaprut.
Time has also settled his view of chemotherapy – to a point. He accepts that alternative treatments remain suspect to most doctors and allows that chemo “definitely has a place” for aggressive types such as breast and pancreatic cancer. But he still thinks patients should have as much personal choice as possible – and that their doctors should be better able to discuss alternatives at least as a complement to clinical treatment.
That’s the message of his soon to be published book, “The Billy Best Story.” He plans to self-publish for online sales through Amazon.com this summer.
“I want to put it out there ... to share all the things I went through, but not to discourage people from using conventional medicine,” he said.
In his first media interview in years, he said he’s finishing the book while he works as a produce buyer for a Boston Whole Foods supermarket.
Once a regular speaker at health expos and alternative-medicine events, he still informally counsels people who seek him out – among them, the mother of a 14-year-old boy who doesn’t want chemo, and a young woman whose step-mother is in hospice care. In February he discussed the issue with a Harvard Medical School student group.
Best didn’t aim to become a symbol or advocate. After his weeks in the media spotlight he settled back into a quiet life. He graduated from Silver Lake High in 1996 and spent the next decade tending bar and working in construction and restaurants – “nothing special or grand,” he said, “just having a good time and paying the bills.” Then Daniel Hauser’s parents called for help.
In the spring of 2009 the 13-year-old Minnesota boy made headlines much as Best had, objecting to chemotherapy for his Hodgkin’s lymphoma partly on religious grounds. Best visited the family as a show of support, and joined them at a court hearing.
By the time a Minnesota judge ordered Hauser to continue chemo, Best was back in Boston. When Hauser and his mother fled – to Canada, as it turned out – the FBI came looking for Best, suspecting he was harboring them.
Best called Chaprut, a friend and restaurant co-worker. “Can I hide at your place?” he asked her. “The FBI is looking for me.”
The Hausers went home. Best wasn’t questioned, and he and Chaprut soon became a couple. His life has changed twice since then: Max was born in December 2010, and in recent weeks he tracked down his birth father, a full-blood Micmac Native American. Best has just begun exploring that part of his heritage.
As he looks forward to finishing his book, he says he’ll probably always be known as “the kid who ran away from chemotherapy’ – and he’s always ready to share his story one more time.
“A day doesn’t pass when it doesn’t come up somewhere, and I don’t get tired of talking about it,” he said. “Not if you can help another person.”