Bradley Lowery's battle with neuroblastoma captured the hearts and minds of the nation, with the Blackhall youngster striking up a special bond with Defoe throughout the last year of his life.
Defoe was honoured by the North East Football Writers’ Association for his friendship with Bradley, who passed away last July aged six.
Their friendship helped raise awareness of neuroblastoma, a rare type of cancer which affects less than 100 children in the UK each year.
Bradley, who was diagnosed at just 18-months-old, was mascot when Defore returned to the England team last year, with the striker a regular visitor to see Bradley at home and in hospital.
Bradley's parents Gemma and Carl attended the evening at Ramside Hall Hotel and Defoe was given a standing ovation as he made his way to the stage.
Gemma, who presented the award, told the Echo: "Jermain doesn't need an award to recognise his friendship with Bradley, I know if you ask him he will say the same.
"But it is fantastic that he is getting this - it means everybody is still thinking about their special bond.
"Footballers can get a bad press at times but Jermain and Bradley were best friends. He absolutely loved Bradley and Bradley loved him - it was a true friendship.
"Jermain was Bradley's hero.
"Everytime he came to see him and Brad wasn't moving or talking, he would sit up straight away just knowing Jermain was there.
"The friendship and the bond the pair of them had was incredible."
Sunderland AFC and Defoe's former team-mates including Seb Larsson, Vito Mannone and captain John O’Shea also helped support Bradley.
Gemma added: "We have the Foundation now and Jermain is involved all the time, he is the main patron.
"The more we can do to continue to raise awareness about these conditions the better, my aim and the Foundation's aim is to give these children a healthy, happy, normal life.
"Sunderland AFC have been fantastic, from when Brad was mascot moving forward. We have the box there at the Stadium of Light and the For Bradley campaign.
"The club does everything in its power to help, they do everything they can to support the family and the Foundation."
Defoe told the Echo: "I was never going to miss this. When I look back now, the whole situation with Bradley, it was a special thing that happened.
"You don’t do it for recognition or awards, you do it because he was in your heart. It was such a good feeling spending time with him."
Defoe, who signed for AFC Bournemouth last summer, was pleased to be back in the region again just a week after attending the launch of the Bradley Lowery Foundation.
The 35-year-old added: "It’s nice to be back. It’s a different sort of love up here, isn’t it? It’s mad.
"I went to the Gala dinner recently and I went in to the training ground to see the lads, because it is a special place for me.
"To get this award is really special, it means a lot.
"Mine and Bradley's relationship was a special one, a unique relationship. It's a proud moment, a real humbling moment."
Held annually, the North East Football Writers' Association Awards night celebrates the best of North East football.
The event raised funds for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, which helps find more effective ways to detect and treat cancer.