The American Cancer Society and its advocacy arm, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, kicked off its lobby day on Capitol Hill with a rally that urged Congress to preserve funding for research, prevention and treatment of cancer. But the event wasn’t just about cancer: Four Division I men’s basketball coaches also helped kick off the rally.
But it wasn’t merely a token appearance. The coaches — Tad Boyle of the University of Colorado, Paul Hewitt of George Mason University, Fran McCaffery of the University of Iowa and Mike Rice of Rutgers University — each had a personal story of how cancer had affected them or their families. The coaches are all part of Coaches vs. Cancer, an initiative of the American Cancer Society.
The coaches were joined by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO). John Seffrin, PhD, chief executive officer of ACS and ACS-CAN and a Research!America Board member, joined Christopher Hansen, president of ACS-CAN, in welcoming the crowd and introducing the speakers.
For McCaffery, the issue is intensely personal. He explained that he lost both of his parents to colon cancer, and he now participates in a study at Iowa that is researching hereditary aspects of cancer. He also told the story of a 10-year old named Jacob, who visited the Hawkeyes last season. Jacob had advanced brain cancer but was able to enjoy an evening with the Iowa basketball team in its locker room and on its bench.
Four months after the visit, Jacob passed away.
“I think about my parents,” McCaffery said. He’s active in Coaches vs. Cancer “so Jacob could have more birthdays. I promise you, my wife Margaret and I are going to continue this fight.”
Rice, the second speaker, shared a recent story about his 14-year old son and his son’s best friend, who was diagnosed with leukemia. On Labor Day weekend, while nearly all of their friends were at the beach, Rice’s son and his friend were playing video games in a hospital room. One of the boys vowed to the other that he would never again waste a sunny Saturday playing video games.
Later, Rice visited the boy’s parents and told them of Thursday’s event.
“They said, please thank them — the American Cancer Society, the volunteers, the survivors, the researchers, the doctors and the elected public officials for [putting up] this fight,” Rice said.
Boyle told the crowd that he is a newcomer to Coaches vs. Cancer, but that he and his family would be supporting the initiative in whatever way they could.
Hewitt recalled the story of Michael Isenhour, who played for Hewitt at Georgia Tech. Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia prior to the 2001-2002 season, Isenhour underwent treatment but died the following summer.
“Then it really hit home: My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer,” Hewitt said. “But he was fortunate enough to go to [California] and undergo a breakthrough treatment. And today he’s still teaching me how to coach.”
Harkin and Lautenberg reflected on previous legislative successes — Harkin as the architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Lautenberg, who crafted the legislation that banned smoking on airplanes — and vowed to continue the fight. As with the coaches, both senators had up-close encounters with cancer: Harkin lost several siblings to the disease and Lautenberg defeated lymphoma in recent years. Polis surmised that, like so many Americans, most Members of Congress or a member of their families has been affected by cancer.
“[Research] funding is absolutely critical. It’s one of the most valuable investments we as a nation can make,” Polis said. “It’s an investment in our future, an investment in lives.”