Lung cancer is currently the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the US. In this inspiring interview, we speak to former NFL player Chris Draft about his involvement in lung cancer advocacy, how to help raise awareness, and his collaboration with Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) as a patient advocate.
Please can you introduce yourself and tell us about what inspired your involvement in lung cancer awareness?
My name is Chris Draft and I played in the NFL for 12 years. I got involved in lung cancer awareness as my wife, Keasha, was diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2010.
She was 37 years old, in amazing shape, and did not have a smoking history. Out of nowhere she had a little shortness of breath, and went to her primary care doctor and got checked up. He prescribed a chest x-ray and found that she had a mass in her left lung. Two days after Christmas, we confirmed that she had lung cancer and found out the most important fact about lung cancer – anyone can get it.
Before that time, if anyone had told me that a 37-year-old woman in amazing shape could get lung cancer, I would have said, “Man, you’re crazy, no way.” What I had seen historically would say that that is just not possible. But, it is.
Hopefully, people will see my wife’s story and understand that it is possible and trust that it is, rather than having to have someone in their lives diagnosed to believe it.
Patient Advocate: Chris Draft | Stand Up To Cancer
You founded The Chris Draft Family Foundation with a mission to empower families to lead healthy lifestyles. Can you tell us about the work you are involved with at the foundation and how you are encouraging families to make healthier choices?
Empowering families to live healthy lifestyles really looks at the heart and soul of what we can control. Cancer is a perfect example of that. The number one risk factor for lung cancer is smoking. We need to help and encourage people to stop smoking. I say help because it is an addiction.
The number two risk factor is obesity and lifestyle issues. We have to not just encourage people to move and exercise, but also create a foundation for the ability to do that, through sidewalks, playgrounds, PE, and recess with young people. We have to acknowledge from environmental issues that as a community, we can change policy to be able to affect those things, too.
That is what the foundation was committed to from the beginning; empowering families to lead healthy lifestyles. It is not something that we can do for them, but something that we can challenge them to see the changes that need to happen within their community and then be willing to create teams that will make those necessary changes.
Lung cancer is currently the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the US, and it will see more than 235,000 new cases diagnosed this year. Despite this devastating statistic, lung cancer is often caught too late to be treated effectively. Your Foundation is pushing for more research, earlier detection, and more effective treatments for lung cancer. Why is this critical, and what impact would this have for people suffering from lung cancer?
My foundation, the Chris Draft Family Foundation, and our team Draft initiative are committed to changing the face of lung cancer, and that is by partnering with different groups focused on certain aspects of tackling lung cancer.
I had the honor of being a patient advocate as a part of the Stand Up To Cancer interception grant that was funded by Stand Up To Cancer, LUNGevity, and the American Lung Association. Those are the places where changes happen.
I also just gave a white ribbon to Denny Aberleigh who was the PI for the National Lung Cancer screening trial that was approved 10 years ago. When we look at early detection, the unfortunate nature of lung cancer is that often, as was the case with my wife, there are no obvious symptoms.
I think the key is to recognize that lung cancer is different. It is different from other cancers like breast cancer. What we have not done is taken advantage of what we do know, and that is the screening process. We have not done a good enough job recruiting those people that can benefit from screening and letting them know that it is an option.
Understanding that the goal is to catch it early and acknowledging that people are going to be diagnosed is key. Catching it early can be a game-changer in terms of survivorship.
The Stand Up To Cancer interception grant is being used to fuel research on how we increase the percentage of people that can be diagnosed early. That research will not just expand the number of people, but will also ideally have diagnostics that are easier to use within communities.
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Black men are also 15% more likely to develop lung cancer than white men. What impact does lung cancer continue to have on the black community?
This is such an important question and that is why I think the Stand Up To Cancer campaign is so important in terms of talking about lung cancer and the importance of early detection within the black community. I think, in too many cases, there are cancer disparities that go right along racial lines.
This challenges us to make our communities that much more aware. It challenges us to not just make them aware of lung cancer, but really let them know that there are changes, that there is hope, that there is early detection, that there are diagnostics, that there are treatment options, and that research is changing things and that survivorship actually matters.
It is not that if you are diagnosed that you are terrible. That somehow if you have a smoking history, you did it to yourself. We want to surround our people with love and let them know that regardless of how they got this disease, we are going to stand and we are going to fight for them. Overall, it is making sure the communities know what is possible and then, on the front side, really loving the people enough that they will be honest about what is going on and have a place to go to so they can get checked out.
Another critical aspect of changing a disease is education. It is about making sure people understand that they matter enough to go in, and then making sure that access is there. We have to acknowledge that the diagnosis part is critical whilst making sure that patients have access to the top care.
As an example, I can say that a young lady whose husband passed recently was sharing how, in Tampa, where he was diagnosed initially, and he is a black man, they were going to start him on chemotherapy as soon as he was diagnosed, rather than doing biomarker testing.
She knew there was something wrong and she had a relationship with Moffitt Cancer Center. So, instead of just him going on chemotherapy, she made sure he got a second opinion. In the second opinion, he actually got biomarker testing.
I am giving that as an example as educating people early is critical, but at the same time, we need to make sure that we are educating the medical community within those communities, making sure that the things that we know have changed, based on research, are in place in those communities, too.
What more can Governments and policymakers be doing to eliminate this disparity, and why is it important to increase awareness?
Why is it important? The numbers. The number of people that are dying from lung cancer is bigger than colon cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and almost all those combined. It is a serious issue that we have to deal with and we have to make it a priority.
Where there has been tremendous change related to research, we need to make sure everyone can benefit from it, and that requires accountability. We can make it so there is a standard that has to be done. Then, if someone is not doing it, there have to be consequences in not getting that done.
We also need to make sure there are resources. In the United States in 1998, the cigarette industry got indicted for predatory marketing, for making cigarettes more addicting. With that indictment, the cigarette industry had to pay out 200 billion. This clearly says that someone who smoked is a victim and that they did not just do it to themselves.
It is important that where there have been policy changes and advances, we acknowledge that and make sure that they actually get back to the people.
The new campaign launched by SU2C is focused on promoting and improving health equity in medically underserved communities, including black people and people living in rural communities. Why is this campaign so important?
When my wife got diagnosed, her treatment was five minutes away. I make sure that I do not just take that for granted but really acknowledge how living outside the city and having to drive an hour or two could dramatically change someone’s willingness for treatment.
I think it is important that we acknowledge transportation issues, education issues, and insurance issues to make sure that the right community gets the message.
In our communities, we feel like we don’t want to get checked and there are certain things we almost fear and don’t want to know and I think it’s important that we spread the word and encourage each other to get checked up, because we have the ability to truly stand up to it by taking care of ourselves and catching things early and going through that process. For me, as a black man, I am encouraging others and encouraging all, and I’m saying that as I say it to myself.”
Common, Stand Up To Cancer
The new PSA campaign run by Stand Up To Cancer featuring Common is great and we need to make sure that people in rural and black communities see it. Then, we need to challenge the people that take care of them to make sure they up their game. We need to make urban areas and rural areas more of a priority. It is a challenge to our communities to say, “are we okay with some people getting better treatment than others?” We have made tremendous progress, but are we okay with losing people when there are possibilities, albeit new, but possibilities?
We also need to look at clinical trials and understand that if we want diversity, we have to go to certain communities and we have to recruit people in those communities and it might require a little bit of work.
We also have to be honest about how people think about clinical trials. Stand Up To Cancer has done some amazing work in helping people understand it in layman’s terms, because who is trying to find out more about clinical trials until they are diagnosed? Therefore, for too many people, a clinical trial sounds like a science experiment and a last resort. For too many people in the black community, it seems like an experiment that is not even for our community.
The challenge again, to our country, community, and globally, is that if we want there to be diversity, are we willing to go to the people and educate them and help them understand how it is beneficial to them? We cannot just say “Oh, there’s just a lack of diversity”. The lack of diversity comes squarely on the shoulders of the people doing the trials and their willingness to engage the people to make sure that it is diverse.
Again, we have to educate people on clinical trials. Asking somebody whether they want to be in a clinical trial is not enough. You need to spend time building a relationship with someone and actually filling in the gaps, educating them about why it matters. I am the first one to say that even with my wife being an electrical engineer from Clemson and my economics degree from Stanford I did not know any of the cancer terms before my wife was diagnosed.
If we did not have tremendous guidance from her primary care doc and all the tremendous relationships that we already had, it would have been difficult, even with our education level, because it is a new language. Without having guides to help you work through it and help you understand what is important, you will not know it. It is scary. It is this traumatic experience where, without the guides, it can be overwhelming.
It is important that we go to our communities and educate them before they are even diagnosed to help them understand why it matters that they are diverse and how that is critical to making sure that the drugs will be better for our community or potentially that some of the dosages could be adjusted based on people. That involvement, that diversity, helps fuel the way the drugs are used and enables our understanding of how good they are.
Lung Cancer Facts with Common | Stand Up To Cancer and Bristol Myers Squibb
You are the Co-Founder of Team Draft, a national campaign aiming to change the face of lung cancer. Could you discuss the aims and actions of this campaign?
Changing the face of lung cancer is really an acknowledgment of the history of lung cancer. The historical narrative of lung cancer has been just to get people to stop smoking. That is why when my wife was diagnosed, did we know that anyone could get it? No.
It is important to be honest about what people are told and then reeducate people or change the face of this disease. The goal now is not just acknowledging that people are getting lung cancer but acknowledging that our goal needs to be survivorship. The goal of survivorship looks the same across cancer and we need to max out prevention, or risk reduction.
How we do that is by getting people to stop smoking, and live better, healthy lifestyles. We also need to look at air quality based on where people work. We have to have a clear focus on those things because we know that these lower the risk for cancer. Poor quality air has been proven to have higher levels of carcinogens and we need to deal with that. But, at the same time, we acknowledge that people are going to still get lung cancer. We have to not just focus on lung cancer screening, but fight for it and make sure that many people that can benefit from it.
The other part is having incidental nodule clinics where people are coming in for something else and end up finding out that they have a nodule and making sure that people follow that up. That is one of the best ways of being able to find lung cancer early, too.
This is alongside educating our primary care doctors, our pulmonologists, our ER docs, our gynecologists and letting them know that anyone can get it so that when somebody comes with symptoms, doctors are not saying, “No, you are too young. No, you do not have a smoking history. No, you stopped 30 years ago.”
Also, we need to realize in terms of treatment that things have changed. Biomarker testing is critical as is immunotherapy and those options are there – there is hope.
Another part is recognizing that the way we move things forward is through research and that research is not only needed but that it is working. Right now we are building off of work that has happened before. This is not brand new, research is working in lung cancer.
The last thing is survivorship, recognizing that the whole reason why we fight is for our survivors, but acknowledging that there is a cost to survivorship. We need to understand that everybody has a different experience and understanding that in the context of the diversity issues of urban/rural areas and race. Are we willing to meet people where they are?
What has been the most inspiring project that you have been involved with?
That is a great question. What I would say is the White Ribbon Project that I have been a spokesman for alongside Heidi and Pierre. I am excited about this project because it is an umbrella for us to appreciate and celebrate all the projects.
We celebrate not just what is happening in one organization but the work of all the different groups that are making sure that that a video’s going to get out, making sure we recruit more people to be involved, and that we educate more of our community.
That is what The White Ribbon Project is about, appreciating all the people that are doing the work and more importantly, letting all of the survivors know that they are loved and that they have a team that is fighting for them.
I have been lucky enough to go all over the world and see the work that people are doing and it is going to take a team to get this done. There is not one organization that will be able to get it done by itself. Stand Up To Cancer has an amazing health equity initiative and it does not work without having partners. To see the lung cancer community as this larger community is critical.
Image Credit: Moffitt Cancer Center
As well as all of your advocacy work for lung cancer, you are a national spokesperson for asthma. How did you begin your involvement with asthma treatment awareness?
I was diagnosed with asthma when I went to Stanford and it was a nice, rude awakening – I had to go to the hospital and really could not breathe well. That has been a part of my life and was a part of my experience through playing in the NFL.
My triggers are, unfortunately, grass, cigarette smoke, and cigar smoke. There were a couple of coaches that almost killed me based on smoking a victory cigar and there were a couple of gardeners that almost did the same based on just cutting the grass at the facility. It was natural that I would be a spokesperson because I could not hide it, it was very obvious and a part of my resume throughout my career, and I owned it.
I think this also makes me relate to lung cancer, as in a similar way it can take a little while for there to be a diagnosis. On the way to a lung cancer diagnosis, there are a number of other issues that relate to breathing that can be checked on. With other cancers, for the most part, that does not happen. It took a while to figure out exactly that I had asthma and that I actually had enlarged tonsils and adenoids.
When we talk about advocacy, it always starts with self-advocacy. We need to acknowledge that there is something wrong – to go to the doctor and make it clear what is happening to you, and often have to go back time and time again to figure out the problem, is hard work. At times, we do not appreciate that side of advocacy, but that is critical to getting a diagnosis especially within lung cancer when there are, at times, limited symptoms.
What advice would you give to people who want to get involved and help spread awareness of lung cancer?
Number one, I would say you need to believe that anyone can get it, and the people that do get it actually matter. That seems very simplistic to say it, but is the key to lung cancer awareness because it will change how you present it. When I walk into a room, I am not looking for just the lung cancer survivor to speak to, because I know that anyone can get it, and if I am bringing awareness, I am talking to the whole room.
At the same time, I believe that people matter. If there is somebody in that room who has a smoking history, I want them to know they matter and there should be no shame.
We have got to make sure that we accept that before we go out and raise lung cancer awareness by saying, “Lung cancer kills more men and women than any other cancer.” You will make people feel bad. You will tell them all the terrible facts, but you really will not tell them how they can be a part of a movement, how they can be a part of change.
That is what is crucial. Being a part of change is making sure that we remind the community that people who are diagnosed with lung cancer deserve our best shots and our support. So, how do we make sure they are not alone? We encourage the community to make sure they are not. As a community, will you hold your medical teams accountable to make sure that they are up to date on the top things?
What do you hope the future of lung cancer will look like? Do you hope that with continued research, more successful treatments will be developed leading to an increased number of lung cancer survivors and an improved quality of life?
This year is the 10 year anniversary of Team Draft, as well as the 10th anniversary of the National Lung Cancer screening trial. It is also the 10 year anniversary of Xalkori, which is a targeted drug. Continued research resulting in more successful treatments is happening.
My hope is that the work that we have done will continue to be built up. I say that because I want to validate that lung cancer has had more drugs approved in the last three years than any other cancer. We are moving forward and research is working. We do have screening and the ability to not just find things by accident, but to be intentional about finding lung cancer early.
I hope that we will acknowledge the stigma of lung cancer and its connection with smoking. We will realize that we have already dealt with that in this country, through an indictment. The people that have smoked are victims and we must say that they matter, whilst acknowledging people who have not smoked also can get lung cancer.
We will acknowledge, again, the opportunities for early detection. We acknowledge the tremendous changes in treatment and make sure everybody has a chance to do it and that we know that none of that happens without research. We have to continue to push it forward and acknowledge that in doing that we must be intentional about making sure that we have the diversity that we need to be able to save more people.
Are we making sure that we are rallying around our survivors? We are going to meet them with love, right from the beginning, and be the person that they need to help them work through this new language, this new place, this new journey in their lives.
Image Credit: create jobs 51/Shutterstock.com
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I am excited about the work that Stand Up To Cancer is doing. The White Ribbon Project is an umbrella, that allows us to appreciate the work that is happening. I am hopeful that more people can see the work of Stand Up To Cancer because of the connection within our communities.
We are building this understanding that if we want there to be more diversity, if we want things to be more accessible, then we actually have to do it and be intentional about getting that done. Hopefully, this is a catalyst towards that.
Talking about lung cancer is not just for the lung cancer community. If we allow people in, they will stand up and fight for us. Stand Up To Cancer creates the space and opportunity for people to help, whether they have a direct connection to the cause or not.
Where can readers find more information?
About Chris Draft
Chris Draft is the Founder, President, and CEO of the Chris Draft Family Foundation (CDFF) whose mission has been to empower families to lead healthy lifestyles. He is also the Co-Founder of Team Draft, leading the creation of a national campaign that is changing the face of lung cancer. He is an internationally recognized speaker, community leader, and family and character advocate who serves as an NFL Ambassador and a national spokesperson on many health-related issues, including the care and treatment of asthma, from which he suffers, and lung cancer, the disease that claimed the life of his wife, Keasha in 2011.
Chris and his story has an impact on just about everyone he meets. His life and work have positioned him to be a catalyst for change.
A graduate of Stanford University with a BS in Economics, Chris played football and baseball with the Cardinal. As a three-year starter at linebacker, and senior captain, Draft was an All-Pac 10 performer.
In 1998, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears, ultimately spending 12 years in the NFL. In addition to the Bears, Chris played for the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, St Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills, and Washington Redskins, finishing his NFL playing career in 2010.
In 2006, while with the Carolina Panthers, Chris established the Chris Draft Family Foundation, which focuses on several primary initiatives that stress the importance of family, education, healthy lifestyles, character development, personal responsibility, self-discipline, and physical fitness. His playing career has earned him a national platform to become a powerful community advocate across the country using his skills as a leader and speaker, and to act on his compassion for helping those less fortunate. Chris was and continues to be the face to the community within every stop of his career.
His efforts prompted this comment from Riley Fields, Director of Community Relations, Carolina Panthers:
“Chris Draft is a rare individual whose passion and compassion leads him to serve others in profound ways. His vision is impactful on a national scale, while his direct personal involvement reaches individuals on a meaningful, personal level. His unique ability to engage both children and adults inspires both in becoming better or to overcome their own personal challenges.”
Chris has been recognized for his contributions both on and off the field. He was named NFL Spirit Award winner in 2008, one of the highest honors for community service awarded by the NFL Community. Chris was named his franchise’s Man of the Year in both Carolina and St Louis (2006, 2008). He was also a two-time finalist for the prestigious Byron “Whizzer” White Award (2004, 2008).
Late in 2010, just a few months after his NFL retirement, Chris would be rocked. In 2006, while with the Carolina Panthers, he met Keasha Rutledge. A Clemson University graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, Keasha was a successful pharmaceutical sales executive, a former Charlotte Hornets Honeybee dancer and member of Clemson University’s Rally Cat dance squad. In November 2010, Keasha was the vision of health and a non-smoker, doing P90X and preparing to run in a 10K race. A shortness of breath led her to see her primary care physician who ordered X-rays and discovered a mass in her chest. Additional tests and confirmed Stage IV Lung Cancer.
On November 27, 2011, standing side-by-side, Chris and Keasha launched Team Draft at their wedding with the expressed goal to fight lung cancer. Just one month later, Keasha lost her courageous fight and died at the age of 38.
On Super Bowl Sunday morning in 2012, just 40 days after Keasha’s death, ESPN shared the emotional and impactful video of Chris and Keasha’s journey. The video has been shared over 1.1 million times through espn.com and has become a call for action and hope. At the conclusion of the video, Team Draft launched the National Campaign to Change the Face of Lung Cancer.
Chris admits that he was a “guy that really didn’t know lung cancer” but he was driven to learn as much as he could. During Keasha’s last year in life, Chris was her caregiver and together he and Keasha became lung cancer advocates. Since forging the national campaign to change the face of lung cancer, Chris has been a man on a mission.
Chris launched a national fact finding tour to fifty of the top cancer centers across the country to find the best way to use the Team Draft platform. He built relationships with leading cancer doctors and raised awareness about lung cancer and lung cancer survivors. He is known to frequently remind everyone that lung cancer is about the people and that it is critical to tell the stories about the people who are impacted. More awareness leads to more research, more research leads to better treatment, and to a better and longer life. That, as Chris says, is what it is all about.
He brought media along to chronicle the journey and to help spread the message of awareness and hope found in these cancer centers. He has now made similar trips to more than 130 cancer centers.
Team Draft was founded upon a mission of action based on awareness, early detection, treatment, research, and survivorship. With Chris’ extensive national network and skill set, Team Draft is positioned to do unique things. His playing career took him all over the country allowing him to build contacts nationally. His twelve years as a player and established relationship with the NFL and ongoing relationship as an NFL Ambassador provide Team Draft with the one of the largest, visible platforms in the country.
Appearing on CNN in November 2012, Chris launched the Team Draft Survivor Series. Team Draft arranges for a lung cancer survivor and their advocate to attend a game together. This not only gives the survivor a much-needed day of fun, but provides a platform for them to tell their own very personal stories of their journey. By putting a face on lung cancer, the survivor raises the awareness that lung cancer can strike everyone. However, they also share a message of hope.
Over the last three years, more than 200 survivors and caregivers have enjoyed more than fifty separate NFL, NHL, NBA, and college football games. The survivors are typically accompanied by Chris who is able to provide back-stage access and contact with current players and legends.
In 2013, Chris and Team Draft helped launch National Lung Cancer Screening Event to get veterans tested. Veterans are the largest sub group of people diagnosed with lung cancer. One of Chris’ grandfathers and an uncle were both veterans who picked up smoking while in the armed forces. They eventually suffered and died from smoking related illnesses – making this a personal issue for Chris as well.
Also in 2013, as part of a satellite media tour sponsored by Genentech, Draft, along with lung cancer survivor, Don Stranathan, gave satellite interviews to local and national media outlets around the country discussing their personal experiences with lung cancer, Team Draft’s work, and the importance of talking to your healthcare provider about screening and treatment.
In 2014, Team Draft launched the Super Bowl Challenge, allowing lung cancer survivor advocates to compete for a trip to Super Bowl XLIX by raising funds for their local cancer centers. The three winners and their caregivers were hosted by Chris and had behind-the-scenes access to the NFL Pro Bowl, The Taste of the NFL, and the Super Bowl, respectively. Each survivor was able to share their unique stories and once in a lifetime event with NFL players, legends and members of the NFL community
Chris has partnered with Lilly Oncology on their internal Moments Matter campaign. He is a sought out speaker for international businesses (Genentech, Lilly, Porsche, Covidien), national cancer organizations (ACS, ALA, CEOs Against Cancer, 24 Hours of Booty, Livestrong), lung cancer specific foundations (Bonnie Addario, LUNGevity).
Andrea Ferris, president and chairman of LUNGevity Foundation had this to say after Chris was awarded with the Lungevity Hero award:
“Chris Draft has shown remarkable dedication to raising lung cancer awareness and putting an end to the harmful stigma associated with lung cancer,” said. “LUNGevity is glad to have passionate individuals like Chris on our side in the fight against lung cancer.”
He maintains a very visible presence by frequently being called upon to provide his unique perspective to CNN, ESPN and the NFL network on community and sports issues. The NFL continues to count on him as an NFL Ambassador to help mold the future stars of the NFL through NFL Prep, NFL High School Player Development, and to visit troops as part of NFL/USO Tours.
A selfless leader, Chris continues to fight for and develop deep, authentic relationships with lung cancer survivors, their caregivers, doctors and cancer centers all over the map.
It is frequently said that the work he does is inspirational. Chris prefers to talk about the work. As Chris says, “The work we are doing makes it easier for survivors to become survivor advocates.”
That work is how Chris is helping to change lung cancer “4 future.”
Chris was also a patient advocate on the SU2C-LUNGevity-ALA Lung Cancer Interception Research Team.