Former NFL linebacker encourages cancer survivors to find joy in each day

UNC Lineberger's Cancer Survivors Day was held at The William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education in Chapel Hill on June 9. The day’s events included presentations and activities for survivors on exercise, clinical trials, and support programs for patients’ caregivers as well as lunch, art activities and dancing.

Former NFL linebacker encourages cancer survivors to find joy in each day click to enlarge Former NFL Linebacker Chris Draft delivered an inspirational and encouraging message at UNC Lineberger Cancer Survivors Day.
Former NFL linebacker encourages cancer survivors to find joy in each day click to enlarge Former NFL linebacker Chris Draft with UNC Lineberger's Deborah Mayer, PhD, RN, AOCN, FAAN.

Media Contact: Laura Oleniacz, 919-445-4219, laura_oleniacz@med.unc.edu

It’s not just about the final victory, it’s also about the journey. In a message to cancer survivors and supporters who gathered for the UNC Lineberger Cancer Survivors Day celebration on Saturday, former NFL player Chris Draft emphasized the importance of celebrating daily milestones and victories, even if that means just keeping it together or remaining faithful on difficult days.

Draft, who played for 12 seasons in the NFL, including with the Carolina Panthers, lost his wife, Lakeasha Rutledge Draft, to lung cancer in 2011. She had never smoked and was in great shape when she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2010 at age 37. Draft shared the inspiring determination she showed throughout her battle with the disease. Together, they created Team Draft, an initiative of the Chris Draft Family Foundation to raise awareness about the disease and to support early detection, treatment, research and survivorship.

“Survivorship is celebrating each milestone that’s happening,” Draft said. “Regardless of what’s going on, I’m going to find the joy in each day because there has to be joy in each day.”

Drawing on his football background, Draft encouraged survivors not to quit. When it’s the fourth quarter, and the team is down, coach is breaking his headset, and, some of the fans are leaving, Draft asked: What would they say about the player who doesn’t finish the game?

“Great ball teams realize it’s not just that end point where the victory is – it’s everything we’ve done along the way to getting there,” he said. “We’re winning every day by the way we approach it.”

Draft was the keynote speaker at the annual survivors’ day celebration, which was held at The William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education in Chapel Hill. The day’s events included presentations and activities for survivors on exercise, clinical trials, and support programs for patients’ caregivers as well as lunch, art activities and dancing. Survivors said they came to the event to get to know others who have had similar experiences, and to get inspired by positive energy and messages of hope.

The day is held annually to offer resources for survivors and their family members, and to allow them to come together and connect, said Deborah Mayer, PhD, RN, AOCN, FAAN, UNC Lineberger’s director of cancer survivorship. Through research and a dedicated clinical practice for breast cancer survivors, Mayer is working to help cancer survivors transition from treatment into life after.

“The number of survivors is thankfully going up and up,” said UNC Lineberger Director Shelton Earp, MD. “How do we transition from this very intense experience of being taken care of as a cancer patient during treatment to being a potentially cured cancer patient with a long horizon?”

UNC Lineberger’s Chad Pecot, MD, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology, is a physician-researcher who specializes in lung cancer as well as a cancer survivor. He shared his story of how cancer changed his life’s direction.

Pecot was diagnosed with testicular cancer as an undergraduate at the University of Miami. Treatment changed him, he said, and being cured of the disease inspired him to help others with cancer who might not have the same odds. While more than 95 percent of patients with testicular cancer live five years, fewer than one in five patients with lung cancer live five years.

Pecot delivered a message to fellow survivors – never quit. As a medical resident in training, he worked long hours and would relax watching sports highlights from sportscaster Stuart Scott on ESPN. Scott created a foundation through the V Foundation for Cancer Research after he was diagnosed with cancer. The disease would eventually take Scott’s life. Pecot, who said he was the first grant recipient from Scott’s foundation, was inspired by a message Scott delivered at the ESPY Awards, where he received the Jimmy V Award for his battle against cancer. “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live,” Scott declared.

“My message to those in the room is to not stop fighting, no matter what,” Pecot said. “And to watch Stuart Scott’s speech.”

Mayer said she and the planning committee members are reviewing feedback on the day from the attendees, and they are already working on plans for the UNC Lineberger Cancer Survivors Day in 2019. Updates on next year’s event will be posted on the UNC Lineberger website as they are finalized.