University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Men’s Basketball Coach Roy Williams wants to hear more success stories, and he doesn’t mean just about basketball wins. He’s raising money for UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center so he can hear about more cancer treatment successes.
Williams hosted the 15th Annual Roy Williams Fast Break Against Cancer on Friday, Sept. 27, at the Dean E. Smith Center. Since its start in 2005, the event has raised more than $2.88 million for UNC Lineberger. That doesn’t include proceeds from an online auction of sports memorabilia and experiences that will run through Oct. 9.
“I understand we love (treatment) success stories, and we have the chance to get more success stories the more money we raise,” Williams said.
Joining Williams at the breakfast were many of his UNC coaching colleagues, including the men’s basketball coaching staff, Women’s Basketball Head Coach Courtney Banghart, Baseball Head Coach Mike Fox, Women’s Lacrosse Head Coach Jenny Levy, and others. Jones Angell, the play-by-play radio announcer for the North Carolina Tar Heels football and men’s basketball programs, served as the program’s emcee.
Chad Holbrook, the head coach of the College of Charleston baseball team and a Carolina alumnus, was this year’s keynote speaker. His wife, Jennifer, and their two sons, Reece and Cooper, traveled to Chapel Hill with him and were in the audience.
Fifteen years ago, when Holbrook was an assistant baseball coach at Carolina, his family’s “world was turned upside down.” Holbrook noticed bruises on their young son, Reece, then still in diapers, so he and his wife took him to see his pediatrician in Chapel Hill.
“The pediatrician said those words that no parent wants to hear: ‘We’re afraid your son has leukemia; he needs to be admitted to the hospital right away,’” Holbrook said.
His doctor sent Reece right away to UNC Medical Center. The eight-minute drive to the hospital was hard. And while Holbrook said he didn’t know it then, their luck was already changing. Reece was on his way to see UNC Lineberger’s Stuart Gold, MD, chief of the UNC School of Medicine Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, who was waiting for him, he said.
“North Carolina, this is such a special place,” he said.
Reece was diagnosed in September of 2004 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and was treated by Gold.
“There’s a hero standing over there,” Holbrook said of Gold. “What he’s done for my kid, and what he’s done for thousands of other kids as they’ve battled cancer, is tough to put into words.”
Holbrook said he and Jennifer, who worked on Williams’ staff at the time, received an outpouring of support while their son was in treatment, including from Fox, Williams, the community and even total strangers.
After more than three years of treatment, Reece began to turn a corner, Holbrook said, but he still faced challenges. Treatment side effects had taken a toll. Reece wanted to play baseball, but treatment had damaged nerves in his eyes, making it difficult for him to follow moving objects, such as a thrown baseball.
Reece applied the same determination and work ethic he used to beat cancer toward baseball, Holbrook said. The hard work paid off. Reece went from not making his seventh grade baseball team to becoming one of the top high school baseball players in the country.
“We’re here to raise money so we can have more stories like Reece’s,” Holbrook said. “Do what you can to give kids and folks like Reece a fighting chance. I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to be here speaking in the Smith Center, I’m honored to be a part of coach’s breakfast.”
UNC Lineberger Director Shelton Earp, MD, spoke about a clinical research effort by UNC Lineberger physician-scientists to develop new cellular immunotherapies to fight the cancer Reece had after other treatments have failed, and for other cancers.
They are working on clinical trials for chimeric antigen receptor T-cell, or CAR-T, therapies that harness the power of a patient’s own immune system to fight the patient’s disease. Earp said that part of the promise of these immunotherapies is fewer side effects.
“These new types of therapy that we hope to be moving further and further up front so we don’t have to wait until so much toxicity occurs,” Earp said. “It’s all clinical research; it’s high risk, high reward, it’s funded by the things that we do today, it’s funded by the wonderful gifts we have from the state, it’s funded by the federal government.”
For those who were not able to attend Fast Break, there is an online auction that will run through Oct. 9. Items include memorabilia and experiences, such as the opportunity to throw the first pitch at a Carolina baseball game at Boshamer Stadium along with four tickets to the game, and an “Instagram Tour of the Smith Center” with a member of the UNC men’s basketball staff, a photographer from UNC Athletics, and up to three guests of the bidder.