Leah Still, the 4-year-old daughter of Cincinnati Bengals player Devon Still, has cancer. Specifically, a tumor known by the accurate-but-unapproachable label "neuroblastoma."
On Thursday, live on Thursday Night Football, Leah's story hit a dramatic peak. Finally well enough to travel, this sweet child got to see her daddy play for the first time. And during the game, Cincinnati Children's received a $1.3 million check to keep chasing down better treatments for childhood cancer. It was so cool they covered it in Cleveland.
The money reflected the proceeds of about 15,000 Devon Still No. 75 jerseys that had been sold this season. The sales reflected the big hearts of sports fans from Cincinnati and far beyond who generously paid $100 for each jersey. The donation also reflected the big heart of the Cincinnati Bengals franchise, which who not only made it possible for the proceeds to go toward research but also kept Still on the team precisely because he needed the health benefits.
So yeah sports fans, health coverage matters. To everybody. Not just well-paid professional athletes lucky enough to catch a break. So maybe it would be nice to see politicians quit working so hard to break apart the first thing in DECADES -- "Obamacare" -- that has actually made a dent in America's unforgivable willingness to let millions of citizens go without coverage. Look at it this way: If the Bengals had cut Devon Still, he would have been unemployed and uninsured. He would have been bankrupted by the costs of treating his little girl. But thanks to Obamacare, if he had been cut, he would have had the ability to buy a health care plan that would not be allowed to reject covering his daughter. And who knows about next year? Maybe Devon doesn't make the team. Either way, Obamacare assures that Leah stays covered; and as she grows up, she gets to stay on Dad's plan until she's 26. And should hard times hit, Obamacare assures that subsidies kick in so that the family doesn't have to drop health coverage to pay other bills.
But I digress. Well, not really. I hope the people who have been touched by these powerfully emotional stories realize that the politics of this matter a lot.
Every Republican and every Democrat can easily agree that there's a long, long list of government budget line items that aren't really as important as helping kids like Leah Still have a shot at growing up and living a full and decent life. Just about everybody can agree that doing a better job at funding childhood cancer research is a good way to spend public money, right? So why is research funding something that winds up depending on Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts and media events?
OK. Now let's meet Lauren Hill.
This is the 19-year-old woman who touched hearts everywhere in her quest to actually play a college game of basketball before her cancer takes her life.
Lauren has a rare type of brain tumor officially known as diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). People haven't heard of this. People cannot even say the four words without tripping over their tongues. And the medical world, as amazing as it can be, can still do next to nothing to beat this type of cancer.
This diagnosis, this crushing news was dropped upon a girl fresh out of high school, a girl who worked hard to be good at basketball and simply wanted to get a college education at tiny little Mount St. Joseph University and get going in life.
The cosmic unfairness of it all is so arresting that it can make people unable to speak. But thanks to the truly giving nature of so many people, the public has responded to Lauren's story every bit as strongly as they have to Leah's.
The NCAA moved mountains to allow the school to change its schedule so that Lauren could play while still well enough to do so. The game became such an event it had to be moved to a bigger arena. Good-hearted people bought up 10,000 tickets in a half-hour. NBA stars and all sorts of celebrities jumped on board, doing video layups to raise money, wearing grey jerseys (the "color" of brain cancer awareness), sharing her number (22), and so on.
And in a perfect movie moment, Lauren scored the first point of the game. Wow. Just wow. This was so cool, Lauren wound up with her face on a Wheaties box. She told the world that she wanted to make sure her life made a difference. I think it's pretty clear that it has.
Yes, I'm being overly autobiographical here, sorry. But these stories reminded me about the many ways cancer has touched my own life, especially in recent years. I'm certainly not unique in this. Cancer strikes so many people that pretty much everybody is an affected person. However, BOTH of these cancer stories are playing out in Cincinnati.
I work with the people who have been working with both these families. A whole bunch of people at Cincinnati Children's have been involved with these girls in many kinds of ways. Compared to others at the hospital, my direct role has been microscopic. But at work, these stories are part of the atmosphere for everyone there. We are all affected.
As a former journalist in Cincinnati, I personally know some of the people who have been writing stories and shooting photos and videos for the world to see. I've seen and heard how much they've been affected.
As a former resident of the Cincinnati suburb of Delhi, I'm also familiar with Lauren's school. Years ago, too many years ago, my friends and I drove right past Mount St. Joe every morning to get to high school and every afternoon to get back home. I've known graduates and attendees of the college. I visited the campus a few times in my own reporting days. Who could have known such an institution would find itself in the big spotlight?
And I'm a dad with two daughters. One of our girls has reached the same point in life as Lauren, another is just a few years younger. It's overwhelming to imagine either of our girls facing such challenges. And I know that whatever I might imagine pales in comparison to really walking down these paths.
So yeah, these stories are touching me in some unusual ways.
My personal cancer experiences include standing at the bedsides of three people to say goodbye as they died of their cancers. I've attended the funerals of others. A woman I loved in college is a cancer survivor now. So are several colleagues I have worked with over the years. One of my wife's best friends -- a person I've also known for years -- has a beautiful, sweet daughter fighting her own battle against leukemia right now. They may not be in the news, but they know the journey.
I've written quite a few news articles and features about people with cancer and lots more about the work people are doing to try to cure "it" (as if cancer is one thing). Virtually every person I care about has shared at least some of their own cancer experiences with me, be it over Facebook, over the phone, or over drinks on the back patio. And I know with great certainty that I will be touched by cancer even more in the years to come. This story has many more chapters.
But here's a special one. I have had the great good fortune of sharing many excellent college experiences with this guy: Dr. Charles D. Blanke. Despite all efforts by his fraternal friends to drag him down, Chuck made it into med school, graduated with distinction, then worked his way through years of residencies and fellowships, all the while learning and studying the many arcane details of oncology. He has since rose through the specialty ranks to become a truly significant force in the battle against cancer. Currently, Chuck is the chairman of SWOG -- formerly known as the Southwest Oncology Group.
While the general public may know little about SWOG, trust me, the organization is a huge, huge player in cancer medicine. SWOG organizes a network of more than 4,000 docs and scientists at more than 650 institutions. Together, they are running more than 100 clinical trials right now to evaluate new and hopefully better treatments. Some real difference makers. Maybe even some cures for some kinds of cancers. More than 5,000 people with cancer are enrolled every year in the studies SWOG coordinates. More than 200,000 people have joined one of SWOG's studies over the years.
Those aren't just numbers. Every one of those people is someone's Leah or Lauren. Every one of them is, or could be, the mother, son, or beloved aunt or uncle of every single elected member of Congress.
The cancer survivors walking among us today, along with the many who have passed but lived at least a little longer than previous generations of cancer patients, owe much of their extra time on Earth to groups like SWOG and people like Chuck. This is how better treatments are made. It can sound hideously complex but it's not really that mysterious. It's about smart people working really hard.
That's exactly what Chuck is, a smart person working really hard, and I'm proud to be his friend.
Now one might ASSUME that such a massively important organization -- especially one that touches such a huge and diverse mass of people -- would have a healthy, growing budget, right? Well that's the problem with assumptions. They are often wrong. SWOG actually has less money this year than it did last year to do its work. Its budget was recently cut by millions of dollars.
Who among us thinks Leah or Lauren should be paying any price at all in the great debate over big vs. small government? Certainly not people like Chuck. As the medical world tries to move mountains to beat cancer, it is beyond frustrating to watch the political world play budget games. And yet, the people with cancer still need help.
Without clinical trials, there will be no cures for cancer. It's that simple. So in hopes of getting people to see the mountain in our living rooms, Dr. Blanke is going to climb one. Mt. Kilimanjaro stands 19,341 feet high. That's a tall order. But climbing a mountain is something that every person with cancer does every day.
You can learn more about Chuck's climb by watching this video. But please do more than watch. Please... Help Leah. Help Lauren. Help Chuck. Help the people with cancer that you love.
Help them with your money by giving straight to the science. Sure, I'd be glad if you gave directly to Cincinnati Children's. But that's hardly the only good way.
Help with your voice. You have a cancer story in you, so tell it. Post it on Facebook. Blast it out on Twitter. Share a face on Instagram. Challenge the status quo and be seen and heard doing so. Speak out. Speak up. There is common purpose here.
Help with your skill. If you have a lot of passion for this, aim your career at cancer. Work for the universities, the hospitals, the doctors, the charities or the public agencies that are doing cancer work. Already have a nice job? You can do volunteer work for lots of cancer organizations in lots of ways.
Help with your wisdom. If you have kids, teach them about what really matters. Inspire them with your example of being a helper and a builder. Everybody talks about making the world a better place. This is how. So teach your children to expect more from themselves and their leaders.
Help with your vote. Cancer is not going to be conquered with a Twitter campaign. Cancer will be beaten when the people who care start setting priorities for the people who lead. Be that citizen. Make your voice count. Make it clear that you give Congress permission to do the right thing.