Former Carolina Panthers linebacker Chris Draft (third from right), met with lung cancer survivors at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, N.C., as part of a vow he made to his late wife to support other survivors.

News, Your Health | 19 days ago

Former Carolina Panthers Player Vows to Support Lung Cancer Survivors

After former Carolina Panthers linebacker Chris Draft lost his wife to lung cancer, he continues to honor her with a relentless fight for awareness. 

 

He was a Carolina Panther. She was a Charlotte Hornets Honey Bee. Theirs was the quintessential Queen City romance.

When Chris Draft married Keasha Rutledge on November 27, 2011, they made two vows. Their first vow was, of course, to each other. Their second vow was to support those fighting lung cancer. It was a fight they understood well, ever since Keasha’s diagnosis the previous year when she was just 37 years old.

Keasha died one month after their wedding.

Their vows still motivate Chris. They drive his work in Team Draft, the awareness organization that he and Keasha launched on their wedding day. They compel him to meet lung cancer survivors, to learn their stories and to share them. So after Chris watches a WCNC newscast that featured five lung cancer survivors in Charlotte, he asks Levine Cancer Institute if he can meet them.

Of course, they tell him.

Uniting to Raise Lung Cancer Awareness

It’s November 15, 2017, and there’s plenty of white – the official color of lung cancer awareness – around Levine Cancer Institute. In honor of the annual White Out event, white flowers, white cake and white outfits show support for the oncology teams and patients in their relentless battle against the disease.

Before the event begins, however, six figures gather in the foyer to meet: Chris, wearing a white Carolina Panthers shirt, and five survivors fighting Stage IV lung cancer: Joy Divine, Angee Lee, Linda Blum, Paige Black and Doris Castevens. They speak in the language familiar to those who know lung cancer too well: of clinical trials, of genetic markers, of emerging treatments.

But mostly, they talk about their optimism and the exciting momentum in lung cancer research. Lung cancer has had more drugs approved in the past three years than any other cancer, even though it’s among the least funded. The new drugs give these women treatment opportunities that weren’t available during Keasha’s fight just six years ago.

“Those drugs didn’t just magically happen. They happened because there’s a great group of folks who fought, who made this a priority. And now we’re seeing breakthroughs,” Chris says. “But what if we put more funding into research? Oh my gosh, the opportunity!”

Their mission is to increase lung cancer awareness – and with it, funding for research. So much attention has been placed on prevention, Chris believes, that it’s negatively impacted awareness. Now, some people feel as though getting lung cancer is a fault, a failure of prevention. Chris says the most important fact for people to learn about lung cancer is this: It’s a disease that anyone can get, including a healthy, non-smoking, 37-year-old dancer named Keasha.

Linda nods in agreement.

“I walk into my appointments, and I think, if only more people could see the waiting room full of people being treated for lung cancer,” says Linda, who was diagnosed three years ago. “Men. Women. All ages. People would be shocked to see who’s really getting lung cancer.”

Chris wants people to learn that now, instead of learning like he did – when he had to.

“I don’t want someone to learn about this because their wife gets diagnosed. I don’t want them to learn it because their husband gets diagnosed. I want them to learn it from me,” Chris says. “Research is an investment – it matters. Support it. Fight for it. We need to push things forward.”

Wearing White, Seeing Hope

Slowly, the room begins to fill with those celebrating the White Out. Doctors, nurses, nurse navigators and staff – all wearing white – join Chris and the five survivors. There’s Edward Kim, MD, wearing an all-white suit and even white shoes. And there’s Kathryn F. Mileham, MD, donning a white tutu and a headband with fluffy white antenna. They greet their patients with hugs, then everyone poses for group pictures, alternating between big smiles, flexed muscles, and even a few jazz hands. 

Then Chris, Dr. Kim, and Dr. Mileham gather to cut the cake, which has “In Honor of Lung Cancer Awareness” written on top in frosting. With a knife and a smirk, Dr. Kim cuts directly through the words “lung cancer.” The three smile at the symbolism, but Chris’s smile is betrayed by eyes that grow teary.

It was six years ago this month when Chris and Keasha cut their wedding cake. It was six years ago this month when Keasha wore white. Over the years since, he’s never lost sight of those two vows they exchanged.

“Nothing I do will bring my wife back. I’ve accepted that,” Chris told the five survivors. “But you have to be hopeful. And how do I know there’s hope? Because I see you. Things are changing.”