If you don’t know someone, or of someone, who is struggling with a cancer diagnosis or who has died of cancer, you are either too young or in a state of denial. Cancer is indiscriminate, incessant, and ubiquitous.
In the United States, we’ve been hurling money at cancer for several decades. If President Nixon’s declaration of war on cancer in 1971 has taught us anything, it’s that money can’t buy a cure.
Actual cancer cures are rare. The greatest anti-cancer pharmacological breakthrough in the last 50 years, a drug called Gleevec, saves the lives of people with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) not by scrubbing the body clean of cancer cells but by managing the disease at the molecular level. As recently as the mid-1990s CML was a death sentence. Gleevec single-handedly transformed a killer disease into a chronic one no less manageable than type 1 diabetes. Nothing communicates the phenomenal power of Gleevec better than a scene in the Farrah Fawcett documentary Farrah’s Story. Long-time partner Ryan O’Neal, who has CML, is laying next to Farrah begging her not to die, saying that if she dies then he too wants to die. A weak and barely audible Fawcett gives him a simple solution: “Then stop taking your Gleevec.”
One of the discoverers of Gleevec is Dr. Brian Druker. As the story goes, Druker saw something promising in the molecule that would become Gleevec, but in order to carry out clinical trials he needed money from Novartis, which owned the molecule. He fought against recalcitrant executives who didn’t see what he saw, but finally Druker won out. The result is a blockbuster drug that is both commercially and clinically successful, a true wonder drug.
Ingenuity brought Gleevec to life, but money was a key player. It didn’t buy a cure, it bought the many expenses associated with getting there.
Organization or industry-led fundraising initiatives against cancer or any disease generally come from personal exposure. The most obvious example for hockey fans is the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Mario created the Foundation in 1993, the same year he was diagnosed with early-stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the same year he was cured of Hodgkin’s by radiotherapy, and the same year he won the Art Ross Trophy by scoring 39-65-104 points in 40 games before his diagnosis and 30-26-56 points in the 20 games following treatment.
The contributions made to the fight against cancer by the Mario Lemieux Foundation over the past 20 years are by any measure extraordinary, but arguably the most extraordinary is yet to come. The Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at the Hillman Cancer Center is scheduled to open this winter. It will change the otherwise complicated and frustrating journey of blood cancer patients as profoundly as Mario changed hockey:
HOCKEY FIGHTS CANCER
The largest charity initiative of the NHL season is the annual Hockey Fights Cancer (HFC) campaign, which takes place in October. All 30 teams devote a home game to the cause. According to a joint press release from the NHL and the NHLPA in 2010, these home games include “on-ice presentations, 50/50 raffles, promotional giveaways, contests and discount ticket offers.” Additionally, “arena suites and tickets will be donated to children’s hospitals and cancer-affiliated programs, and young patients will be involved with in-game opportunities – including rides on the ice resurfacer, puck-drops, radio booth visits and player meet-and-greets.” Silent auctions of signed memorabilia help raise extra cash, and awareness continues through player visits to local hospitals and their participation in other fundraisers.
A component of the league’s The Biggest Assist Happens Off the Ice program, HFC began in 1998 on the heels of Tampa Bay Lightning forward John Cullen’s bout with B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Following diagnosis in 1997, Cullen endured six rounds of combination chemotherapy (multiple drugs administered at a sitting) only to learn it didn’t work. In cases like his, second-line treatment guidelines back in 1997 recommended high-dose chemotherapy and radiation followed by what’s called ‘stem cell rescue’. The procedure effectively wipes out the patient’s immune system then ‘rescues’ it with a hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (also called a bone marrow transplant; in reality it transplants blood stem cells), either banked by and for the patient, or received from an anonymous donor. The outcome is a new and hopefully cancer-free immune system. The potential complications–including death–are too numerous to list here.
HFC brings in on average about $1 million annually. The biggest recipients last year were the four primary partners: the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Prostate Cancer Canada, ZERO- The Project to End Prostate Cancer, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, each of which receives grant money. Each team then receives $10,000 for distribution to local cancer charities.
As a joint initiative of the NHL and the NHLPA, it will not occur in the event of a lockout. To be fair, $1 million per year doesn’t go very far in cancer research, but it can go a long way when put towards outreach programs and patient-assist programs, in particular for some of the 50 million or so Americans without health insurance. Cancer is so expensive it is a risk factor for personal bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the value of the interaction between players and cancer patients, survivors and loved ones can’t reasonably be quantified.
LEUKEMIA & LYMPHOMA
What kind of an impact might a lockout have on the finances of the premier blood cancer charity in North America? Realistically, very little. HFC’s contributions to the LLS, which total around $200,000 or so each year, are peanuts compared to their total annual revenue from contributions, which in 2010 alone totaled $274.8 million (Source: LLS 2010 Annual Report).
That said, the money does have an impact.
In September of 2011 at league headquarters in New York, players including Zach Parise, John Tavares, Brad Richards and Henrik Lundqvist presented a little plaque to Columbia University’s Aldolfo Ferrando, MD, PhD., a plaque that symbolized the grant funding provided to the LLS thanks to the HFC campaign. The money raised that year helped to fund a portfolio of ten research grants into pediatric cancers, one of which is led by Dr. Ferrando.
Ferrando is associated with Columbia’s Center for Cancer Genetics, and one of his projects involves a comprehensive, genome-wide mutation analysis of T-cell non-Hodgkin lymphomas. T-cell lymphomas are rare, accounting for about 15% of all non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. According to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) statistics, this means there are about 11,000 new T-cell lymphoma diagnoses in the US each year. Compared to lymphomas of B-cell origin, the many subtypes of T-cell lymphomas tend to strike a much younger patient population, and in general they have a poorer prognosis. Fewer treatment options exist, and those that do aren’t terribly effective.
A genome-wide mutation analysis of T-cell lymphoma tumors will likely uncover mutations shared among the various subtypes of T-cell lymphoma; discoveries that can lead to pathways researchers can exploit in the development of targeted therapeutic treatments.
Prostate Cancer Canada uses its share of grant money for outreach programs that aim to get Canadian men tested and treated for prostate cancer who might not otherwise have access to testing or to treatment. The money that goes to ZERO funds prostate cancer education and research programs. It also helps to fund The Drive Against Prostate Cancer, a program that makes the highly controversial PSA testing free for hundreds of men across the US. Last season, ZERO partnered with Millennium Pharmaceuticals and the Boston Bruins for a campaign called Patients’ Assists where a $100 donation was made to ZERO for every assist the Bruins picked up (they had 423 for a total donation of $42,300).
According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s annual report, in 2010-2011 the National Hockey League contributed between $25,000-$49,999 to that charity. People with pancreatic cancer need all the help they can get. Even though the disease takes as long as 15 years to develop in the body, it is rarely caught early. Most diagnoses are made after the disease has metastasized, resulting in one of the worst prognoses of any cancer subtype, if not the worst in terms of five-year survival.
Of the four partners and the NHL, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network was the only organization to officially decline my request to comment on the NHL or the lockout or how it might impact them.
MINOR LEAGUE FUNDRAISING
Fortunately, North America’s minor pro leagues aren’t experiencing a work stoppage. Minor league promotional campaigns may lack the clout of the NHL but they are almost universally superior to anything done at the major league level. Additionally, minor pro teams can’t rely on the unquantifiable impact of player recognition in the community to bolster their fundraising prowess. We take it as gospel that Alex Ovechkin’s visit to a children’s hospital is a life-altering and even perhaps life-saving experience for those patients, but in fact no evidence exists to support this. It may brighten the day of many patients, but beyond the occasional anecdote, it saves the lives of no one.
And we shouldn’t expect it to. If an NHL superstar like Claude Giroux could walk into Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and by laying a few hands cure deadly childhood diseases I think Giroux might find himself in greater demand than any person in human history.
Additionally, almost all minor pro teams are in constant battle with their bottom line. They know that it isn’t enough to dress two hockey teams and expect fans to swarm the arena in droves, so they have to get clever.
Recent examples include:
- Charlie Sheen Night: a clean drug test got you free admission to see the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors.
- Ink In The Rink: a tattoo got your ticket price reduced by $2 to see the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals (the ECHL’s Wranglers are holding “Regrettable Tattoo Night” in March of 2013). The Admirals also did a Cancer Survivor’s Night and a clever “2-Man Advantage” promo in which fans got discounted tickets to an Admirals game and a Brewers game.
- Rod Blagojevich Prison Uniform Night: The ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers hosted those same Condors for a game in which both teams wore different prison uniforms and the refs, fittingly, wore the uni’s of prison guards.
According to American Hockey League Vice President of Communications Jason Chaimovitch, the AHL does not have any formal associations with any specific charitable organizations, but that didn’t stop its 30 member teams from raising over $3 million last season, and a total of about $27 million in the past 11 years for a laundry list of charities.
Additionally, in 2011-12:
- AHL players and coaches made over 1,600 community appearances
- AHL mascots made over 3,300 community appearances
- Teams donated 150,000 free tickets
- Teddy bear tosses and Blue Santa programs brought in who knows how many gifts for low-income kids in the community.
Virtually every AHL and ECHL team hosts either a breast cancer awareness or prostate cancer / men’s health promotion to raise money for and awareness of these diseases. The home team wears commemorative jerseys that they later auction off to fans who inevitably overpay for them in the name of charity.
In 2012-2013 the AHL’s cancer-related promotional nights include the following (this is an incomplete list as some teams do not have their promotional schedules available yet):
- Charlotte Checkers: 9 February 2013, Pink in the Rink vs San Antonio.
- Chicago Wolves: 27 October 2012, Breast Cancer Awareness Night vs San Antonio.
- Grand Rapids Griffins: 24 February 2013, Purple Community Game Honoring Cancer Survivors vs San Antonio.
- Hershey Bears: 25 November 2012, Breast Cancer Awareness Night vs Toronto.
- Lake Erie Monsters: 2 March 2013, Hockey Fights Breast Cancer vs Hamilton Bulldogs.
- Manchester Monarchs: 9 February 2013, Pink in the Rink vs Providence.
- Oklahoma City Barons: 19 October 2012, Cancer Survivors Night vs San Antonio.
- Rockford Ice Hogs: 19 January 2013, Pink in the Rink vs Grand Rapids.
- Texas Stars: 12/13 January 2012, Pink in the Rink vs. Houston & vs San Antonio.
- Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins: 5 January 2013, Pink in the Rink vs. Worcester & 2 February 2013, Leukemia/Lymphoma Night vs. Adirondack.
- Worcester Sharks: 2 February 2013, Pink in the Rink vs. Providence.
During 2010-2011, ECHL teams collectively raised over $2.6 million for charity, a total that includes almost $200,000 going towards cancer awareness and prevention. In fact, the ECHL has contributed over $2 million towards cancer over the last six years. The following is a partial list of cancer-related promotions in the coming ECHL season:
- Bakersfield Condors: 24 March 2013, Fighting Cancer Hockeython.
- Cincinnati Cyclones: 23 February 2013, Pink in the Rink vs. Wheeling.
- Florida Everblades: 1/2 March 2013, Pink in the Rink vs. Gwinnett.
- Evansville Icemen: 26 October 2013, Pink in the Rink vs Kalamazoo.
- Kalamazoo Wings: 18 February 2013, K-Wings Komen for the Cure Fundraiser Night, vs. Cincinnati.
- Las Vegas Wranglers: 30 November 2012, Movember Jersey Night vs. Orlando.
- Orlando Bears 17/19 January 2013, Hockey Fights Cancer Weekend vs. Wheeling.
- Reading Royals: 16 February 2013, Pink in the Rink vs. Elmira & 15 March 2013 American Cancer Society Night vs. Elmira.
- San Francisco Bulls: 22 March 2013, Breast Cancer Awareness Night vs. Stockton.
- South Carolina Sting Rays: 2 November 2012, Movember Mustache Kick-Off vs Gwinnett.
- Stockton Thunder: 2-4 November 2012, Thunder Goes Pink VII vs. Bakersfield & Alaska.
- Toledo Walleye: 2/3 March 2013: Pink in the Rink Weekend vs. Evansville & Trenton.
FIGHTING CANCER IN A LOCKOUT
So the answer to the question of whether hockey fights cancer during a lockout is yes–just not elite hockey. In the minor leagues, it’s business as usual. Life goes on.
The NHL Player’s Association recently released a video featuring a handful of players lamenting the lockout. At one point Jonathan Toews refers to those players who, as a result of the 2004-05 lockout and losing a season, never played another NHL game. What a bizarre population to pity. One might fairly infer from the comment that the NHL is a great place to play hockey. Otherwise, the contrary is true, and Toews should be envious of those players for having the good fortune never to have to play another wretched NHL game in their lives.
I began this article asserting that cancer has touched all of our lives and this is true of NHL players and owners. This labor dispute shouldn’t be solved simply to save Hockey Fights Cancer. Nor will a continued lockout indirectly lead to cancer deaths.
The picture at the beginning of this article shows what happened to the Norfolk Admirals in 2008 when, for Pink in the Rink, they dyed the ice and got what looks like a rink stained with blood. If money could have quickly reversed the effect I have little doubt that Norfolk officials would have done whatever they could have done to reduce the disaster.
Alas, money can’t buy everything.
Unless you don’t have much. In which case it’s ridiculous to see an important fundraiser driven by people who have plenty that directly benefits people who don’t have much get lost in the petty squabbles over terms that until recently hardly existed in popular culture, like hockey-related revenue.
Owners, stand firm. Players, disperse into other leagues. You have already stained the rink. The longer this goes on, the less you matter to people with real problems.