After the death of his wife, former NFL linebacker Chris Draft has been advocating for improvements for all patients with cancer — a mission that perfectly aligns with the recently relaunched Cancer Moonshot initiative.
Last week, when President Joe Biden relaunched the Cancer Moonshot, Chris Draft, founder of the Chris Draft Family Foundation and Team Draft lung cancer initiative, was present at the White House, representing families across the country who have been affected by lung cancer.
“The key is making sure that from a lung cancer community perspective, that (policymakers) acknowledge that (those affected by lung cancer) can’t all be there. But I am there representing them,” Draft, a former NFL linebacker, said in an interview with CURE®. “So, when people say ‘Wow! Good for you for going to the White House! I say, ‘No. It’s good for us. I’m there for all of us.’”
Draft said that he supports the mission of the Cancer Moonshot initiative, which hopes to decrease the amount of cancer deaths by 50% over the next 25 years, as well as bring researchers, scientists and clinicians together to bring innovative treatments for all patients with cancer, reducing disparities and improving care nationwide.
“That is the connection with the Cancer Moonshot. Are we willing to fight and win — I’d say fight like a linebacker — based on knowing that things have changed (in cancer care), and making sure that all the people can benefit,” Draft said. “The only way that we can really move forward with efficiency, or really move forward in a way that we’re able to save as many people as possible, is by working together as a team.”
Improving Cancer Care Is Personal for Chris Draft
Not only does the Cancer Moonshot align with the mission of Draft’s nonprofit, but it also resonates with him personally.
When Draft married his wife, Keasha Rutledge on Nov. 27, 2011, the couple did not ask for wedding gifts from family and friends. Instead, Keasha, who was living with stage 4 lung cancer at the time, requested that donations be made to their foundation to establish a lung cancer initiative.
“On our wedding (day), we made a commitment to each other, but also validated our commitment to the lung cancer community,” Draft said in a recent interview with CURE®.
Exactly one month after their wedding day, on Dec. 27, 2011, Keasha died of lung cancer — but not without setting in motion a national initiative that would bring together researchers, advocates, the world of sports and other patients to advocate for lung cancer survivors.
“Team Draft was started by my wife. It was started by a survivor. It took a bit of time before she was ready to openly fight for others — that was a difficult transition because she was fighting for herself,” Draft said. “But there was that moment, that point where (we thought) we can be more. We can do more.”
Team Draft was an initiative within the Chris Draft Family Foundation that focused on changing the face of lung cancer. After all, Keasha was only 37 years old when she was diagnosed. Draft noted that she was a former NBA dancer, maintained good health habits and never smoked. At the time, much of the marketing and public health campaigns around lung cancer were focused on smoking cessation.
“That’s what we’ve been working on for the last 10 years: do survivors matter? Are they worth fighting for? Is survivorship the goal? Because if it is, then that says that prevention is not enough. We need early detection, treatment, research and survivorship programming that supports the person,” Draft said.
Team Draft and the Cancer Moonshot
Since the start of the Team Draft initiative, Draft has found himself at the White House twice to advocate for people with lung cancer: once five year years ago when the original Cancer Moonshot plan went into action, and then more recently, in February 2022 when President Joe Biden announced that he was relaunching the Cancer Moonshot.
A major point in the reignited Cancer Moonshot is to make sure that clinicians, scientists, patients and advocates work together to expedite breakthroughs in cancer treatment.
As a former professional football player, Draft highlighted the importance of teamwork and the amazing outcomes that can come from working together.
“The NFL is not great because of one particular team. The NFL is great because of the 32 teams together and the NFL as an organization, their job is to protect it. Their job is to make sure that we fight for excellence,” Draft said. “And that’s a huge part of the Moonshot.”
A Goal to Reduce Cancer Disparities
Improved cancer treatments not only need to be created, but they also must be made available to all those who need them, Draft emphasized.
“There are going to be people who can benefit from new drugs. We’ve got to get it to them,” Draft said. “We’ve got to meet people where they are, and not punish them for living in the wrong zip code.”
While Keasha had the resources to seek out expert care at a top-notch cancer center, not everyone has the same ability to do so, Draft said, stating that change must be made with a top-down approach, coming from those in charge.
“The Moonshot is about all of our people. It’s not about a particular group being great. It’s a challenge for all of us to be great. It’s a challenge to accept the progress that we made and ask, ‘have all Americans had a chance to benefit from it?’ And if that’s not the case, we’ve got to be mad.”
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