CURE®’s Lung Cancer Heroes® Award Program honors and gives thanks to those heroes who have positively affected the lives of patients with lung cancer.
Two oncologists and a clinical research nurse, who also is a cancer survivor, were honored last night during CURE®’s third annual Lung Cancer Heroes® awards program.
In particular, CURE Media Group recognized Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez; Alesha Arnold; and Dr. Pierre de Delva. These three individuals received their awards during an in-person celebration held in conjunction with the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer’s (IASLC) 2022 North America Conference on Lung Cancer.
Support for the 2022 Lung Cancer Heroes® was provided by Takeda Oncology, Blueprint Medicines and Mirati Therapeutics.
Essays were submitted by colleagues, patients and family members that identified Rodriguez, Arnold and de Delva and nearly 15 other Lung Cancer Heroes® nominees, all detailing the noble acts of patients, physicians, caregivers and others involved in the lung cancer community.
“This year, CURE celebrates its 20th anniversary, and as I look back on how far we’ve come in the lung cancer space in 20 years, it feels like night and day,” said Kristie L. Kahl, vice president of content at CURE® and MJH Life Sciences, the parent company of CURE®, during the ceremony. “What once was considered a poor prognosis for all is now a disease where patients and their loved ones can have hope, survivorship and quality of life, because science has rapidly advanced in recent years and care has improved ten-fold in the last 20 years.”
Tackling Lung Cancer
In 2006, Chris Draft, who was at the time a linebacker with the Carolina Panthers, met Keasha Rutledge. A pharmaceutical sales executive, Rutledge was in the prime of her life. However, as she was preparing for a 10K race in November 2010, she started experiencing shortness of breath. A routine visit to her primary care physician led to a chest X-ray that revealed Rutledge had stage 4 lung cancer.
One year later — on Nov. 27, 2011 — Draft and Rutledge launched the nonprofit Team Draft at their wedding. Their goal, to continue to tackle lung cancer. Unfortunately, Rutledge died from her disease just one month later at the age of 38.
Draft, who is the founder, president and CEO of the Chris Draft Family Foundation, has spent the past 11 years empowering families to lead a healthy lifestyle. The former 11-year NFL player has also dedicated his life to developing deep and authentic relationships with lung cancer survivors, as well as their caregivers, doctors and cancer centers across the country.
During the program, Draft — who was the keynote speaker — stressed the importance of thanking and honoring those who have transformed the space of lung cancer. In doing so, he extended his gratitude toward CURE® for launching the Lung Cancer Heroes® award program during the first year of COVID-19 and continuing to hold the event.
Draft also addressed those in attendance and encouraged everyone to take a stand against lung cancer, because change is not going to happen on its own.
“The positive change that we want in lung cancer, it's not going to just randomly happen, it will happen because amazing people have decided to take a stand,” Draft said during his keynote speech. “Amazing people know that awareness is something that we have to do. If we want people to know what we want, we need to stand up and yell it out and let them know. Certain people might say that a closed mouth, don't get fed.
“So the lung cancer community for too long has stayed silent. For too long, we've allowed the old messages of just getting people to stop smoking to play out, without making it clear that the times have changed. Prevention is not good enough; survivorship has to be the goal. We can still max out prevention. But we have early detection and treatment, research and survivorship. But either way, it's not enough. We have to max it out.”
A Physician and Community Activist
One of the three Lung Cancer Heroes® recipients was Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez, the associate director of community outreach — thoracic oncology at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Rodriguez was nominated by her colleague, Tisdrey Torres, an advanced practice registered nurse at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Torres explains that Rodriguez has dedicated her career to caring and advocating for patients with lung cancer, as well as the patients’ caregivers. She also wrote that she has focused on improving lung cancer screening programs and raising awareness about the need for more funding directed to lung cancer research.
But what really sets Rodriguez apart from the rest, according to Torres, is the work she does with the community.
“In addition to her arduous work in the clinical field, Dr. Rodriguez also finds time to frequently engage in community activities,” Torres wrote in her nominating essay.
Inspiration Without Ever Meeting
Alesha Arnold, who has been a nurse since 1997, has spent the past several years working as a breast cancer research nurse at Indiana University Comprehensive Cancer Center.
When she was in college, Arnold would travel from school back to her hometown to care for her mother with breast cancer. Unfortunately, her mother would die from the disease at the age of 51. Her connection to cancer didn’t end there, as her grandfather died from lung cancer.
And at the age of 44, Arnold would receive a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. She admitted to her nominator, LaTrice G. Vaughn — who is also a registered nurse — that she was shocked by her diagnosis as she was a never smoker.
What stands out the most to Vaughn, however, is how Arnold is so willing to connect with others and educate them about the disease.
“She has brought awareness of lung cancer to her family, sorority, colleagues, church family, friends and even to those she doesn’t know,” Vaughn wrote in her nominating essay. “My aunt being one.”
As Vaughn explained, she and Arnold are both from Gary, Indiana. Vaughn’s aunt was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Vaughn said she told Arnold about the news and notes that Arnold let her know about a project she was participating in, known as the White Ribbon Project.
“Well, wouldn’t you know that Alesha and her wood carving party members made over 25 ribbons, and she brought one to me for my aunt,” Vaughn recalled. “I took it home when I was going to one of my aunt’s chemotherapy and doctor’s appointments. I had to remember that my aunt lived through an era when smoking was permitted …. She had a sense of her diagnosis being a cause of her own destructive habit. What she did not know was that lung cancer can affect a non-smoker. What she did not know is that lung cancer affected a 44-year-old, African American women, from her hometown … My aunt was astonished that his amazing person would take time out to make a white wooden ribbon especially for her.”
Reducing the Incidence and Mortality of Lung Cancer
Dr. Pierre de Delva, section chief of general thoracic surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the University of Mississippi Medical Center Cancer Institute in Jackson, was nominated by Amy Ellis.
In her nominating essay, Ellis noted that de Delva practices in a state with some of the poorest lung cancer outcomes in the nation and serves at the academic medical center that is both the lone medical school and safety net hospital in Mississippi.
She further explained that de Delva’s research interests include outcomes and quality improvement in thoracic surgery, health disparities in cancer and the development of biologic tracheal substitutes. Of note, a tracheal substitute is a method to replace a person’s affected and/or diseased airway.
Ellis also highlighted that de Delva led a project that focused on addressing common barriers to biomarker testing within the state.
“Under Dr. de Delva’s leadership, almost every hospital treating cancer patients in Mississippi joined the pilot with representation from almost 90 multi-disciplinary thoracic clinicians,” Ellis wrote. “The biomarker pilot has the downstream potential to impact the course of cancer care for nearly all of the 2,810 Mississippians estimated by the American Cancer Society to be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2022.”
Although this project closed in January 2022, Ellis noted that de Delva then transitioned into the inaugural chair of the newly formed Mississippi Lung Cancer Roundtable. Under de Delva’s leadership, Ellis wrote that the Mississippi Lung Cancer Roundtable is committed to reducing the incidence, impact and mortality of lung cancer in the state.
Lung Cancer Hero® Alesha Arnold passed away on Feb. 5, 2023, leaving behind a legacy of advocacy, education and awareness in the cancer community.
For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.