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Physician-doctor Paul Kalanithi and his daughter

For this doctor couple, the Super Bowl was about way more than football

Paul and Lucy at Super Bowl - smallEarlier this month, football fans across the world watched as the New England Patriots shocked the Seattle Seahawks with a very dramatic last-minute win. While the game itself was a thrill, equally as exciting for two people in the seats at University of Phoenix Stadium was what had gotten them there. Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, MD, and his wife, Lucy, had won a trip to the big game by raising money for lung-cancer research and winning the Lung Cancer Survivors Super Bowl Challenge, sponsored by the Chris Draft Family Foundation.

Kalanithi had attended Stanford as an undergrad in the 90s, the same time as did Draft, a former professional football player who later started his foundation and whose wife, Keasha, died of lung cancer in late 2011. Kalanithi received a diagnosis of lung cancer in 2013 and re-connected with Draft not long after.

"The foundation is putting a new face on the disease," Lucy Kalanithi, MD, a clinical instructor in general medical disciplines at Stanford, told me during a recent conversation. Team Draft, an initiative of the foundation, puts the spotlight on, and brings together, young lung-cancer patients such as Paul Kalanithi, with the aim of getting out the message that anyone can get lung cancer. It's also working to stop the smoking stigma from negatively impacting research funding for lung cancer.

Paul at Super Bowl - small"Even though Paul and I are both physicians, prior to his diagnosis, neither of us was fully aware of the global toll of lung cancer and the major gap in federal and private funding due to the anti-smoking stigma," Lucy Kalanithi said. "More people die from lung cancer than from breast, colon and prostate cancers combined: It's the top cancer killer."

I asked if her husband had ever experienced the sense of judgment or blame that can come with a lung-cancer diagnosis. "Paul's never had the experience - common among lung-cancer patients - of being asked, 'Did you smoke?' Kalanithi said, noting that her husband was never a smoker. "But everyone with lung cancer is affected by the anti-smoking stigma, because it means that much, much less money goes to lung cancer research compared with other cancers. And survival rates for all cancers are directly related to research funding. When people think of breast cancer, they think of a sympathetic character like a young mom. But when people think of lung cancer, they don't think of a vibrant young dad like Paul."

Through the foundation, the Kalanithis connected with other young families affected by lung cancer ("There's a lot of camaraderie and optimism," Kalanithi told me), and when they learned of the Super Bowl Challenge, a friendly fundraising competition among lung-cancer survivors, they jumped at the chance to compete. There was an "overwhelming response from Paul's friends, family and colleagues - including many from Stanford," Kalanithi said, which led to a call from Draft on New Year's Day. They had won the challenge, Draft told the couple, and they would be attending not only the Super Bowl but also Taste of the NFL, a fundraiser attended by former NFL players and renowned chefs from around the country, and an exclusive pre-game stadium tour. As icing on the cake: Their (too-cute-for-words) seven-month-old daughter, Cady, would be making the trip with them.

Kalanithis at Super Bowl - smallWhen I asked Kalanithi for a sampling of the moments etched in her mind from the weekend, she offered two: lying on the Super Bowl field and getting a photo taken with her husband and baby daughter forty-eight hours before the game ("It was surreal") and watching Paul, a huge football fan, "jump up and down" in their incredible seats on the Seahawks' 50-yard line. (For the record, they were rooting for the Seahawks. And next year, "we hope to see [Stanford alum] Andrew Luck out there.")

Despite the excitement of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, the Kalanithis' relationship with Team Draft seemingly extends far beyond the football field. Kalanithi has noted that the foundation has "helped boost our family's spirits during this challenging time," and she sounds eager to partner with Draft on other initiatives. "Helping raise awareness and research funds impacts families everywhere, and it gives me hope," she said.

Previously: Tackling the stigma of lung cancer – and showing the real faces of the disease, A neurosurgeon's journey from doctor to cancer patient“Stop skipping dessert:” A Stanford neurosurgeon and cancer patient discusses facing terminal illness and A Stanford physician's take on cancer prognoses – including his own
Photos courtesy of Lucy Kalanithi

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