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Stanford coach’s quest to save his brother: ‘God, I hope this works’

ESPN told the story of Stanford football coach David Shaw donating stem cells to save his brother, who had a rare form of lymphoma.

During a 2018 home game against Washington State University, David Shaw, Stanford's football coach, ambled slowly along the sideline, his joints aching.

Wanting to focus on the players and the game, he kept the reason for his lethargy to himself. But two years later, this past Saturday, the sports world learned the full story.

A College GameDay feature on ESPN revealed that the morning before the game, Shaw had been given stem-cell-inducing medication at Stanford Hospital. It was a first step in donating the cells to his brother, Eric Shaw, who was fighting a rare form of lymphoma.

In the opening of the six-minute video, Shaw says he thought, "'God, I hope this works, 'cause if it doesn't, I'm going to lose my brother.'"

A rare diagnosis

Eric Shaw began noticing strange dark patches on his skin in 2011, the year his older brother became Stanford's head football coach. They were everywhere, from head to foot. Later, small tumors popped up all over his body.

"I would have itching attacks where I would end up actually tearing my skin," he says in the video. "I would still scratch at night and end up with bloody arms and legs."

Eric Shaw transferred his medical care to the Stanford Cancer Center in 2013. There, physicians told the financial services marketing professional that he needed to start radiation treatment immediately. It worked, but only briefly: Six months later, the cancer returned.

He was diagnosed with mycosis fungoides, a T cell lymphoma that affects fewer than four in a million people in the United States.

Shaw's physicians began discussing bone marrow transplant. David Shaw was tested as a donor, but he scored only 5 on a 10-point match scale. A worldwide search found closer matches, and Eric Shaw underwent radiation and chemotherapy to prepare for the transplant.

One attempt failed, then another.

"You think you've kind of pulled at the last thread, and there are no more threads, and all I could tell him was that I loved him and that I was there for him," David Shaw says in the video.

New transplant treatment

But the Stanford physicians had one last weapon: a haploidentical transplant. The recently developed technique uses stem cells, typically from a family member, that are less than a perfect match.

David Shaw underwent a five-day-long process at Stanford Hospital to donate the cells. He received medication that caused him to produce an abundance of stem cells, then gave blood from which the cells were extracted. Those cells were then transplanted into his brother.

This time, it worked.

After 52 days at Stanford Hospital, Eric Shaw finally went home on Nov. 25, 2018. The video shows him being wheeled out as medical staff members cheer him on.

Youn Kim, MD, who treated Eric and heads Stanford's multidisciplinary Cutaneous Lymphoma Clinic/Program, told ESPN: "If he didn't go for this risk, he wouldn't be here...He wouldn't be living."

As the article notes, Stanford physicians Wen-Kai Weng, MD, PhD, and Michael Khodadoust, MD, PhD, also were on the team treating Eric Shaw.

Today, nearly two years later, he remains cancer-free.

"Seven years of battling this disease, and it was over," he says in the video, tears running down his face. "A miracle."

David Shaw shares his brother's joy. As he told ESPN: "Every time I see him, I just smile, you know? Because he gets to be here."

Images of Eric Shaw, left, taken earlier this month, and his brother David Shaw, courtesy of the Shaw family, and Stanford Athletics

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