When the topic of cancer is brought up, the last place most people think of is cancer in sports. Statistics project that 1,658, 367 people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in the United States. 2013 population estimates were ranging in the 300 million. This means that around one percent of our population is predicted to be diagnosed with cancer this year. That may not seem like a staggering figure but a person is hard pressed to meet someone today who has not been impacted by this disease in some way. The statistics become a lot more daunting when that one percent includes someone close.
Professional athletes make up an even smaller percentage of the population in the United States. They are probably in the range of 18,000 or so. This is not including all the tri-athletes or marathoners. This is about 0.006 percent of our population, yet the impact this small fraction of Americans can have on the disease is far beyond what that percentage can measure.
The image that comes to mind when thinking about athletes is supreme health, exercise and conditioning. These are words associated with decreasing a person’s risk for the disease or tools used to fight it. They are then the model of what it would look like to prevent cancer. This would be an erroneous conception. This disease has proven many times that it does not discriminate, regardless of your economic status, gender, or ethnicity. This is why the battle has become such a communal effort. This is why cancer in sports should not be overlooked as a battleground as well.
Lifestyle can’t be ignored in the discussion. Choices people make have consequences. This is no different for athletes. Some have tried to tie the relationship between those athletes who, from the pressure they feel to excel beyond their abilities, have turned to enhancement drugs. That decision taking a risk on their career and their health. Some studies have looked into the increased risk for diseases such as cancer amongst the list of those named when reporting enhancement drug possible side effects.
There are then those sports that have been tied to common behaviors not necessarily illegal but not good for their health either. Baseball comes to mind and its history of chewing tobacco. Not to say that the athletes who play baseball and have been diagnosed with this illness were all because they chewed tobacco. The Oral Cancer Foundation does have a list of sport figures who were diagnosed and five of the nine names mentioned were from baseball players and some mentioned very specifically their tobacco chewing habit.
The difference in this discussion is not to focus on athletes coloring outside the lines or choosing not so good habits. It is to highlight those average athletes, as bizarre as those two words may sound together, their diagnosis, how they dealt with it and how they impacted cancer instead of just letting cancer impact them.
Almost synonymous with sport figures battling cancer is Jimmy Valvano, the famous coach and founder of the The V Foundation. Though he lost his battle to the disease, his foundation has continued to fight it as hard as he did when he was alive. This foundation is dedicated to research and continues to put cancer on notice, with a passion behind their funding to find a cure. They have awarded more than $130 million to more than 120 facilities nationwide.
A list of some of the famous names that have also shared in this battle are Shannon Miller, Eric Shanteau, Scott Hamilton, Andres Gallarraga, Kareeem Abdul Jabbar, Martina Navratilova, to name just a few.
To make it to the level of an elite professional athlete takes a certain type of person and in some form is a calling. The statistics for not making it, far outweigh those that predict the ones that do. Professional athletes are not in their field, for the most part, for over 20 years as other normal careers. Even in the midst of their careers many are thinking of what the next phase will be. At their peak professionally they want to compete, win, score, make records and many also take their status as role models very seriously.
For those that are personally affected with this illness, their additional role becomes very clear, very quickly. Cancer in sports becomes a platform for those who already had inspired many fans, to then further inspire those who share in their fight. It becomes an opportunity to bond with the many who may never be able to publicly tell their story, create a foundation, raise millions of dollars but whose fight is just as valiant as that of an elite athlete.
By Clea Tucker
Image courtesy of Tim Donovan – Flickr license