Skip to Content

Going to the Wall Against Cancer and Apathy: FDR, Obama, Trump, Laver, and Kyrgios

Briggs SandersonBriggs Sanderson
Briggs SandersonPhotograph by Paul Sanderson

When I emailed ANZ Bank’s group executive Mark Whelan about a volleying challenge against cancer, he was on vacation but immediately looped in his heads of marketing and social media. They arranged for their ambassadors Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova to make volleying videos. Rod didn’t hesitate, even though he’s in his late 70s, and Martina herself is a breast-cancer survivor.

The challenge is to get a million signatures on a petition in my wife Briggs’s memory. It’s to prioritize immunotherapy, which uses the immune system against cancer. Ideally it can ultimately supersede chemotherapy, radiation, and most surgeries as well as recurrences and secondary cancers, such as Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts’s from chemo. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his family have donated tens of millions for the development of immunotherapies. Bill and Melinda Gates have invested in a company focused on them.

It takes anywhere from $350 million at a biotech to $5 billion at a major drug company to bring one new treatment to the market. Tens of billions are needed from, among others, Congress.

Twenty stars have added their names to Briggs’s petition, including Naomi Watts, Bradley Cooper, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Blunt, and Penélope Cruz. It’s also been signed by a founder of Stand Up to Cancer, NBC’s Meredith Vieira, documentarian Ken Burns, and six eminent professors, such as the chair of immunology at MD Anderson. One led development of the immunotherapy that put Jimmy Carter’s terminal melanoma into complete remission last year. Australia is known for melanoma, but the rate in the U.S. is now twice what it was in the 1970s, and in the U.K. five times as much.

Even with that relevance for tennis, Aussie sensation Nick Kyrgios’s British manager John Morris has been the one exception among the representatives I’ve approached. When he explained to Nick what this change can mean for cancer, Nick went straight to a backboard after finishing a match. He made a video within five minutes, and John had it online 20 minutes later. After senior executives at Facebook and the tournament directors of the Australian Open and Roland Garros had it highlighted, it got over 200,000 views.

Seven tennis greats have signed Briggs’s petition, including Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Andy Roddick, and the Bryan brothers, along with the president of the Women’s Tennis Association and the chairman of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association. Ten squash greats have also made videos, including legends Nick Matthew OBE and Aussie five-time World Open winner Sarah Fitz-Gerald AM.

I wrote a book about Briggs’s cancer journey. Last year, a senior advisor to Joe Biden and special assistant to President Obama, Greg Schultz, now executive director of Biden’s American Possibilities PAC, shared excerpts of it with the White House’s Cancer Moonshot team. I later sent him links to studies finding coffee has a significant preventive effect in a range of cancers. He wrote back, “Shoot—I have never had a cup of coffee in my life…maybe I need to start!”

A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found frequent, ongoing coffee intake may also be preventive in ALS. The Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $100 million and contributed to a breakthrough in ALS. That took off after golf legend Greg Norman challenged NBC’s Today show host Matt Lauer. A regional pro golfer then nominated his cousin. Her husband had ALS and it was through her network that it snowballed. Greg’s signature hat came from wanting to avoid, as he put it, Australia’s “brutal sun” and “melanomas.” In our era, cancer has overtaken heart disease as the no. 1 killer. Worldwide, 23,000 children, women, and men a day are now dying of it.

Can you imagine the Vietnam-era headlines every day if that were in any other conflict? And this is a conflict, with governments, (large segments of) the cancer industry and medical profession, neophobia, and apathy. Immunotherapy can also begin markedly reducing hospital admissions at a time when medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. We’d begun turning around Briggs’s cancer, when she died in what was meant to be a short emergency hospital stay. Think how many times you’ve read “died of complications from” in peoples’ obituaries.

The need for change only becomes clearer. Briggs’s cancer was diagnosed by accident. Michael Douglas was given antibiotics for nine months. While in Montreal, a doctor diagnosed his tongue cancer at stage IV. Johnson & Johnson has now lost four cases, with 2,400 more pending, over claims it ignored research linking talcum powder to ovarian cancer. A study I cite in the book found CT scans can deliver up to 13 times their already-high base radiation. A recent rise in colorectal cancer in Gen X-ers and millennials is attributed to environmental factors.

Nick Kyrgios, a millennial, took the challenge a second time to try to help. In that video, after Nick says, “I’m Nick Kyrgios,” you hear his girlfriend, fellow Aussie pro Ajla Tomljanovic, say, “Really?” and Nick laughs. It’s the enjoyable side of the challenge and a glimpse of Nick’s little-known side, as when he missed a tournament in May for the funeral of his grandfather, who died of cancer.

In 2014, former British Tennis no. 1 Elena Baltacha died of liver cancer at just 30 years old. The ATP World Tour, Wimbledon, and Tennis magazine have also highlighted Briggs’s petition and/or the challenge. It’s additionally to raise the remaining funds for a center focused on immunotherapy, a co-project of Cancer Research UK and the University of Southampton that can potentially become a research hub. They contacted me after Arianna Huffington invited me to write an article that The Huffington Post and Stand Up to Cancer then featured: “30 Stars & Doctors.”

I mention in it that Alan Rickman, Susan Sarandon, and Jimmy Smits signed a petition to get access to the immunotherapy that could have saved Briggs. We’d had contact with Alan through our playwriting. He selflessly made the first donation through the challenge five weeks before losing his own battle. Alan died of pancreatic cancer, as did Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze. In an article in the Medical Journal of Australia’s MJA InSight, I cited a 2005 study in which an immunotherapy brought a complete remission in terminal pancreatic cancer. It still hasn’t been developed.

I talked with a professor at Southampton, Peter Johnson, who was also Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician from 2008 to 2017. He said the hardest part of his work is not being able to include patients in immunotherapy trials, knowing many of them will die after going through more misery. They’re aiming to double their inclusion rate at the new center.

A contact of mine, the vice chair of neurosurgery at UCLA, uses immunotherapy in the brain cancer that took Sen. Ted Kennedy and, in 2015, Joe Biden’s son Beau. In 2003, her first patient’s wife was pregnant with their second child when he was given two months to live. He still sends Dr. Liau flowers every year.

Before President Trump’s inauguration, I wrote through his personal email, saying the American Cancer Society estimates 600,000 Americans will die in 2017 and 1,700,000 will be newly diagnosed, and would he take a stand on immunotherapy. I got no reply. By contrast, President Roosevelt and a former law partner of his funded Salk’s polio vaccine through what became their March of Dimes.

Beyond tennis-playing stars such as Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Emma Watson, and Hugh Jackman who made Ice Bucket videos or donations, a billionaire’s club of Ice Bucketers included Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, Oprah, and Donald Trump (ironically nominating “President Obama”). They’ve all had a racquet in hand. Barack and Caroline Wozniacki played at the White House. He now has 91.8 million Twitter followers who’d watch him go to the wall against cancer.

All the volleying videos so far are linked in the #VolleyingChallenge post. It was America’s citizenry who responded to FDR’s call. Truckloads of dimes in envelopes arrived at the White House. Outside of tennis and squash legends and pros, this is more about heart than skill. A bit of humor. A touching story. I tell Briggs’s ‘tennis’ story in the description of my video in the challenge post. Wimbledon’s CEO Richard Lewis said he normally never makes exceptions on their social media, no matter how good the cause, but he was so moved.

Paul Sanderson is an Australian-American playwright, filmmaker, cancer/health writer, and author of the book Briggs: Love, Cancer, and the Medical Profession.