WASHINGTON — Former NFL player Chris Draft married his long-time girlfriend, Keasha Rutledge in 2011, but one month later Rutledge died of lung cancer leaving behind her grieving husband but also their newly formed initiative against the terrible disease – Team Draft.
Lung cancer, the most deadly of cancers, kills more people than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined, according to the American Cancer Society. But Draft and several other experts say there is a lack of public awareness of the disease.
The football player, Chris Draft, is the president of the Chris Draft Family Foundation which works with health organizations, schools and nonprofits to promote healthy communities. Team Draft is a section of the foundation that focuses directly on lung cancer.
Draft joined lung cancer survivors and researchers for a news conference at the National Press Club, updating on the current state of the struggle against lung cancer. Tuesday marks the start of lung cancer awareness month.
At the event, Draft said the most important thing his group does is education. A video released at the conference reported that a majority don’t know that lung cancer is the deadliest cancer and have not been screened for it.
“Unless we educate people it’s not going to happen… We’re not actually fighting against the disease,” Draft said. “We are fighting for our survivors.”
Onetime linebacker for the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, and other NFL teams, Draft also emphasized the importance of supporting lung cancer patients throughout their life. Advancements in research have allowed lung cancer patients to live for several years with the disease, a change from decades past when most died within months of diagnosis.
“More of us are living with it as a chronic condition rather than succumbing to it in months,” Karen Loss, survivor and author of ‘Trekking through Cancerland.’ “Right now I have cancer hanging out in my body… and it’s OK as long as they just stay hanging out.”
Officials of several cancer advocacy groups were on hand in addition to Draft and the survivors. Members of the panel praised Vice President Joe Biden for his moonshot on Cancer support and research. They also urged Congress to increase the National Institute of Health’s funding for lung cancer research.
Loss, along with other survivors, emphasized that lung cancer affects both smokers and nonsmokers.
Draft remains hopeful. After meeting Keasha in 2006, and struggling with her after her diagnosis in 2010 through her death at the age of 38 the following year, he became passionate about helping survivors.
He cited notable headway made since his wife’s death — from better tests leading to early detection to new approved drugs. Draft said that although it might be hard to see in the numbers, new advancements have him excited about the future.
“Everything that this panel talked about in here makes a survivor feel better and uplifted,” Draft said. “These things will make a difference and that’s why I’m excited.”