He's made a name for himself in the NFL. Now he's using it to support a surprising cause.
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NFL

Some people are born knowing what they're passionate about. Others, like Philadelphia Eagle Chris Long, stumble into it.

"It wasn't an epiphany moment," he says. "It kind of happened by accident."

In 2013, Long decided to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in the off-season on a whim. He hardly expected to run into anyone he knew across the world in Tanzania, but that's exactly what happened.


Long, his wife Megan, and their son Waylon all love to hike. All photos courtesy of Chris Long, used with permission.

“After we came down the mountain, my buddy and I went to a local bar,” Long says. “I hear someone say my name. I turn around, and it’s Joe Buck.”

Buck, a sports announcer from Long’s then-hometown St. Louis, was working on a water well project with Doug Pitt, the goodwill ambassador to Tanzania (and Brad Pitt's brother). He asked Long if he wanted to come with them on a day trip to one of the villages where they were working, but Long's flight home was already booked.

Long knew he wanted to do something to give back to Tanzanians, and the random meeting with Buck sparked an idea in him.

He went home and started researching the clean water crisis in Tanzania. Before long, he was hooked — he knew that getting clean water to East Africa was something he wanted to do. So he formed Waterboys.

Waterboys brings NFL players and fans together to help fund the construction of wells in villages in East Africa. The original goal was 32 well projects — one for each football team in the NFL. This year, Waterboys funded its 29th project. “Right now we’ve served over 100,000 people,” he says. “Ultimately our goal will be a million.”

Long’s passion stems from his desire to make a clear, demonstrable change. “Water has such a measurable impact,” he says.

Without a well, community members — typically women and young girls — have to dedicate long hours to traveling on foot to find water. But the water is still dirty, so when people drink it, they can fall ill, keeping kids out of school and adults away from work.

“It’s about more than just having clean water for survival,” says Long. Introducing clean, accessible water gives people an opportunity to thrive.

One of the key elements to Waterboys’ cause is they don’t actually build the wells — they pay local construction crews to do it.

“I didn’t want to be the guy who slaps down a well and says ‘hey, good luck,’” Long says. By hiring local crews to work the construction project, Waterboys doesn’t just provide a much-needed source of clean water. It also funnels money into the village’s local economy, creating jobs and increasing the community’s independence and sustainability.

For Long, giving back in this way is one of the best parts of his job and what makes it all worthwhile.

“I love football, but I don’t think I’d love football as much if I weren’t able to have this impact,” he says. He’s made a point to capitalize on the platform that being in the NFL has afforded him to help other people.

Chris and his brother Kyle, who plays for the Chicago Bears and is also a member of Waterboys.

“If I just started the Chris Long Water Foundation, people in Seattle wouldn’t care about that. But if I could get a guy on the Seahawks on board, then I could get people there involved, too,” Long says. He now has 13 other current or former NFL players, including his brother Kyle, working alongside him.

As for the future, Long says Waterboys has no intention of slowing down. In fact, they're expanding.

“I will always love Tanzania and I’ll stay involved there, but it’s is a tough sell. It’s a long trip and it’s hard to get guys to go there in the off-season,” Long says. “So we’re looking to expand, possibly to Central America and to Haiti.”

He’s also expanded his charitable efforts to include the military community. He now runs an annual trip called “Conquering Kili,” where NFL players and combat veterans summit Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for Waterboys.

Long's aware that his charities benefit from his fame as a football player, so he’s doing his best to fit in as much good work as he can while he’s still playing. "I know I won’t be able to have this impact forever, so I’m kind of in a rush to get stuff done," he says.

And he urges other to use their own influence in the same way — be it through their jobs, networks, or just via social media. A philanthropic spirit doesn't have to develop out of a fortuitous meeting in a foreign country. It can come out of any issue you see in your daily life that you want to improve.

Even the smallest contribution to a cause like Long's can have a huge impact. “We’ve definitely saved lives,” he says. "We've transformed communities."

Chris Long is one of more than 750 NFL players who will lace up for charitable causes as part of the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats initiative. Starting Nov. 28, NFL players will reveal their custom cleats, many of which will be auctioned to raise money for the charitable organizations they support. For more information, visit www.nfl.com/mycausemycleats.

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

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This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."