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6/7/2014 4:25:00 PM
Fundraising for cancer research is former linebacker's calling
Providence Health and Services photo
Providence cancer researcher Dr. Walter Urba chats with Jeff Parker and Chris Spielman, former pro football player who spoke at a cancer research fundraiser.
Providence Health and Services photo
Providence cancer researcher Dr. Walter Urba chats with Jeff Parker and Chris Spielman, former pro football player who spoke at a cancer research fundraiser.
Stefanie Spielman
Stefanie Spielman

Former NFL linebacker Chris Spielman left his sporting career in 1998 to help his wife Stefanie battle breast cancer.

“I found my biggest opponent off the field,” Spielman told a room of donors at Providence Cancer Center’s 16th annual Creating Hope for Cancer Patients luncheon.

During the next 12 years after the diagnosis, the couple underwent five recurrences of the disease together until Stefanie’s death in 2009. Together, Chris and Stefanie advocated for other patients and raised money for research, a legacy that Spielman and his four children carry on.

Originally from Ohio, Spielman played professional football for 10 years with the Detroit Lions, the Buffalo Bills and the Cleveland Browns. As the son of a football coach, Spielman said he had little interest in anything other than sports, until he met Stefanie during a high school basketball game. She was a cheerleader for the opposing team.  

The two attended Ohio State University together, and married after graduation. Spielman was raised Catholic, and faith and spirituality were important to him and his wife.

When Stefanie was diagnosed at age 30, Spielman told his wife that he wanted to leave football to take care of her.

“She cried harder and longer when I told her that I was staying home and taking care of her than when she found out she had cancer,” Spielman said to the crowd. “When she asked me why, I said…on June 24, 1989, I looked into your eyes and said, in front of God, ‘in sickness and in health.’”

Spielman told the crowd that he considers the single greatest honor of his life was to help his wife during her time of need, helping her to the bathroom and sleeping next to her on her hospital bed at the end of her life.

During her 12-year bout with cancer, Stefanie, with the help of her family, raised millions of dollars for cancer research. She considered it her life’s mission to raise money and awareness.

Providence Cancer Center supporters donated a record amount – $205,000 –after hearing powerful and personal stories from those touched by cancer. Total raised for the event was $500,000.

“Hope is a choice, and I chose hope,” Chris Spielman told the 650 guests. Spielman is now an ESPN analyst, who is raising his four children on his own. He reminded the crowd that the Providence Cancer Center researchers are making tremendous strides in immunotherapy treatments, but they need the help of donors to make ideas and concepts real for patients who are waiting and hoping for a cure.

“In cancer there are great wins and great losses, but no ties,” he said.

Dr. Walter Urba told the crowd Providence’s sole focus on immunotherapy in cancer research is making a difference locally and around the world. He cited many of the firsts accomplished by Providence researchers, including the most recent – the first-in-the-world trial of a vaccine for high-grade glioma, the most common primary brain tumor in adults.

Fighting cancer is like football, Dr. Urba said. It is a team sport – and donors are a big part of the team. Philanthropy is playing a larger and larger role in developing new treatments as other funding subsidies.

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