In Their Own Words: Rod Gilmore
The V Foundation for Cancer Research is successful thanks to the contributions of many – donors, corporate partners, our incredible Board and Scientific Advisory Committee and the amazing researchers to whom we award grants. With “In Their Own Words,” we sit down with key members of our team to learn more about their commitment to the V Foundation and their personal desire to put an end to cancer. In this edition, we chat with ESPN college football commentator Rod Gilmore.
The V Foundation: Unfortunately, cancer found your family when your dad passed away from lung cancer back in 2006. How did that experience shape your outlook on cancer?
Rod Gilmore: My dad was larger than life. He worked in management in Oakland, California. He worked in the community and helped get jobs for people who were down on their luck. He was actually the first black city councilman in Oakland, back in 1977. He and my mom have six kids; I’m the fifth of six. We all played sports growing up, and despite all the things he was doing, he never missed a sporting event. I didn’t really appreciate or recognize that as a kid, but as I became a father, I kept thinking ‘How in the world did he do this?’ When we had his funeral, in a huge packed church in Oakland, so many people from the community came out; it was unbelievable.
The fascinating thing about all of it for me was that my dad believed in having an annual physical, and six months before his death, his doctor told him he would probably live to be 100 because he was in such great shape. The only thing that could hurt him was getting hit by a bus. That bus was cancer. He wasn’t a smoker, but he developed lung cancer, and it took him really fast. It was the first time anyone in our family had dealt with cancer. I learned that cancer is widespread and that it’s also more widespread in the black community than was known and that medical care is a particular problem in black and brown communities. It really opened my eyes to just how devastating cancer is, not just on a family, but on a community.
TVF: You were diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2016. Can you walk us through what that diagnosis was like, 10 years after losing your father?
RG: You can imagine, this is the second cancer event in my family, and the immediate reaction from my mom and my siblings was, ‘Oh no, here we are going through this again.’ I was shocked when I was diagnosed at an annual physical. I had no symptoms; there was nothing physical going on with me. I didn’t know anything about multiple myeloma. I didn’t know it was a blood cancer; I didn’t know there wasn’t a cure for it. I learned all that in a span of 10 or 15 minutes in my doctors’ office. My immediate reaction was, ‘What do you do?’ Trying to get and understand information about it was like drinking from a fire hose because of all the questions you have. The day I found out, there wasn’t a lot of direction, and then the big thing becomes, how do you tell your wife, your kids, ESPN? You worry about all those things. What does it mean? What does it mean for my career? How do you proceed?
The impact on my life was immediate. I started having procedures within 48 hours. It changed my daily routine. I was going to a cancer center a couple times a week. I had to figure out how to deal with having a weakened immune system, wearing a mask, using wipes, wiping down my office, all that kind of stuff. I knew I had to figure out a way to make these adjustments. The other thing I realized was that I had to figure out a way to make people comfortable around me, because they want to know how you’re doing. They care. They’re concerned. But mostly they’re afraid to ask, and they change their behavior. That made me uncomfortable. I wanted people not to change and make cancer the only focus. I wanted to find a way to change my life but also to keep things as normal as possible, but as you can imagine, it was shocking. I was perfectly healthy. My doctor told me I was his healthiest patient, and all of a sudden, there you are with your life turned upside down.
TVF: You’ve been a cancer patient yourself and also watched a love one go through it. What advice would you give to someone currently going through a cancer diagnosis? And what advice would you give to someone with a loved one that has been diagnosed?
RG: Yeah, let me start with the latter first. If a loved one is going through this, you really have to learn to listen and to be there. Figure out what it is the patient needs as they are going through this. There is so much coming at you when you’re the patient; you can’t handle it by yourself. Sometimes you don’t know what you need, and you don’t know who to ask. If you’re there to support someone, you can help relieve some of that burden. You can help them at their appointments. When you visit your oncologist, there are a lot of new terms and information, and if you are there by yourself, you’re going to miss a lot of stuff. Having someone go with you that you trust who can take notes, so that afterwards you can go back over the meeting and go from there, is really helpful. If you aren’t that close to the patient, but you’re a friend or colleague, the patient often just needs you to be yourself. Extend a hand to offer, but you don’t want that relationship to change and become only about cancer. You want that relationship to still be the one it was before. You really do want some things to be normal.
Going back to the first question, there are a couple things as a patient that you should think about. The first things are: What’s my passion and life goals? What drives me? What defines me? Whatever that is, I want to keep doing it. For me, it was working for ESPN broadcasting college football games and continuing to practice law. That was my identity. To walk away from that or have that interrupted would change who I am. I didn’t want that to happen. Keeping your goals and keeping your identity drives you and can distract you from the cancer and the treatments and give you a reason to get up every day and fight. For me, that was really important. It goes without saying that your family plays an important role in that, but sometimes you have to be selfish about what it is that you need.
TVF: What does ESPN’s passionate support of cancer research mean to you personally?
RG: I’m not sure I can adequately explain what it’s like or how I felt, but ESPN’s commitment is unbelievable. The caring for people and acting in ones’ personal crises. They get involved. Their support of the V Foundation isn’t just raising money, it isn’t just PR. It’s real. I got a lot of phone calls from a lot of people at ESPN when this happened who said ‘We’re here for you. Whatever you need. Whatever needs to be done, we are behind you.’ And they were. I got regular check-ins. There were changes that were needed for me in my schedule so that things were comfortable for me so I could get on a plane and go to some small college town around 80,000 people with a weak immune system, and they made it possible for me to be OK. I’ve seen ESPN do this before with Stuart Scott and Holly Rowe and Shelley Smith. It tells you the commitment not only to the V Foundation is real, but the commitment to their people who get cancer is equally real.
TVF: ESPN is also currently running the #oneteam initiative to help bring us together in this difficult time. Can you tell us a little more about it?
RG: I think #oneteam speaks to the fabric of ESPN and the caring of things beyond the walls of ESPN. #Oneteam is designed to deal with the fact that we don’t have sports right now. You’ll see ESPN personalities speaking out and using their voices to remind people that we all have a role to play. We are all on this one team, whether we are in different communities or how communities differ, we all have a role to play. Whether that’s keeping our distance, or checking on each other, checking on colleagues or friends, supporting the people who are fighting the good fight on the front line. I just think it goes to the heart of the team concept that ESPN has, and sports gives you that team concept. There is a goal and a mission beyond your own personal objectives. Instead of just leaving that in the sports or broadcasting area, ESPN is bringing it into the real world and the community, so that we all realize that when you have a common opponent, you can’t be in it alone.
TVF: What would Victory Over Cancer® look like to you?
RG: I’ve always said that cancer’s days are numbered. When we eliminate it, it will mean that we’ve done something incredible for future generations. They won’t suffer the heartache of what cancer has done to people and families and communities. It will mean that the sacrifices and selfless acts of so many have been worthwhile. Sacrifices of patients who share their data, researchers and doctors who keep plugging away at this. It harkens back to Jim Valvano and the idea of “Don’t ever give up.” For me and others, if we are here for that day or not, that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that we are going to get there. I completely agree with Stuart Scott that defeating cancer is all about how you live your life and the sacrifices you make so we can get to that point. And that day is coming.