Meet Ilan Ben-Hanan
Three-time cancer survivor was the catalyst for V Week
Attending the Dick Vitale Gala in Sarasota, Ilan Ben-Hanan listened intently as honoree Coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke about the devastation of cancer and the dire need to fund research. Then, his voice growing with urgency, Coach K asked all cancer survivors to stand. Still in his twenties, Ilan was exceptionally private about his experience, but suddenly he felt his body rising. Seeing his ESPN colleagues’ mouths drop open, he shared his cancer journey publicly for the first time.
Young and Unstoppable
Ilan was finishing his senior year in college when his cancer journey began. During a routine medical exam, his doctor noticed symptoms that could indicate thyroid cancer. A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis, and six days after graduation, he had surgery. Soon he was traveling to Europe for a summer trip.
Fortunately, Ilan remained mindful of his health and diligently had checkups. When a suspicious mole appeared on his abdomen, he was diagnosed with early-stage melanoma and underwent minor surgery to remove it. Not even 30 years old, he had faced cancer twice. Then came the Vitale Gala and an inflection point in his life.
Passionately Advocating for Cancer Research
After sharing his story at the Gala, Ilan boarded a flight with his mind racing. Contemplating the multitude of themed weeks in college basketball, he asked, “Why don’t we have a week for the V Foundation?” A thunderclap of inspiration followed as he organized his thoughts and sent an email to George Bodenheimer, ESPN’s president at the time. Receiving a green light, Ilan assembled an enthusiastic cross-departmental committee to plan every detail of the inaugural V Week. In just seven months, the idea came to fruition.
Nothing comes close to being a part of V Week. Conceiving and executing the inaugural V Week is my proudest accomplishment at ESPN. With the help of so many dedicated colleagues, it has grown beyond my wildest dreams, and continues to inspire me.
Subject line: Gratitude
Ten years later, Ilan was visiting his mom when she jokingly grabbed his cheek, the way only a mom can do. She felt a lump on his jawbone and urged him to get it checked. Since Ilan was recovering from a cold, he thought it was likely a swollen lymph node, but he saw an ENT after a couple of weeks. Following an inconclusive biopsy, his doctor suggested surgery based on his history of cancer.
The lump turned out to be mucoepidermoid carcinoma which was intertwined with his facial nerve and salivary gland, making his surgery even more delicate and complex. Upon confirmation of his diagnosis, doctors recommended radiation therapy. To make sure he got enough calories, Ilan forced himself to drink a milkshake every day after treatment, even though it tasted like cement with his radiation-zapped taste buds. He lost his hair and endured a host of other side effects.
When asked if he ever had a “why me” moment, Ilan thoughtfully shared, “No. After the last diagnosis, I sent an email to my friends and family with the subject line GRATITUDE. I was so grateful my cancer was found early – grateful for an amazing mom to find it and grateful for a squad of doctors to treat me.” Ilan was ready to face cancer once again. He knew what was ahead of him and persevered with the Jim Valvano “Don’t Ever Give Up” attitude.
Joining a Unique Club
After 33 radiation treatments, surrounded by friends and family, Ilan finally rang the bell and experienced an emotional, meaningful victory. “I am a three-time cancer survivor in a club no one wants to join,” he said. “But cancer is a teacher, and I have learned life lessons through fighting it.”
The V Foundation remains Ilan’s preferred charity, and he is deeply passionate and committed to furthering cancer research. Thinking about his third and most involved cancer, Ilan remarked, “From the exact path of the radiation beams to the mouthguard I wore, each aspect of my treatment only happened because of a deep well of research. Medical talent, intelligence and research gave me the best possible life to enjoy today.”
Thanks to Ilan’s foresight and many dedicated and creative minds at ESPN, V Week continues to inspire thousands of viewers to join forces with the V Foundation and fight for an end to cancer.