Last week, I had the honor of giving a speech at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. for ”Coaches vs. Cancer,” and it went really well. I’m a huge basketball fan, so to be able to hear Coach Paul Hewitt of George Mason speak and to be able to see Coach John Thompson III of Georgetown was awesome. I wanted to share my speech, so you could learn a little more about me and some other experiences in the hospital. Here it is:
“Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to speak with you. My name is Brandon Ledford, this is my first time at a ‘Coaches vs. Cancer’ event, and I’m a cancer survivor.
I would like to share a little bit about my story and why I’m here. When I was nine, I started to get a weird pain in my jaw. We went to doctors in Altoona, PA, where I grew up. After a week going back and forth, I was told that I had leukemia, then I was told that I didn’t and it was just the flu, and then finally that nobody knew what it was and to go to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh right away. I was eventually diagnosed with the African form of Burkitt’s Lymphoma. Burkitt’s Lymphoma is rare; the African form is practically unheard of. I was the third person to be diagnosed with this disease in the United States, and I was given a ten percent chance of surviving. About two weeks later, doctors discovered a treatment plan from oncologists in France, and I started experimental chemotherapy right away.
During my initial stay of three months, I went bald, my weight dropped to thirty pounds, I could no longer eat or walk by myself, and the hospital priest actually read me my last rights two separate times. For reasons I will never understand, during this time my father had an affair and left our family. Although it was a horrendous process, the medical plan was successful, and my mom’s strength was more than enough for the both of us.
I left the hospital three months later and eventually became the first person in the U.S. to survive this disease. I would continue chemotherapy and other treatments for the next five years, but the hardest part was over.
Upon leaving the hospital, I was told that I would never be able to play sports because the damage the chemotherapy did to my body. So my mom threw me right into sports. I had to have a metaport in my chest, which is a small, doorknob-looking device where chemotherapy can go directly to your heart. My mom actually cut and sewed part of a catcher’s pad into a shirt where my metaport was so that I could play baseball that year. The next year, I played baseball and basketball, winning the league MVP three years later, and sports continued to be a big part of my life. This year, I’m going to train for my first marathon for the American Cancer Society.
In high school, since I had to miss so much school for medical reasons, I was also told that I should just get a normal job in Altoona and wait on college and beyond. Again, I did neither because I always knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to cancer and health policy.
I applied to and attended Penn State, graduated with honors, and only had to miss one semester due to surgery and illness. Following graduation, I went to work at the Supreme Court. This spring, I completed my Masters degree in health policy at the George Mason University School of Public Policy (Go Mason!), was published in a medical journal on cancer policy, and completed an internship at the White House working on health innovation. I currently work in health care for Booz Allen Hamilton and am going to continue to dedicate my life to this work.
I promise this isn’t all about me though. When I was invited to speak, my family and I were so honored because of the role basketball played in my life. I think it gets easy to overlook, with today’s seemingly larger emphasis on Top 25’s or Plays of the Day, how important what you all do can be for a sick child who really cares about basketball. I remember my third day in the hospital was January 16, 1993. I just came out of a spinal tap and had never felt sicker or more scared in my entire life. I was in a real life nightmare. And just like I’m sure it has for so many people in so many situations, basketball came to my rescue. That night, Michael Jordan scored 64 points, but they still lost to the Magic, who had a rookie center post 29 points and 24 rebounds. That rookie center was Shaq. College basketball got me through March. I returned home from the hospital then and was just learning how to use a walker, so I had a built in excuse to watch every game of the tournament. That year was when George Washington made it to the Sweet 16 and lost to Michigan, who eventually lost in the infamous “timeout” game. Basketball gave me an escape, and basketball eventually gave me my confidence. I remember one game in 7th grade where I scored something like 12 points, and I gave the crowd the Jordan “I don’t know – I’m just that good” look. Yes, my mom did yell at me for that. I continued to play basketball all the way through intramurals at Penn State. I fell in love with basketball in the hospital. For those two hours, I wasn’t sick anymore. I was a normal, cheering fan, like the rest of the kids my age, which is all I really wanted to be. I’ve been in love ever since. And that leads me to my larger point.
Everyone involved here does important things, and did for me. Players, you are everything a sick kid wants to be: athletic, talented … can talk to cheerleaders. Sick kids look up to you so much because it gives them something to dream about. Instead of being awake and not having the strength to get out of bed or eat, we can go to bed and dream of dunking or shooting a three pointer to win a game. It gives us something to hope for and a reason to get better. Coaches, you show us what a leader is supposed to be. You take our favorite athletes and make them better. Your dedication to making lives better, combined with the impact you have, makes what you do one of the most respected jobs I can honestly think of. Fans, you are the reason we want to go to college. Just being a part of that atmosphere, something bigger than yourself, is such an awesome experience. Believe me, I wish I could go back.
The other people here tend to get overlooked too: businesses. There were so many small events, similar to Suits and Sneakers, that would change my life. When my dad left, my mom and I were in a lot of trouble financially. I was so sick at the end of my original stay that I had to have a specially-designed bed, which was a mixture of sand and air, so I literally wouldn’t break a bone or get bed sores in my sleep. In 1993, that bed cost $50,000 a night. That’s not considering the actual treatment costs. After insurance, we still had tens of thousands of dollars in bills. So local businesses helped. My school had a penny drive. A local firehouse had an auction. My mom’s work held casual Fridays. It may not seem like a lot individually, but taken as a whole, the city of Altoona worked so hard to help me out, that we eventually had our medical bills taken care of, and businesses continued to help when the American Cancer Society gave me my first college scholarship. All of this is why I’m involved now.
Every one of us can do something immensely powerful. Whether it was a first grader who I will never know that asked his mom for a handful of pennies or the oncologist who took a chance on a case that he had no business taking, all of those efforts came together to change my life. We can all do the same for someone else, and being a part of an event like today is a great first step. I want to thank you all again for having me. It’s really been an honor. Thank you!”
Don’t forget to let me know if you’re the 1000th person to read this blog. We’re almost there, and the last post got the most views ever for a day. I promise it’s worth it. Finally, the next post will be to update this blog with pictures. I want to share a little bit more about myself and share some pictures of my life and cancer experience. I hope to get these up this week. Thanks for reading!