Multiple Myeloma Fails to Keep Football Player-Turned-Broadcaster Out of Action

Many sports stars have helped support research and care at Dana-Farber by appearing on the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon presented by Arbella Insurance Foundation, but few have done so quite like pro football wide receiver-turned-broadcaster Jimmy Cefalo. When Cefalo was interviewed on-air during the August 2019 event at Fenway Park, he used the opportunity to share some breaking news with listeners:

His own cancer diagnosis.

Cefalo, in treatment for multiple myeloma at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) since April 2015, says he previously kept his health status secret from all but family and a few close friends because he was uncomfortable “putting the spotlight” on himself. Other patients, he felt, were in much worse shape. After all, he had means and access to the best care possible, flying from his Florida home to Boston monthly as part of a clinical trial provided by his caregiver, Paul Richardson, MD, clinical program director and director of clinical research for the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center at DF/BWCC and the R.J. Corman Professor of Medicine. The trial was led by Richardson’s colleague, Irene Ghobrial, MD, and their team.

“I didn’t want anybody to think I was using my status as a public figure to engender sympathy,” says Cefalo, 63, the radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League. “Most people I worked with had no idea about my cancer. It was a long time before I even told my three daughters.”

The Radio-Telethon, however, was different. The annual fundraising event features 36 hours of nonstop TV and radio coverage, highlighted by interviews with pediatric and adult cancer patients, physicians, researchers, and celebrities. It was the perfect forum for Cefalo and Richardson — who joined him on the air — to discuss multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow involving plasma cells. More than 32,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease each year, and while treatment advances are improving long-term survival, it is currently incurable.

“If I could raise awareness and raise money, I was all for it,” says Cefalo of his decision to go public. “It felt great to finally be able to talk to people and not feel guarded. Everybody was tremendously supportive, and we got the word out.”

By doing so, Cefalo hopes other patients will take the same course he did.

cefalo
Cefalo as a Miami Dolphin.

From smoldering myeloma to clinical trial

Cefalo was initially diagnosed with smoldering multiple myeloma, an early form of the condition that typically leads to active myeloma — especially in patients potentially at high risk — after a primary care physician noticed that his blood protein levels were abnormally high. This doctor sent Cefalo to a Miami hematologist-oncologist, who confirmed the condition and recommended he see a top specialist like Richardson.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Cefalo. “Dr. Richardson kept a close eye on me. He said if he felt my disease was about to evolve into full-blown multiple myeloma, he would treat it more pro-actively.”

Richardson’s decades of experience with myeloma patients was central to this approach. He has been with the Lipper Center since 1999, and is currently its clinical program leader and director of clinical research — working in partnership with a team that includes program director Kenneth Anderson, MDand others.

“Even when it was still technically smoldering, there was no question that Jimmy’s disease was moving on a trajectory that made me very worried,” says Richardson. “It was important that we get out ahead of the curve.”

After two and a half years, that time arrived. Tests determined a clinical trial was the best option, and Richardson found one that enabled Cefalo to continue living in Miami, where he took oral chemotherapy, while also undergoing monthly infusions in the Lipper Center to target the tumor micro-environment in his bones. 

cefalo-family
Cefalo with his wife and daughters.

On to remission

The result was a series of fake-outs as good as any Cefalo performed as a pass-catcher, as he traveled to and from Boston regularly without anybody finding out. Even when his DF/BWCC treatments coincided with Dolphins-New England Patriots games in nearby Foxboro, Mass., he kept them a secret. He would cover the game on Sunday, and then drive an hour to Boston that same night in advance of his Monday morning appointment.

He used similar sneakiness with regards to his weekday news talk show on iHeartradio in Miami. If it was a Lipper Center week, he would broadcast from a Boston studio. Listeners never caught on.

“The pills Jimmy took on the clinical trial did a wonderful job, allowing him to continue working at the highest level while benefitting from some of our most novel new treatments,” says Richardson. “He had some challenges but was generally able to have a superb quality of life.”

By the time Cefalo went public in August, he was in complete remission. And as of last month, he is also done with the trial. He will continue to see Richardson every three months for checkups, but now he’s focusing on the next stage of his cancer journey: giving back.

“I want to help fund patient travel,” he says, “so that other patients can get to the best care possible, no matter where they live or what their means.”

View Comments (7)

  1. Latorre Diana

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lisa Becker

    Dear Jimmy-
    Just wanted to say I’ve been living with MM since 2013. There are lots of us. Congrats on your excellent reaction to treatment. Glad you could “come out”. People will be kind and encouraging. I belong to a support group; it’s nice to be surrounded by people who know what you are going through. That said; this disease hits everybody in it’s own way; no two people will have the same side effects or the same drug treatment. Just keep on keeping on!!
    -Lisa

  3. John Munson

    As a cancer survivor treated at Dana Farber, and as a Patriots fan, I say to you Mr. Cefalo, “Go Fish!” Congratulations on your remission and and good luck in your efforts to enable others to receive care here in Boston.

  4. Brian

    Dear Jimmy, As a long-standing fan of WIOD and a survivor of both a cervical Plasmacytoma (a multiple myeloma precursor) and stage 4 prostate cancer, I commend you for coming out and for using your platform for good cause. Hang in there, I hope , for both of us, to be able to enjoy your broadcast for many more years.

  5. Jimmy Cefalo

    Thanks Lisa. I hope your treatment is going well. I am grateful to you and John for commenting on the article. John, the Patriots have been helpful in every way. Waiting for my stem cell retrieval, I was surrounded by Patriots memorabilia. The Kraft family has donated freely to help patients like us. Go Pats. All the best, Jimmy

  6. John Ross

    Hi Jimmy…Dolphins fan here in Philadelphia. Moved here from South Florida. I was at the Orange Bowl the day you caught Dan’s 100th touchdown! Thank you for your courage and positive attitude.
    My wife is three and a half years into her MM diagnosis. She had a stem cell transplant six months ago. She is being treated at Penn in Philadelphia. After reading your article, we are considering a trip to Boston.
    Thank you for raising awareness of this horrible cancer and we wish you all the best !

    John and Laurie Ross

  7. Eileen Dawson

    I was able to bring my mother, Mary Catherine Cavellier, age 84, to Dana Farmer in 2013 with the diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma. She lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was lucky enough to see Dr. Paul Richardson. Because of the treatment he prescribed her, to be delivered in Cincinnati, she lived another 4 years with great quality of life. Dr. Richardson was so charming and kind to my mother. I am grateful for all of his research and dedication to treating this disease bit is wonderful to know remission is now possible for Multiple Myeloma.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *