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.
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, MD, and 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.
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.”