Gene Upshaw's selfless legacy thrives in cancer center's mission

TRUCKEE, Calif. -- Everything about this postcard community suggests peace and serenity, from the majesty of the fir trees that stretch toward crisp blue skies to the clarity and calmness of the waters at nearby Lake Tahoe. But on this day there was no tranquility in the mind of Lisa Peltier, there was only turmoil.

A 25-year resident of the area, she had been diagnosed with lung cancer, the most lethal form of the disease. Not only that but she was Stage 4, the most severe diagnosis possible. Immediately she felt a sinking feeling. Her mind fluctuated between herself and her family. Was it a death sentence? What about her husband and two children? How best to fight it? And where?

"A lot of people are talking to you and giving you advice about what you should do, where you should go," she said recently. "You live in Lake Tahoe, a tiny rural area, so you have people saying, 'You need to go to San Francisco. You need to go to Texas. You need to go to a bigger place where you can get the best care possible.' I really felt I wanted to be close to home, but when you have a lot of people chirping in your ears about what you need to do, you're not sure."

A good friend who happens to be a nurse suggested that finding a place nearby would be best, that way she could sleep in her own bed between chemotherapy sessions, lean on her family and friends, take her dog for walks -- things that would keep her life as normal as possible. Little did she know the perfect place existed just down the road at the Gene Upshaw Memorial Tahoe Forest Cancer Center, a place that provides not only treatment of the disease, but nourishment for the soul.

"Being able to take advantage of the incredible facility, technology and, most importantly, the amazing caregivers -- doctors, nurses and staff -- made a huge difference in my outcome," she said. "I had my husband and children and extended family and work family around me. I've been with the same company for 30 years, so all the employees were close by. They were supportive and gave me encouragement and inspiration. I don't know if it would have been the same if I had gone to Texas, where I would have had to rent a condo for a month or two at a time. I think it would have been a completely different experience. I don't know if I would have had the same attitude about it."

The center, which is funded primarily by a local $98 million bond measure, is part of the legacy of Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard of the Oakland Raiders and former executive director of the NFL Players Association. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at Tahoe Forest Hospital, just three days after being diagnosed. His family later created an endowment, supplemented by an annual golf tournament, to help provide patient services not covered by insurance. The center provides, among other things, an onsite psychologist, acupuncture and massage therapies and wigs for patients who lose their hair from chemotherapy. It also helps cover lodging costs for out-of-area patients.

"What sets us apart from other cancer centers across the country is our whole body approach," said Dr. Laurence Heifetz, who founded the center. "We seek to provide all those extra services that patients wouldn't normally be able to afford on their own."

The center feels more like an extension of a home than of a hospital. Every design was done with the idea of making the patient less fearful or intimidated by the surroundings. The staff consulted a cancer advisory council to gauge patients' feelings about different centers; then steps were taken to accentuate the positives. No detail is too small. For instance, the hampers for towels used during chemo treatments are kept behind cabinets because patients felt the sight of the dirty laundry only reminded them of why they were there.

For Upshaw's wife, Terri, partnering with the center was simply a continuation of Gene' s work. Offensive linemen are selfless by nature. Everything they do on the field is to aid others, whether that means keeping the quarterback protected or creating space for running backs. At the union, Upshaw fought to improve working conditions for the players. Helping to provide services and dignity to cancer patients is just another example.

"When my cancer metastasized from my lung to my femur, Dr. Heifetz encouraged me to get a second opinion," Peltier said. "I had a referral to MD Anderson, a world-class institution in Houston, but when I got there it had a completely different feel than home. I stayed in a hotel near the campus. I was given a number because they see thousands of patients. I felt different. It was a little frightening because you walk into a lab to have blood work done and there are 40 people sitting in a waiting room. Or you go in to have a CAT scan and there are little curtained-off areas that you're sitting in. In Truckee, I just felt like I was at home. I had all my friends around me, lifelong friends. It has really given me a whole different outlook. I don't feel like a cancer patient."

Stories such as these bring a smile to the face of Terri Upshaw, who splits her time between Truckee and the Washington area. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of her husband's death, and though he may be gone, his impact lives on.

"I don't know a lot of people here and a lot don't really know me, but every now and then I give my name in a store or restaurant or something -- Upshaw -- and they're like, 'My mother has been in the center, or I've been in the center, or someone I know has been in the center. Thank you.' I kind of forget about it because you're just going about your day, but their words remind me of the impact we're having, that Gene is having. It means a lot."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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