September 23, 2021 by John Fernandez and Bethany Rundell
He’s a Polo Player, Fundraiser and Cancer Survivor: ‘There was No Question About Winning’
Brandon Phillips is a Wellington-based professional polo player and founder of Polo for Life, which raises funds to help support pediatric cancer patients and their families.
He has won many of his sport’s most prestigious tournaments. Yet his biggest victory has been overcoming stage 4, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a cancer that starts in white blood cells — at the age of 14, along with the grueling chemotherapy regimen that he still vividly recalls 28 years later.
For many years, Mr. Phillips says he hesitated to share his story because he didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. However, now he uses his status as a polo player, his inspiring recovery as a teenager in his Canadian hometown of King City, and fundraising events to support families of children who are experiencing, or have gone through, similarly tough cancer treatments.
At the age of 14, his prognosis was grim. Mr. Phillips’ was told he may have weeks to live before getting started immediately on a group of powerful, and debilitating, chemotherapy drugs. His tumor could not be surgically removed because it already had enveloped vital organs. After four months of intense chemotherapy, 22 spinal taps, and experimental drugs, the tumor was gone.
“Some kids were dying around me, but I never thought that I would even come close to dying,” recalls Mr. Phillips. “My family was very positive… and this to me was a test. I knew this was a test from God. This was another test and I thought: I’m going to beat it. There was no question about winning. I was going to have to beat this.”
The Inspire You presentation from the Miami Cancer Institute, Cancer Made Me A Professional Polo Player, can be seen in its entirety below:
That positive attitude has helped propel Mr. Phillips and Polo for Life. Since 2014, the nonprofit’s annual event, Polo for a Purpose, has raised nearly $2 million to help fund programs for families impacted by pediatric cancer diagnosis, said Michael J. Zinner, M.D., CEO and Executive Medical Director of Miami Cancer Institute.
“And under the leadership of Brandon, Polo for Life chose Miami Cancer Institute as one of its beneficiaries in February,” said Dr. Zinner. “We received a $90,000 donation to support our pediatric patients and their families. What a difference this kind of contribution can make to the lives of our pediatric patients and their loving families.”
Dr. Zinner and the Institute recently hosted the Inspire You Zoom presentation featuring Mr. Phillips, along with Guenther Koehne, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director and chief of Blood & Marrow Transplantation, Hematologic Oncology and Benign Hematology at Miami Cancer Institute; and Matthew D. Hall, M.D., lead pediatric radiation oncologist, Miami Cancer Institute.
Dr. Koehne said he is inspired by patient success stories, such as Mr. Phillips’ cancer fight. “I am often asked the question: ‘Do we really need to have our patients exposed to high-dose chemotherapy as (Mr. Phillips) had been? The answer is: Most of the time — but it’s changing.”
Those changes involve advanced targeted therapies that may include powerful drugs with fewer side effects. There is also immunotherapy, which involves essentially reprogramming a person’s own immune system into attacking and destroying tumor cells. In recent years, regulators have approved different types of immunotherapies — ones that target two common types of blood cancers, including lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) and leukemia (a cancer of the white blood cells.)
For those cancer patients who may require radiation treatment, there have been positive developments as well, says Dr. Hall.
“One thing that’s incredibly important for patients who have lymphoma is avoiding radiation whenever possible,” explains Dr. Hall. “We now know that some patients can be spared the side effects of our treatments when an equally effective alternative is available.
“But even when radiation treatment is absolutely needed, we can use lower doses than we did before… And we can treat smaller areas. We can use the most advanced radiation therapy, such as proton therapy, to minimize treatment of critical organs and minimize problems in the future.”
Learn more from Drs. Koehne and Hall in the Inspire You video presentation above.