Image: Lisa Leslie
Juan Ocampo  /  NBE via Getty Images
Lisa Leslie visits with Dr. Catherine Dang and patient Cristina Fernandez as part of Breast Health Awareness Week at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Aug. 24.
By
NBC News
updated 3/10/2010 10:21:16 AM ET 2010-03-10T15:21:16

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with WNBA basketball player Lisa Leslieabout her work with cancer health awareness especially with the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. The fund aims to raise money to fight against women’s cancers, especially breast cancer. It is named after the former North Carolina State head women's basketball coach, who died in January 2009 after a battle with breast cancer. Yow was a past president and founding member of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association.

Leslie began her professional basketball career in 1997 playing for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks. She has been named WNBA MVP three times she has played in two WNBA championships. She also has four Olympic gold medals. In 2004, she became a commentator for ESPN, covering the NCAA women’s tournament. Leslie retired in 2009 and continues to be heavily involved in charitable causes. In addition to playing basketball, Leslie launched her modeling career in 1996 when she signed a contract with Wilhelmina Agency.

Q: Tell me about the Nike Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

Leslie: It’s the Kay Yow Foundation.  Kay Yow is a coach who has been in women’s basketball for many years, quite a legend.  I never had the honor of being coached by her, but I knew Kay Yow very well through USA Basketball and just seeing her throughout. She was always a great, fun high-spirited woman who had a wonderful southern accent and just a pleasure to be around in.  Once she passed away — I actually saw her before she passed away — she’s kind of like the [Jimmy] Valvano of women’s basketball. He also passed away from cancer, and he coached at the same school, at NC State.

Q: Can you tell me about the cancer fund?

Leslie: Because this was my farewell tour this year, and so much attention was on me and retiring, I thought it would be better for me to be able to focus on something bigger than myself, and I wanted to donate proceeds and auction off my shoes in every arena, and have the money go toward the Kay Yow foundation.

Q: Can you tell me about your involvement with breast health awareness?

Leslie: I was originally the spokesperson for NABCO, the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations.  It started because my mom found a lump in her breast.  We had attended a breast health awareness seminar provided by the WNBA that same year so it was kind of interesting to have the information and then to self-examine and find a lump, so that’s what happened with my mom. 

I told her don’t panic, let’s just go to the doctor and see what this is, and whatever it is, we’ll just treat it.  There was a lump there and luckily it was benign, it was non-cancerous.  My mom did have to have surgery and have the lump removed, which was also a little devastating just to see how big the scar was.  But overall she recovered great, she did not have breast cancer, which was excellent. But because we went through the steps and had took that class, the awareness really helped us.

I thought it would be great to become an advocate for breast health awareness, and especially since breast cancer affects the African American community at the highest rate, I thought it would be great to be a part of that.  Maybe using my small notoriety to be able to reach people from all walks of life — women and inner-city kids — and just encouraging young girls from 18 and over to make sure they’re doing their self-exam once a month and to also debunk a lot of myth, that it doesn’t have to run in your family, that it doesn’t necessarily have to be hereditary, and also men are susceptible to breast cancer. So many people don’t really know that, but 95 percent of early detection, they’re more likely to not be for long with breast cancer and be cured.

Q: Have you had a moving experience working with either the Kay Yow Cancer Fund or working with breast health awareness in general?

Leslie: I get several letters and people thanking me all the time. Some people who actually found a lump as well sent me speaking on it as well, and I’ve been doing this, I want to say, at least five years, maybe since 2000 if not earlier. I’ve gotten many letters and feedback, just people thanking me for being a part of it and helping to create awareness.

For people who have had cancer and who are in remission, just the fact that you’re not being treated like a sick person, like this is a death sentence, and people saw more hope. It’s given them hope more than anything else. So I wouldn’t say anything is specific, but I have received many letters and e-mails from people who are gracious for me participating in helping to create awareness.

Q: Besides giving money, what can people do to help?

Leslie: Have some sort of luncheon at their home and inform the women and men in their lives, but especially women, starting with their own daughters, sisters and aunts, and cousins, and grandmothers. People just create their own awareness in their home, and with all the women that they know, it could spread a lot faster. It’s just about being informed and not feeling like, this couldn’t happen to me because no one in my family has ever had it.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Leslie: October is liver health awareness, and I’m the spokesperson for Covidien, which is a health care company. They’ve created a Web site called mylivercanceroptions.com. My stepfather, Tom, passed away in 2001 from liver cancer, and so I’ve been a huge advocate for just trying to create the awareness. When he passed away, we really didn’t have any options. They told us that he had liver cancer, and in three months he was gone. Very quickly, they sent us home and that was pretty much it.

We didn’t feel like we had any options, so teaming up with Covidien has been great. I had just finished a few different tours from California in Los Angeles and then New York, Philadelphia, and I’ll go to Denver, and it includes just the media as well as going to different hospitals and speaking to actual patients who may be dealing with this particular cancer.

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