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Interview with Lisa Leslie (Part 1): Promoting Liver Cancer Awareness with Covidien

Lisa Leslie recently retired from the WNBA and has teamed up with Covidien to help people understand the treatment options available to manage liver cancer.
Lisa Leslie recently retired from the WNBA and has teamed up with Covidien to help people understand the treatment options available to manage liver cancer.

Swish Appeal was fortunate to have the opportunity to have an extended interview with WNBA icon Lisa Leslie on Monday afternoon. Topics of discussion ranged from her latest project to her thoughts on media coverage of women’s basketball to which team she was rooting for in the WNBA Finals. Part 1 of the interview will cover her latest project: promoting liver cancer awareness. Part 2 is posted here.

There were many things on four-time Olympic gold medalist and former WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie’s to-do list as she transitioned from an iconic basketball career into life, ranging from starting her own basketball academy to talking basketball with Charles Barkley and Ernie Johnson on TNT.

For now, number one on her list is doing her part to promote liver cancer awareness in honor of her step-father, Tom Espinoza, who passed away on January 15, 2001, two months after being diagnosed with stage III primary liver cancer.

Leslie is teaming up with Covidien, named the leading innovator in the medical devices and service industry by the Wall Street Journal’s Patent Board, to launch an educational program and Web site,

"For me, I like to do what I’m passionate about and it actually was a no-brainer," said Leslie in a phone interview yesterday afternoon. "For my step-father to pass away in the manner that he did and to find out that I can do something to help other people, it was easy to team up with Covidien."

The program is part of October’s Liver Awareness Month, sponsored by the American Liver Foundation, and will feature Leslie discussing her family’s experience with liver cancer. For her family, it was an experience of Espinoza’s life rapidly slipping away while they were left in the dark with limited options.

"That was probably the most disturbing part," said Leslie. "Just not knowing what to do and my step-father having cancer and [progressing] to stage 3 -- it was pretty serious. We didn’t have anything to do and I know what that felt like and I saw it; it’s not like it’s someone else’s story. It’s my story, it’s my life, and my mom – I watched my mom deal with that. And if we could just help spread the word and maybe help other people and families who may be going through this to see that Covidien [does] offer other options."

The website provides information to help patients and their families understand the treatment options available to manage liver cancer, as well as basic information about liver cancer, risk factors, and prevention strategies. It’s a matter close to Leslie’s heart because it’s information that was not available to her family as they were scrambling to find answers for Espinoza.

"We were lacking just the fact that there were surgical options that were available we didn’t know about," said Leslie. "We didn’t recognize that there was a lot of different signs for him with his blood levels, the enzyme levels that were really high that were ignored and that would have helped if we would have maybe had a second opinion and known that there were other options other than just kinda, ‘Go home.’ -- you go home with it and there’s nothing else you can do."

In the U.S., liver cancer is on the rise. A study published in the March 2009 issue of Journal of Clinical Oncology reported that the incidence of liver cancer in the U.S. tripled between 1975 and 2005, from 1.6 to 4.9 cases per 100,000 people, according to a 2009 article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The latest estimates from the American Cancer Society show that an estimated 22,620 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with liver cancer in 2009.2 Survival rates are improving, however, in part because more diagnostic and treatment options are available today than in 1975.

"Since 1975 the number of liver cancer cases have tripled up until 2005," said Leslie. "And that’s happened in my lifetime alone, which is really – wow – that’s pretty astonishing to hear those types of numbers. So I think more people need to be aware of it." 

The recently launched Covidien website encourages patients and caregivers to become advocates for care by providing information on the disease and treatment options. It also includes questions to facilitate patients’ conversations with their physicians. The bigger goal is prevention and that starts with spreading awareness by making the information available.

"During Liver Awareness Month, the American Liver Foundation will focus on education and advocacy. We want the public to have a better understanding of liver disease and learn how they can keep their livers healthy," said Regina Musyl, Vice President, Rocky Mountain Division, American Liver Foundation. "This site will be a valuable tool and will help us in our effort to raise awareness and educate patients."

The entire effort is about empowering those whose lives are affected by liver cancer – whether it be patients, care-givers, or family members – with the tools to become advocates for themselves rather than passive participants in the treatment process. It’s fundamentally about providing people with options.

"If we had had this information that we even have right now today we would have taken another option, we would have tried to figure out if there was something or some product or some surgery that he could’ve had that could have helped to prolong his life," said Leslie. "People need to have that – they need to be given a fair chance in life. No one wants to have a disease, but if you have it, you would love to have more options to see what you could do."

Transition Points:

  • October is more widely recognized as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a cause that is also close to Leslie and certainly not forgotten as she works on raising awareness about liver cancer.

    "It is close to home – my mom found a lump in her breast and thank God it was benign, it was not cancerous," said Leslie. "But through that experience I realized that so many women are not aware that we’re all susceptible to breast cancer and early detection is usually 95%, you’re more likely not to get breast cancer. So I encourage all women to make sure they’re doing their self-exam, especially ages 20 and up. And if you’re 40 and over make sure you’re getting your yearly mammogram."

  • Leslie has in fact been in touch with TNT about the possibility of working with their NBA team.

    "I just came from there last week and I got a chance to meet with Ernie, which was really cool," said Leslie.

  • Click here for Part 2: WNBA media coverage, womanhood, and empowerment