Vince Lombardi’s fight against cancer was brief.
The legendary coach was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., on June 24, 1970. Within roughly 24 hours, a biopsy from a proctoscopy was performed and the diagnosis revealed an anaplastic carcinoma in the rectal area of his colon, according to David Maraniss’ 1999 book, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.” Three days later, a team of surgeons led by Dr. Robert Coffey removed a two-foot section of Lombardi’s colon.
At 7:20 a.m. on Sept. 3, 1970, only 71 days after Coffey conducted his initial examination, Lombardi was pronounced dead in his hospital bed at age 57.
“I’ve done thousands of cases of colon cancer and I’ve never seen one this virulent,” Coffey said, as quoted by Michael O’Brien in his 1987 book, “Vince: A Personal Biography of Vince Lombardi.” “His number was up the day the first cell started to change.”
As the Packers in partnership with Bellin Health and the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation conduct their ongoing “Packers vs. Cancer” initiative, the American Cancer Society’s website reveals the five-year survival rate today for localized colorectal cancer is 90 percent, but only 14 percent for distant stage disease.
That’s why the initiative’s overriding theme for Sunday’s “Packers vs. Cancer” game against the New Orleans Saints will be cancer awareness through higher screening rates and a clearer understanding of cancer-causing risk factors and behaviors.
Based on an online research portfolio posted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the mortality rate for colorectal cancer dropped roughly 40 percent between 1975, five years after Lombardi’s death, and 2007.
“It has been estimated that half of this decline can be attributed to changes in risk factors, and half to increases in screening for colorectal cancer,” the report noted.
Considering the aggressive nature of Lombardi’s cancer, might he have survived and perhaps even coached another day in Washington with today’s advanced treatments?
Writer Ed Weiner tackled that subject in 2006 in CR magazine, which according to its website was devoted to promoting “collaborations that lead to results for cancer patients and survivors.”
Weiner asked that question of surgical oncologist John F. Potter, a member of Lombardi’s surgical team and, in 2006, director of the United States Military Cancer Institute at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; and also gastroenterologist Robert J. Coffey, son of Lombardi’s lead surgeon and a leading expert in colorectal cancer at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn.
Potter told Weiner there was “no evidence of metastatic disease” when two feet of Lombardi’s colon were removed in his first operation, but that a month later after Lombardi returned to Georgetown with abdominal pain and underwent a second operation in late July, his prognosis changed dramatically.
“The … course of the disease was amazing,” said Potter. “I have never seen anything like it, before or since.”
Coffey told Weiner, “I remember my dad telling me it was one of the most explosively growing tumors he’d ever seen when he went back in the second time,” 38 days before Lombardi died.
More effective drugs were leading to better results, Coffey told Weiner 11 years ago. But Potter said even with the new therapies at that time “very little would have been different, including, unfortunately, the outcome.”
That said, Weiner wrote that both doctors agreed “that what might have changed the outcome was catching the cancer at an earlier stage.”
Potter added that in 1970 a colonoscopy was rarely, if ever, performed and a flexible sigmoidoscope didn’t exist, but that the 24-centimeter metal tube then in use might have detected Lombardi’s lesion.
Coffey noted there were probably no guidelines in 1970, but if a patient adhered to the more recent strict surveillance guidelines, including regularly scheduled colonoscopies and fecal occult blood tests, his or her odds would improve.
Despite stomach issues and apparent bowel changes, it was no secret Lombardi was averse to any such tests during most, if not all, of his 10 years in Green Bay, including nine as coach, and one season in Washington.
“He didn’t feel well for a long time,” Vince Lombardi Jr. said in an interview this week. “Wouldn’t go to the doctor. He would never get a colonoscopy; or whatever it was, he didn’t want that kind of intrusion. He had a very virulent strain of cancer. It was virulent and rare in 1970. Maybe today it would be ordinary and treatable. I have no idea. But then it was a bang-bang thing.”
Not only did the elder Lombardi balk for years at having any sort of invasive test, his lifestyle also put him at risk for developing the cancer that killed him.
Among the risk factors for colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, are long-term smoking and high consumption of red and processed meat.
Lombardi quit smoking cigarettes in the fall of 1963, a habit he had started years earlier. The son of a butcher, Lombardi’s diet was heavy on meat throughout his lifetime.
Vince Jr. said he didn’t know what his father would have done if he had been exposed to the warning signs the “Packers vs. Cancer” campaign is addressing this month, but that his father could be reflective and open to change.
Vince Jr. pointed out it was a heartfelt letter, not the landmark 1964 surgeon general’s report linking smoking to certain diseases and, more specifically, cancer, that got his father to give up what Maraniss wrote was a three-carton-a-week habit, at least in the weeks before he kicked it.
“He quit because he got a letter from a mother who said, ‘Do you realize what a bad example you are to young people who see you smoking on the sidelines?’” Vince Jr. said. “He took his pack of cigarettes, crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage.”