For Bradie James, breast cancer hits home

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Bradie James (53) sports pink breast cancer awareness gear while making a tackle.

Bradie James' first concern when he thought his football career might be over last spring was not what he would do next, how he would survive without the game he loved or, like some athletes in a similar situation, how he would maintain a lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed.

No, his first thought was the women.

"There was more to it than just me playing ball or not playing anymore," James said.

Playing football had definitely given me the resources to be able to help so many people outside of myself and my family.
Bradie James, Texans linebacker

After the Dallas Cowboys elected to let the nine-year veteran linebacker go when his contract expired, he hooked on with the Texans, signing a one-year deal. But even playing for a 5-1 team with the 10th-best defense in the NFL is only a part of the equation for James.

James' Foundation 56 has helped thousands of women receive mammograms who might not otherwise have be able to afford them. Many more have received treatment through the Bradie James Breast Cancer Resource Center at Methodist Dallas Medical Center. It provides patients with prosthetics, scarves, hats, wigs, space for support groups to meet, books, videos and computers to help in education about the disease.

"When I saw the end was coming in Dallas, it was abrupt," he said. "Playing football had definitely given me the resources to be able to help so many people outside of myself and my family and I didn't know where those resources would come from. Just to be able to affect people in such a positive way and to see the response of women drawn to what we were able to put in place, was so much more than I had ever anticipated."

"His affiliation with the hospital was because of the loss of his mother, so he flipped it and made it something beautiful so other women could benefit," said Nancy Banfield, 61, of Dallas, who said she has taken advantage of the support groups, free transportation to treatments and the friendship of James to keep her battling through the Stage IV diagnosis she received in August 2010.

"Because of chemo, I have neuropathy [a painful and disabling condition] in my fingers and toes, but through [James' foundation], I learned to make different kinds of crafts," Banfield said. "It is something that literally pulled me out of the darkness and into the light. By going and doing this, that was the very first breakout as far as me getting out of the house two years after being diagnosed."

The foundation was conceived, James said, while he was still in college at LSU. While mourning the death of his father, Bradie Sr., from kidney disease and -- just three months later -- his mother, Etta, from breast cancer, James said he was searching for a reason to persevere.

"I would ask God what my purpose was," James recalled. "I had a passion for football. And when I aligned my foundation with my passion, it just took off and we were saving people's lives."

It was his mother's death at 53 that was particularly heartbreaking because she opted to let her health insurance lapse in order to pay for her husband's kidney treatment.

"That's exactly the motivation and inspiration behind this," he said. "If my mom would have had this program, not only would she be here but my whole family would have been more aware and more prepared. But that's what you often find. Women don't want to be a burden on other people. If she had some of these resources available, it helps everybody because it doesn't just affect that person, it affects the whole family."

James started researching breast cancer in college and in his second year in the league, started his foundation. As he described it, "I just tried filling in the gaps. I talked to different oncologists, nurses, radiologists, breast cancer survivors, trying to get as much information as I could and then just bridging those gaps that were there."

The "gaps," as James called them, were more like gaping holes in the system that left women without the necessary resources -- namely health insurance -- facing grim, sometimes hopeless futures.

"Some people donate money and that's it, and that's fine," James said. "With me, it almost became a double-whammy. Because I'm a football player, [groups] wanted to use my celebrity for their gain and that would tick me off to the nth degree. It would tear me up."

James emphasized his foundation is not a 501(c)3, a charity the IRS has qualified for tax-exempt status. "We're an independent foundation," he said. "Instead of paying all these other people like lawyers and accountants, these are resources I could be giving to people.

"My thing was always about action. I didn't want to sit back like other people with foundations out there. I wanted to make sure I got in and affected people positively. As long as I have some money in my pocket, there are going to be some mammograms going on."

James said his long-term vision for the foundation is to continue to gather partners "who really believe in what we're doing. I want to be able to have a mobile unit in every major city in America and more than the cities, the outskirts, because major cities have resources. It's the little provinces, the little districts that don't have the resources needed and that's my goal, to get a traveling mammogram unit, tour the country and make it happen."

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