IOWA CITY — Their University of Iowa persona is inextricably glued to basketball, but when Fran and Margaret McCaffery talked Tuesday night to a crowd of students, faculty and staff on campus, they made little mention of the game.
Instead — in an armchair chat with UI Center for Advancement President and Chief Executive Officer Lynette Marshall — they talked about giving, parenting, loss and personal battles with cancer that have brought their values and priorities into perspective.
“When the community supports our family the way it has, it’s important to give back,” head Hawkeye basketball Coach Fran McCaffery said in the event tied to UI homecoming week festivities.
Four years after McCaffery was named the UI men’s basketball head coach, his son Patrick was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Both of McCaffery’s parents died from cancer. The family lost others from the illness that has touched so many.
Yet Patrick’s illness — which he beat to now play for his dad on the Hawkeye basketball squad — further propelled the couple’s advocacy of cancer research and patient support, especially among those in the adolescent and young adult age range.
“The psychiatric, social and emotional needs of those patients are very different,” Margaret McCaffery said during Tuesday’s evening event. “Some of them have young children. Some of them are practically children.”
As was her newly teenage son when she and her husband had to tell him he had cancer.
“I can tell you when we woke Patrick up, he had just turned 14, and it’s very different to tell a 14-year-old they have cancer than it is to tell a 5-year-old,” Margaret McCaffrey said. “He knew what we were talking about. And I know he thought he was going to die. Everyone he knew with cancer was dead.”
The supports he and they as a family received during that time have inspired their deep involvement and giving to the UI Health Care Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Program — a joint effort between the UI Comprehensive Cancer Center and UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital focused on the needs of patients ages 13 to 35.
The McCafferys recently announced a gift of over $100,000 to the program they were instrumental in launching after Patrick’s diagnosis.
“It’s amazing what we’ve been able to do and help with,” Margaret McCaffery said, praising the doctors and their collaborative spirit. “Their willingness — these guys are amazing. We’re really proud.”
But the McCafferys urged students in attendance not to limit their giving to money — or think they can’t help if they don’t have the financial resources.
Time and talents can be just as impactful, and that’s something they’re instilling in their children — including Patrick, who recently shared his story at an event in New York.
“He was awesome,” Fran McCaffery said of the emotional night and the responsibility his son has taken on in being an advocate with a platform through basketball. “It’s been an interesting and amazing five-year journey with Patrick and one he’s prepared to deal with for the rest of his life.”
In addition to the couple’s giving to the university, Margaret McCaffery also serves on the national board of directors for the American Cancer Society, and the couple has helped raise more than $2 million through their involvement with the society and its Coaches vs. Cancer partnership.
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“This is how we hope to make a difference,” Fran McCaffery said. “We want our children, our young people, our players to see our involvement. We want to give back to those who have really made a difference in our life.”
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