For The Linds
April 17, 2014
Has it been more than a year since the passing of Lindsay Walleman? That's hard to fathom.
Indeed it has and for those who didn't know her, let me first say: how unfortunate for you.
Lindsay was just 28 when she passed away April 9th, 2013. She was relatively new in our business but already making a significant impact on radio, artists and her colleagues at WMN/W.A.R. as the label's Midwest/Northeast regional.
Everything was going great for Walleman - until it wasn't. Until she was diagnosed with and struck down by cancer in the span of three months. Specifically, a form of Sarcoma so aggressive it was unable to be fully identified.
Bet you never heard of Sarcoma, but more on that in a minute.
At a recent gathering, the grief, heartbreak and utter disbelief over Lindsay's death was palpable among friends, supporters and co-workers in attendance, one year to the day of her passing.
How was it possible this beautiful, charismatic, passionately competitive go-getter; fierce champion of new artists; a rising star at W.A.R. and someone WMN Chairman John Esposito had predicted shortly before her diagnosis, "Would be running the label someday," could be taken away so soon; so quickly?
A sore hip at first (a pulled muscle, she assumed), initially thought to be the result of an awkward leap from a tour bus bunk turned out to be a series of medical worst-case scenarios.
During last week's gathering, a powerful video celebrating Lindsay was shown and by that I mean borderline sob; tear-inducing at the very least. I valiantly attempted every trick in the "man up" handbook to keep it together: deep breaths, facial contortions and complete eye contact avoidance, to no avail.
Equal parts a remembrance of Walleman and launch for a Sarcoma awareness campaign in her name, one segment featured W.A.R. VP/Promotion Chris Palmer recalling the day Lindsay's positive diagnosis was revealed to fellow staffers via email by the label's National, Jordan Pettit, who advised them, "Don't Google it."
After learning more about Sarcoma, one can fully understand Pettit's warning. Extremely rare, Sarcomas represent only about one percent of new cancer diagnoses each year. Equally tragic for Walleman, the kind she suffered from is most common in children and young adults.
As Dr. Patrick Grohar of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center shared in the video, at most, only 10% of the National Cancer Institute budget is dedicated to Sarcoma research.
Early in her battle, said Pettit, Lindsay was determined to create awareness about the disease. Honoring her wishes, Pettit has helped oversee creation of the "FTL Sarcoma Fund," an effort supported by the TJ Martell Foundation, which ensures 98-99% of all funds raised are donated to Sarcoma research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "We can do this because the TJ Martell Foundation allows us to operate with minimal costs and no overhead," said Pettit.
By the way, for those unaware, "FTL" means "For The Linds," a slogan which became a rallying cry of hope and support for Walleman from the time she became ill. It continues to serve as a reminder of Lindsay, doubling as inspiration for her desire to make a difference for others with Sarcoma.
Also present last week was Dr. Christine Lovly, whose Vanderbilt lab is supported by the FTL Sarcoma Fund and is among the top 10 cancer research facilities in the United States. Lovly spoke of feeling fortunate to treat patients on the front line of the disease while simultaneously working on ways to beat behind the scenes in her lab.
But she also shared how often she has to inform patients and their families that their battles can't be won. And while she never met Lindsay Walleman, Lovly became visibly moved and emotional while talking about her. I found this to be profound, because we often see physicians in a more clinical, detached mode when talking about illness and patients. That's not to say they don't care; perhaps it's their way of coping with something they have to deal with every day.
Lovly told me her week is mostly spent in the lab, work she described as, "Grinding and chopping up tumors, getting the DNA from them and looking for mutations that we like, to create therapies."
While that first part can best be processed by somebody like me as "icky," the second part, the idea of discovering ways to better treat patients is fascinating and hopeful. Lovly studies a broad range of cancers, explaining, "We draw from paradigms of other cancers, so you say, 'what's been successful in other cancers?' How can we use that to better understand Sarcoma?"
A better understanding is key, said Lovly, who described the progress of Sarcoma's study to date as, "In the nascency; we are just scratching the surface." She explained that while breast cancer has therapies identified decades ago and lung cancer research has enabled treatment to be better targeted in the last 10 years, "For Sarcoma, we're not doing that yet; we don't take Sarcomas and standardly test them for mutations or something that can help us inform therapy. We don't have any targets. It does not exist."
In addition to a lot more study, which will obviously require greater funding (thus the FTL Sarcoma Fund), I asked Lovly what's gonna move the needle here?
"I think what it will take is publicity," she answered. "We'll need somebody to take up the cause, to have a face to go with the disease."
Sadly, those of us in the room last week and in the larger Country music community know who that face belongs to. But then again, what better face could anybody ask for?
Broader than just Sarcoma though, adds Lovly, "It's the idea of cancers in young people. There are tons of people in the young adult range – 18 to age 40 - with all sorts of different cancers and they're like Lindsay because they go undetected and nobody suspects they have cancer. This could raise awareness for Sarcoma, but also for young cancer patients in general. To say, 'Hey, this is big issue that goes overlooked – so pay attention."
And why wouldn't we want to raise awareness for that age range? My God, right now, they're the fastest growing segment for Country music and Country radio. That could be a tremendous public service and awareness initiative for our constituency.
The Country music biz is best equipped to lead awareness of the FTL Sarcoma Fund and not just because Lindsay was one of us. Show me a format that executes public service and fundraising better than us on both a local and national level. Want a notable example? The $500 million raised for St. Jude since 1989 via Country radio's widespread partnership with the hospital.
One component of making that relatable to listeners was quantifying what their contribution meant on a granular basis, at patient level. Pettit mentioned the rush of already presenting a check for approximately $50,000 to Vanderbilt University Medical Center on behalf of the FTL Sarcoma Fund and really, it hadn't even been formally launched until the other night.
What can $50,000 mean for somebody like Lovly?
"I can give you a very easy and direct answer to that," she told me." With $50,000 you can actually take tumors from say, 10 people and do some very sophisticated sequencing instead of just trying to make a guess, which is honestly, what we mostly do. Basically, $50,000 would help identify new therapy targets for those patients."
Holy crap. Just think what a million bucks would do. But first things first. Pettit told me the fundraising goal for 2014 is to double last year's total, saying "I really feel we'll eclipse the six-figure mark."
In the video I referred to earlier – the one you NEED to watch because we all need a good cry once in a while - John Esposito recalled a phrase Walleman included on her email signature: "Live With Love." For anyone who knew her, that quote pretty much embodied Walleman.
Maybe she learned that outlook on life from her parents, who were also featured in that video. In it, Lindsay's dad remembered when all their kids left for school each morning he always told them, "Show 'em who you are."
As he said, reflecting on her, "Boy did she show everybody who she was."
I think the greatest way to honor Lindsay Walleman would be to carry the flag for the FTL Sarcoma Fund in the same vigorous, passionate and enthusiastic manner she lived during her short life.
In doing that, maybe we could show Lindsay who WE are.