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Surfing for a Cure

26th annual Luau and Legends of Surfing Invitational to raise money for Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health


  • Lily Chen

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  • Lily Chen

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Teresa McKeown and her family

Teresa McKeown with her family. Photo by Eric Neri/UC San Diego.

When Teresa McKeown went into a routine oncology appointment in March 2016, it was anything but routine. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and over the next seven months, she failed numerous lines of chemotherapy. By the end of the year, McKeown weighed less than 100 pounds and it was nearly impossible for her to eat or drink.

“I began to wrap up the details of my life; I began to write good-bye letters to my children and my husband,” said McKeown. “I made my peace with God. I was really ready at that point to die, because that’s where things looked like they were going.”

McKeown was transferred to Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health but her prognosis still seemed dire. As a last effort, she asked her doctors – surgical oncologist Jason Sicklick, M.D., and oncologist Shumei Kato, M.D. – if there was anything else she could try. With their support, she enrolled in a clinical trial that offered personalized therapy that perfectly matched her cancer.

After two infusions, McKeown’s tumor markers shrank dramatically; after eight weeks, she experienced a full recovery, for which she credits Sicklick and his team. Experimental procedures, like the trial that saved McKeown’s life, are supported in part by the money raised by the Luau and Legends of Surfing Invitational and other fundraising efforts, allowing doctors at Moores Cancer Center to conduct groundbreaking research and provide their patients with the best care possible.

“For the last two years, I’ve been happily and completely without any evidence of disease,” said McKeown. “My son graduated from college this year and I’m so thrilled I got to be there and see it. Instead of reading my words of congratulations I wrote him two years ago, he got to hear me tell it to him in person.”

On Aug. 18, the Luau and Legends of Surfing Invitational will bring together over 500 surfers, doctors and cancer survivors at Scripps Pier to catch a few waves, enjoy food and drink and raise money for cancer research. Numerous local companies will sponsor a team comprised of four surfers starting at $15,000. Each surf team is paired with a surfing legend and competes in a friendly contest.

Surfing legends group photo 2018

Surfing legends, 2018. Photo by Todd Barnes.

“The depth of knowledge and cutting-edge precision therapy at Moores Cancer Center lead patients from across the country and from abroad to seek the care and expertise of our clinicians,” said Scott M. Lippman, director of the Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health. “The support we receive through the Luau and Legends of Surfing Invitational helps accomplish our mission of saving lives by creating a world where a cancer diagnosis is a bump in the road, not the end of it.”

All proceeds from the luau will support research, teaching and clinical programs at Moores Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the San Diego region. Last year at its 25th anniversary event, over $830,000 was raised – the highest amount raised since the event started in 1994. Over the past 26 years, nearly $9 million total from the event has gone towards Moores Cancer Center, making it one of the most successful surfing fundraisers in the nation.

Not only does the luau raise money to find a cancer cure, it also celebrates pioneers in the industry with the Rell Sunn Award, presented to those who display the qualities shared by the Luau and Legends of Surfing Invitational and the award’s namesake, Rell Kapoilioka’ehukai Sunn – who has made a difference in the battle against cancer and embodies the aloha spirit. Called the “First Lady of Surfing,” Sunn was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 32 and given only months to live. Rather than giving up, she refused to succumb to the disease and continued to live life to the fullest. She passed away on Jan. 2, 1998 at the age of 47. Soon after, the award was established in her honor.

This year’s Rell Sunn awardees, Tony Hunter and UC San Diego alumnus Brian Druker ’77, M.D. ’81, contributed to the development of Gleevec, the first cancer drug to target cell growth without harming healthy cells. Hunter’s research into the mechanisms of cancer cell growth laid the foundation for Druker’s work in targeting enzymes to treat chronic myeloid leukemia. Today, Hunter investigates protein-mediated cell growth, uncovering new chemical pathways that control cancer behavior. Druker explores ways to improve early cancer detection and increase cancer survival rates using precision medicine techniques.

Painting of Scripps Pier by Letty Nowak

Letty Nowak painting

Every year, a featured artist is invited to auction off one of their original works during the event; this year’s artist is Letty Nowak, known for her oil on canvas portraits. Although she was born in Michigan, she has lived in La Jolla for the past eight years. One of her ongoing projects, “Faces of Surfing,” includes portraits of iconic surfers like Rob Machado, Debbie Beachem, Skip Fyre, Joel Parkinson and Bruce Irons. Nowak will also donate a live auction commissioned portrait in memory of her mother who was treated at Moores Cancer Center.

“After working with the doctors at Moores with my mother, it became obvious how important the work they are doing really is,” said Nowak. “Moores was the light at the end of our tunnel and I’m honored to be a part of this event to raise money and further Moores’ cancer research.”

“Breakthrough discoveries and compassionate delivery of life-saving treatment being developed and offered at Moores Cancer Center is leading the global change in the way cancer is treated,” explained Lippman. “The recent rapid and profound pace of change is unprecedented. There is no routine cancer, and our teams of doctors of all disciplines are working together, using an arsenal of complex surgeries and unleashing the most precise therapies combining genomics, radiation and immunity, to eliminate this scourge.”

The festivities kick off at 7 a.m. on Aug. 18 at the Scripps Pier in La Jolla. There will be Polynesian dance performances, live and silent auctions, an awards ceremony, a surfing legends tribute and a special luau menu by Giuseppe Fine Catering.

The surfing competition is free for spectators; tickets to the luau fundraiser are $550 per person. For more information about sponsorship opportunities, team entries, tickets and event activities, call (858) 822-6623 or visit the event website. More information on Moores Cancer Center can be found here.

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