Surfing legends, researchers and survivors ride La Jolla waves to fight cancer
Dozens of accomplished surfers teamed up on Sunday with medical experts and cancer survivors to compete in the 25th Annual Luau and Legends of Surfing Invitational.
Held along the La Jolla shoreline just south of Scripps Pier, the philanthropic event has raised more than $8 million since its inception. Proceeds go to fund research at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health.
Celebrating two of San Diego’s most lauded endeavors — surfing and biomedical research — donations are specifically aimed at boosting cutting-edge research around cancer treatment.
“We’re putting our money into early stage projects, which in San Diego is great because there’s all kinds of researchers working on projects,” said co-founder John Otterson. “Some of those work and a lot of them don’t, but you’ve got to get a bunch of those going to have success.”
The day started at 7 a.m. with a friendly tournament that included big-name surfers, such as Rob Machado, Guy Takayama and Robert “Wingnut” Weaver.
Around midday, a luau kicked off for $550 a ticket, complete with Polynesian dance, live music, a tropical buffet and auctions. In the past, events have brought in as much as half a million dollars, with this year pulling in a record total of more than $818,000.
UCSD Health researcher Andrew Sharabi said that funding has benefited his research on immunotherapy, an emerging approach that uses a patient’s immune system to fight cancer.
“It’s really critical,” said the 38-year-old, still wet from surfing in the competition. “They fund pilot projects that are sometimes in the earliest stages of discovery.
“We’ve now discovered how to harness and turn on your immune system against the cancer, and it’s opened up an entire new field of cancer research.”
Others who participated in the surfing event included those who’ve battled the disease, such as San Diego native Matt Fontanesi.
He discovered he had cancer while honeymooning with his wife in the United States three years ago. The couple had been living in New Zealand when the avid surfer had been fighting what he thought was just a nasty cold for more than a month.
At the urging of his wife, Fontanesi checked into an emergency room during the visit.
“Two days later I got diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia,” said the 36-year-old. “They said, ‘Your blood was 90 percent cancer, and if you hadn’t come in, you’d be dead within two weeks.’”
He was taken to the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, where he did four months of intense chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant. The $2 million price tag was largely covered by travelers insurance, he said, but a GoFundMe account also helped raises tens of thousands of dollars.
“You only want (this procedure) done at a handful of hospitals in world, and UCSD Moores Cancer Center is one of them. We said we have to pay this forward,” said Fontanesi, who is now involved in a number of philanthropic endeavors, such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
This year’s title sponsor of the Luau and Legends of Surfing Invitational was Odonate Therapeutics. Other longtime donors include Celgene, Pfizer, and Hologic, as well as Christy Walton, Valerie Ewell and co-founders Sam Armstrong and Otterson.
Howard Birndorf and Ivor Royston, who started San Diego’s first biotech company, Hybritech, were given at the event the Rell Sunn Award for their achievements in cancer research.
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