Finding support for people in the fight against cancer: The Don Litzelman Foundation

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Since 2012, friends of Don Litzelman have been honoring his memory through the foundation bearing his name. Litzelman was an all-American lacrosse player at SUNY Geneseo who died of brain cancer just over a decade ago.

For years, the Don Litzelman Foundation has been honoring his memory with lacrosse scholarships, but they just launched a new initiative – helping cancer patients find the resources they need.

Foundation president Brian Kinel met Litzelman at college, when they roomed on the same floor. He remembers Kinel as a great athlete, and a better person.

“Captain of the lacrosse team, two-time All-American, in the hall of fame,” Kinel said. “Just a good guy, leader — he was our first vice president — a group of us, on that floor actually were founding fathers of a chapter of a fraternity.”

After college, Kinel, Litzelman and their other fraternity brothers lost touch for decades.

“Shouldn’t have but we did,” Kinel said. “Twenty years go by since we’d been in touch and he reconnected us. He hadn’t yet been diagnosed with brain cancer, but he knew something was wrong.”

IN 2012, Litzelman’s health started to take a turn for the worse. Many of the brothers had reunited a few years back, and four went to visit Litzelman.

“I hadn’t seen those guys, and now we’re talking probably 25 if not 30 years,” Kinel said. “And we drove away just determined that that was unacceptable, and to turn a tragedy into something positive.”

The group decided to start a foundation named after him, focused on lacrosse.

“We’d love to recognize him, keep his name and legacy alive in the sport he loved,” he said. “I got to go back and tell him about our plans to do this. He died five days later.”

He died shortly after. Following his death, his old fraternity brothers started a scholarship in his name.

In the years since, the foundation – and the connection between its organizers – has only grown.

“A plaque is now up for Don in the new stadium at Geneseo, and we’ve got his jersey hanging at a couple local restaurants,” Kinel said. “So we did the best we could to recognize him so that again his name and legacy lives on but we keep him with us, too.”

Each year, roughly 50 of the old fraternity alum come back to Geneseo for a reunion. At last year’s they got the idea to expand the foundation’s goals. Kinel said an old classmate had approached him.

“Couple of years prior his wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and he said, ‘You know, there are organizations that will give funding, but patients are on their own to find them’ […] It was tough. And I thought ‘well, nobody told you?’ And he said no. So I thought well maybe if we did that research for them, it would make it easier.”

Kinel brought the idea to the foundation.

“It’s difficult. It’s not a real good time for you to do that. It’s not like you get this devastating news and you have six months to put everything in order,” he said.

So, back in November, the foundation launched a new initiative: information. The foundation does the research for cancer patients to help them find the right resources. They call and vet places to see who they serve – patients of leukemia, families, single parents – and what they offer – money, transportation, emotional support.

They also have links to reputable information and advice, like that from the Cancer Support Community at Gilda’s Club.

“We provide emotional social, wellness, educational programs for anyone that’s been impacted by cancer,” CEO James Love said.

CSC works with people of all ages, cancers, and backgrounds, as well as their families. Their services are free of charge.

“People are shocked when they first get that diagnosis, right? They start worrying about finances, they start worrying about their job, if they’re going to be able to go back to their job,” Love said.

CSC has been around for years, yet one of their challenges is making sure people know they exist. That gap is exactly what the Don Litzelman Foundation is trying to fill.

“If you’re a cancer patient, just know and understand there is help out there,” Kinel said. “And it’s possible that nobody told you.”