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Rivera reflects on battle with cancer, being an advocate for proton therapy

Ron Rivera sits in front of cutouts placed in the "Coach's Corner" to support him as he undergoes his treatment. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)
Ron Rivera sits in front of cutouts placed in the "Coach's Corner" to support him as he undergoes his treatment. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

Ron Rivera thinks about that day every time it comes up on the calendar. Being told he had cancer is not something he can easily forget.  

The first thing that comes to mind is the anger. Prior to being diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, he felt that he was in "the best shape I've been in." He was told by his doctors that it was "very treatable and very curable," but the fact remained that it was stunning news, and he was about to undergo the most difficult challenge of his life.  

Over the following two months, Rivera went through 35 proton therapy sessions and three cycles of chemotherapy. Although he did not miss a game during the 2020 season, the treatments took their toll, and two years after ringing the bell to signify the end of his treatment, he is still feeling the effects. 

Rivera remains cancer-free, and he has personal experience of how much it takes to reach that point. It is why he has become such a strong advocate for providing healthcare to those who cannot afford it. 

"We are supposedly in the most advanced country in the world, and yet we don't have affordable and easily accessible healthcare," Rivera said. "And it just blows my mind that that people with insurance can't get the care that they need because there's a cost associated to it."

Rivera's treatment, which spanned seven weeks, involved a proton therapy that involved a more targeted form of radiotherapy. There was a snag, though; he was initially denied the treatment by his insurance because it was deemed too experimental.

Rivera eventually got approved for the coverage thanks to his doctor vouching for the treatment, but it was still a jarring experience.

"It kind of put a lot of things into focus for me," Rivera said. "You're never really prepared to go through it. But when I was told you can't have that treatment, I became even more determined that I was gonna get that treatment, and then when I got that treatment, we were gonna win."

And Rivera did win, but it took weeks of long days and physically draining procedures to get there. Rivera is an even-keeled person and tried to keep routine as close to normalcy as possible, although there were times when the reality of his situation hit harder than others.

"When it really hit me mostly was moments of fatigue, just being completely wore out," Rivera said. "There were times and we'd be in coaching staff meetings that I literally would fall asleep."

The process of eating was also a difficult task. He would need to stay up long after he finished his food to make sure that everything travelled through his esophagus.

"Those moments of staying up and just hoping and that everything did go down the right way, that became very retrospective," Rivera said. "I spent a lot of time with my wife and my daughter just talking about things in general. And it really was a great time for reflection."

Rivera's family was a constant foundation of support throughout his treatment. His youngest brother, John, would call him before he received his treatments (Rivera's appointments were around 7:30 a.m., meaning John, who lived in California, would call him at around 4:30 a.m.), and then he would get a text from his oldest brother once his treatments were finished.

That was not the only support he received, though. Rivera experienced an outpouring of letters and notes from people he signed autographs for and taken pictures with. He still has a box in his office of all the letters he got from fans and people he has met throughout his life.

In Week 4 during the team's Crucial Catch game, the team surprised Rivera with a "Coach's Corner," which featured hundreds of cutouts from staff employees as well as players and coaches from around the league.

"You're never really alone when you're going through something like this," Rivera said. "People are thinking about you. And that's one of the neat things."

Over the past two years since finishing his treatment and being cancer-free, Rivera's focus has shifted towards fighting the disease in another way: being an advocate for those seeking to receive proton therapy.

In addition to choosing St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the world's first proton therapy center specifically for children, for the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" campaign for the past two seasons, Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, donated $100,000 to the hospital after their dog, Tahoe, ran a blazing 3.39 as part of NFL Network host Rich Eisen's "Run, Rich, Run" initiative. Co-owners and co-CEOs Dan and Tanya Snyder also matched the donation.

Rivera's players have also contributed to his advocacy. In honor of his one-year biopsy confirming that he was still cancer-free, the players surprised him with a "Rivera Strong" decal that worn on their helmets for the team's "Crucial Catch" game and a check to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital for $25,500.

"As a coach, you always wonder if you get a chance to reach out to the players and touch them," said an emotional Rivera after watching a video announcing the decal in a team meeting. "This was awesome, man. Thank you."

And after signing his new extension, wide receiver Terry McLaurin donated $17,000 to the hospital.

"Some really cool things have come about it because of the St. Jude's program that we've tried to highlight and bring a little bit of attention to," Rivera said.

Rivera's advocacy goes even further than donations. He was asked by the National Association for Proton Therapy to speak with Dr. Danielle Carnival, who serves as the White House Cancer Moonshot Coordinator in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on why proton therapy should continue to be an affordable treatment option.

"There have been some moves politically that could've made it an expensive venture for people, and it shouldn't be," Rivera said.

Even more humbling was that Rivera's radiologist and oncologist wrote up his treatments as a case study and submitted them to his healthcare provider. The insurance company confirmed that Rivera's treatments would be the standard for people with head and neck cancers.

"Just to know that that's one of the benefits that came out of it, I think was really cool," Rivera said.

Rivera fought for his life two years ago and came out victorious. His experiences, along with his efforts to give back, have been an inspiration for many, and some people have even asked him to consider writing a book.

Rivera's priority is coaching football right now, but one day, we may get a more personal memoir of everything he went through.

"If we do, we'll probably take the portions of that and donate it," Rivera said. "I think it's an interesting proposition. So we'll see."

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