Polo player’s cancer story inspires daylong fundraiser in Wellington

Updated Jan 10, 2018
LILA PHOTO
Brandon Phillips poses for a photo at the 2017 Polo for a Purpose fundraiser with Bruce Steinberg and Piper Appel. Phillips, a survivor of stage four lymphoma, helped start the fundraiser five years ago to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. (Provided by Polo for a Purpose)

For more than a decade, Wellington resident Brandon Phillips did not want to talk about his cancer.

He was cancer-free after overcoming stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was 15. As the years went on, Phillips ran from anything that reminded him of his illness — even the image of a bald person on TV.

“I was at a polo match and the announcer started talking about my history, and I wanted to run off the field,” the champion polo player said.

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But Phillips had a sobering thought as he neared age 30: “It’s about time to grow up, and there’s a lot of people I could help,” he said.

He began talking more about his experience and within a few short years the Polo for a Purpose event was born. Now in its fifth year, the daylong charity event has raised $1 million for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Last year’s sold-out event raised more than $500,000 alone.

This year’s Polo for a Purpose fundraiser is Monday at the International Polo Club in Wellington, which donates the use of the facility. The day begins with a cocktail reception, then luncheon with a silent auction and a live auction.

The action kicks off after lunch as Phillips mounts up for a four-on-four high-goal polo match, streamed live by Chukker TV on www.chukkertv.com. As the match takes place, families can check out the Kids Zone with bounce houses and face-painting for children.

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The Polo for a Purpose evening will wrap up with an after-party featuring world-famous Grammy Award-winning DJ Cedric Gervais — a new addition brought in to appeal to a younger crowd, Phillips said.

“We’ve all been to charity events, we know how boring they can be,” Phillips said. “We want to make this something people want to come to.”

Organizers this year invited children from the Kids Cancer Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club to spend the afternoon at the Kids Zone and experience the polo match for free.

And the six-row front portion of the stadium is given to children fighting cancer and their families — a group with whom Phillips’ closely relates.

“Brandon is an incredible inspiration to our children and families,” Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Palm Beach Area Chapter executive director Pam Payne said. “To see a survivor like Brandon who once walked in their shoes offers so much hope.”

Helping children with cancer connect through sports is important to Phillips, who himself used sports to stay motivated after his cancer diagnosis in the summer of 1992. He grew up in Toronto with a father and older brother who played amateur polo, and started playing polo himself when he was 11. His diagnosis came after a busy week of playing multiple sports, when he woke up with a swollen left leg.

Hi parents thought it was a sports-related injury, possibly a blood clot. But “tests and biopsies and poking and prodding” at a Toronto hospital showed a softball-sized tumor shutting off Phillips’ left kidney, and beginning to block circulation to his left leg.

Phillips was given six weeks to live and started immediately on a regimen of strong chemotherapy drugs. Because the tumor was wound around vital organs, it could not be removed. “They said, we’re blowing up this tumor and we don’t know if pieces are going to go all over your body, so we have to treat your whole body with the chemo,” Phillips said.

After four months of intense chemotherapy, 22 spinal taps, experimental drugs — “and pretty much hell” — the tumor was gone, Phillips said. By the end of December, he was back on a basketball court.

While Phillips shied away from sharing his story for nearly 15 years, he uses his time now to reach out to children who have gone or are going through that same hell he faced.

“Sports in general and polo are what actually helped me get through,” he said. “Our eventual goal now is to make $1 million in one event. And I know we’ll get there.”

Phillips serves as honorary chair of the event with co-chairs PJ Rizvi, Visse Wedell and Penny Bradley. The theme of this year’s fundraiser is “Le Cirque Rouge,” with Cirque du Soleil-style performers entertaining guests throughout the day.

For more information about Polo for a Purpose, go to www.poloforapurpose.org or call 561-616-8682.