‘We’re truly blood brothers’: A rare cancer, a risky transplant and how David Shaw saved his sibling’s life


David Shaw walks into the hospital room and takes a seat next to the bed. He does this nearly every day, right around lunchtime.

He looks at his younger brother, Eric, tubes snaking across his arms, machines beeping and whirring. Eric does not look like Eric anymore, his skin darkened, scars deepened, features altered. They both know this but never mention it.

They talk about movies, or random memories from their childhood when they were often inseparable, riding bikes, playing video games and challenging each other to one-on-one basketball. They avoid talking about why David comes as often as he does to visit, though they know the reason.

Eric is dying, a rare, aggressive skin cancer rampaging through his body with such ferocity, his doctors are nearly out of options. Radiation failed. Chemotherapy failed. Two bone marrow transplants failed.

As Stanford’s head football coach, David Shaw is relied on to always know what to say, how to say it and when to say it; but he cannot find the words now that he and his brother are staring down what seems to be an inevitable fate.

“What do you say, where you think you’ve pulled at the last thread and there are no more threads?” David said. “All I could tell him was that I loved him and that I was there for him. The rest of it was really just … I thought it was only a matter of time before he passed away.”

Two years later, what happened between David and Eric remains real, present and raw — changing their entire relationship, redefining what it means to be a brother. The words are still difficult to say, so they tip-toe around the crushing physical and mental toll Eric’s cancer took on them.

David and Eric are sure to think about it all this weekend, when Stanford opens its season at Oregon on Saturday. Because the last time the Cardinal visited Eugene, neither one knew whether Eric would live or die.

After Stanford came from behind to win that game 38-31 in overtime, David delivered a message at the end of his postgame television interview, looking at the camera and saying, “To my brother Eric: I love you.” He tapped the lime green pin on his black Stanford sweatshirt before he left the screen.

When Shaw became head coach at Stanford in 2011, it was the culmination of a family journey. His father was a longtime coach there; David played receiver for the Cardinal and eventually returned as an assistant under Jim Harbaugh. The entire Shaw family — parents Willie and Gay, along with David, Eric and their sister, Tawnya — all call the Bay Area home.

To this day, David says the day he was introduced as coach was, “one of the better days in all our lives.”

Yet something started to happen to Eric that no one could quite figure out. That same year, Eric found strange looking spots on his torso. His wife, Crystal, noticed the first one under his arm. Maybe it was eczema, they thought. Then the spots started to spread. He went to the doctor. They prescribed an ointment, but the spots kept popping up, until they covered his entire body. Eventually, tumors started to grow. It looked as if someone had pushed marbles under his skin. Doctors remained confounded. Eric itched uncontrollably, insatiably. His skin itched so badly, it became difficult to put on clothes, shower, sleep and go to work. He eventually needed sleep medication so he could get uninterrupted rest.

Even then, he itched subconsciously, only realizing what happened when he woke up in the morning to find his arms and sheets covered in blood. Some nights, he tried to sleep on his forearms so his body wouldn’t touch the sheets, because his skin grew too sensitive to any touch. At one point, he had more than 30 open wounds on his body.

“It’s something that’s so pervasive and so destructive that a lot of people have mental problems — you can’t do anything without extreme pain,” Eric said. “You bleed a lot through the tumors, through the lesions, through the scratching. A lot of people don’t survive, really, because of the mental stress that comes with it.”

Doctors had a hard time diagnosing his disease because it is often confused with psoriasis, eczema or other skin conditions. Eventually, they determined he had a rare form of skin cancer called mycosis fungoides, a type of T-cell lymphoma that affects one in 6 million people in the United States and Europe. At the time, Eric Shaw was 38.

In 2013, he and Crystal pushed for a referral to Stanford Cancer Center, which has leading experts in the disease. Mycosis fungoides is so rare, it accounts for only 4% of all non-Hodgkin lymphoma cases; among those who suffer from it, only 20% have the type of itching Eric experienced. Rarer still is to find it in people under the age of 40, and African American men often end up with the worst prognosis. All the odds were firmly against him.

“When you first hear skin cancer, your mind doesn’t go too far,” David said. “So initially I was like, ‘There are creams and other minor surgeries. I think it’ll be OK.’ And then Eric said, ‘No, this is not the typical skin cancer. This is inside my body. This is inside the layers of my skin, and it’s not one spot. It’s everywhere.’

“I didn’t really get it for weeks after that because, rectifying something that I didn’t think was so serious to [then thinking] … ‘Oh my gosh. So this is really cancer. This is really scary now.’ It took a long time for that to sink in.”

David turned it over in his mind. He was the big brother, the protector, the one who always made sure Eric would be OK. They were supposed to raise their kids together, grow old together, and reminisce about the randomness of a life spent together.

He kept coming back to one thought: You’re not supposed to lose your little brother.

David and Eric Shaw grew particularly close as children as they moved from place to place when their father, Willie, took new coaching jobs. Tawnya, their older sister, fit in anywhere socially. But David and Eric, who is two years younger, stuck together.

“Like a pair,” David says.

They loved riding their bikes and, when they moved to Arizona, they took advantage of the wide-open spaces in the new development where they lived. They rode for miles and miles, setting up their own ramps and doing tricks and wheelies, visiting friends along the way before returning home after dark. They played sports, too, and though David loved football as much as their dad, the basketball court is where the brothers had their epic battles.

“I was always kind of a little bit stronger and I’ll never forget the last time we played one-on-one basketball,” David said. “He just got better than me, and he won, and once I got over the anger and disappointment, I was proud because my younger brother had grown and was gaining confidence.”

Said Eric: “I wanted nothing more than to beat him, and he wanted nothing more than to keep beating me. But, during those times, it was just us, it was me and him. He was my best friend.”

David went on to play at Stanford and eventually got into coaching, against his mother’s best wishes. Eric did not pursue a career in athletics. He went to San Diego State and got into a career in marketing at a financial services company, where his gregarious nature, big smile and easy laugh made him a perfect fit. Though their personalities are different — David is stoic and introspective, Eric makes anyone feel as if they have been friends forever — they are grounded in the same values they learned at a young age: family and faith above everything else.

Those principles only grew stronger after they found themselves in the Bay Area as adults.

After David was hired by Stanford, the entire Shaw family made it clear it would always be around to support him. Family members all have a standing invitation to come for dinner on Tuesdays. And they always attend home football games, waving and hugging David during the team’s pregame walk, cheering from the stands, and then waiting for some time together once the game ends.

Even as Eric grew sick, he made it a point to go cheer for his big brother. “It’s not just the football game. Our family comes together,” he said. “We celebrate, we come to watch the game and cheer the team on and support David. And then afterwards, win or lose, we all wait for him to come out. It’s a family day. It’s been wonderful to share that experience with David.”

Stanford eventually drew them even closer, and it had nothing to do with football.

Eric did not understand the gravity of his situation until his first meeting in 2013 with the doctors at Stanford Cancer Center. They put it bluntly: He had such an aggressive form of the disease that he needed immediate treatment. They would start with total skin radiation, preparing Eric to lose his hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, fingernails and toenails.

If that did not work, they would try chemotherapy next.

“All these thoughts are running through your mind,” Crystal said. “‘Is he going to make it? Is it going to work? What’s going to happen?’ At the time, our youngest daughter was 3 months old, so it was pretty overwhelming. We were just putting our lives together and then boom: you’re in the middle of this cancer war.”

The next week, Eric took a leave of absence from work and began four times-a-week trips from their home east of Palo Alto, California, to Stanford Hospital, often driving as many as three hours one way in traffic. When he arrived, he went into a box and his whole body was exposed to the radiation light for about an hour. Then, he would make the drive back home to see Crystal and their four kids — Caleb Michael, Jared Spann-Shaw, Madison Shaw and Olivia Shaw.

The radiation charred his skin. He lost weight. When he looked in the mirror, Eric no longer recognized the man looking back at him.

“Nothing prepares you for something like this,” he said. “Knowing that other people were looking at me and knowing that something was very wrong, that was a daily grind to get myself up out of bed and get ready for the day, knowing that that was going to be my life.”

He did this for three straight months, all to keep the disease from growing to a point where it would kill him. It worked for a short time, but the disease came back more aggressively six months later. Doctors moved on to chemotherapy treatments, some of them experimental, but also began discussing the last resort option: a bone marrow transplant.

David and Tawnya immediately volunteered to become donors, and underwent testing. In most cases, siblings are the best chance at a donor match. Unfortunately, in their case, neither was close. On a 10-point match scale, Tawnya registered a 3, David a 5. Neither qualified to donate.

“I wanted to jump to the front of the line and say, ‘Whatever I have to do, whatever you have to take out of me, however you have to do it, just do it,'” David said. “For them to come back and say that you’re not a strong enough match was disheartening. It hurt me. The fact that we had to put our trust and faith in people that we didn’t know, and that we’re going to have to go out to registries and try to find someone who was a better match than I was, that uncertainty, and that doubt, it’s hard to keep it at bay at that point. It starts to creep in.”

“[The doctors] had lost all hope. There was nothing left, but we were in the deepest part of the valley, and there was nobody there but God. I said, ‘You’re going to take me off this Earth.’ And he told me, ‘Eric, you’re not going to die.’ That was the point at which my faith really took over, and I really had true peace.”

Eric Shaw, on the point when he thought he ran out of options to treat his cancer

In late 2017, the disease came back so strong, doctors determined Eric needed the long-discussed bone marrow transplant. Finding a suitable match was exceedingly difficult: Only 4% of donors on the bone marrow registry are African American, resulting in only a 16% chance to find a match.

Doctors eventually found two donors whom they believed could work, but they were not perfect matches. In early 2018, Eric and his family moved into a two-bedroom apartment near Stanford Hospital to prepare for the transplant. For three months, he went through radiation, then chemotherapy to prepare his body to accept the donor cells.

He underwent the transplant in April, feeling confident and inspired it would work. After a month, doctors did an initial check to see how many of the donor cells had survived the transplant.

None survived.

“It was like I never even had the transplant,” Eric said. “That was so devastating. We just knew it was going to work. I mean, we’re people of faith, and we knew everybody was praying for us, and that we were praying that this six-year journey was going to finally be over. And it wasn’t over. It was crushing for them to say, ‘It didn’t work. We’re going to have to try again.'”

The second attempt happened in September. Crystal bought lime green pins for the family to wear for lymphoma awareness. Without telling Eric or Crystal, David decided he would wear his on his shirt for the 2018 football season. In addition to that, he had lime green and yellow ribbons placed on the back of Stanford helmets as a way to show support for both cancer patients and cancer survivors.

He told his team that his brother was fighting cancer, and briefly mentioned the helmet ribbons publicly during an early season news conference. But beyond that, David kept the severity of what was happening to his brother to himself, masking his growing nervousness, fear and anxiety as the clock ticked toward the next transplant. He had a hard time processing what was happening. He did not want to put that at the feet of his players, or his staff.

The doctors used the same donor cells that failed the first time for the second transplant on Sept. 11, 2018, because that was the only option available. But this time, doctors used even stronger drugs to prepare Eric’s body to receive the donor cells — hoping that would do enough to stop his immune system from attacking them.

When Stanford played Oregon on Sept. 22, no one in the Shaw family knew whether the transplant had worked. But the situation was more dire than the first transplant. The stronger chemotherapy caused major complications, and Eric became severely ill.

David coached the game with this in the back of his mind. Stanford rallied from a 21-7 deficit to win an overtime thriller, moving to 4-0 on the season, with a top-10 matchup against Notre Dame the following week. Back in Palo Alto, Eric watched the entire game alone in an apartment he rented near the hospital, the comeback buoying his spirits.

He had no idea his brother would speak to him through the television until he heard the words, “To my brother Eric …”

“In that moment, I didn’t feel any sickness at all,” Eric said. “I can’t really describe what I felt, just how proud I am of him and how awesome it made me feel that he would do that for me.”

Said David: “If that transplant didn’t work, I didn’t know how many more games he was going to be able to see. That was an opportunity for me on national TV to speak to him, to say to my brother that against the odds, we came back and throughout the entire game, I was thinking about him.”

Eric soon returned to Stanford Hospital. The chemotherapy destroyed his blood system, so he needed daily blood transfusions to stay alive. It came as no surprise when doctors told him the second transplant had failed. They had no plan now, no other donor options. David came by to visit as often as he could, but he had a hard time finding the words to say to his dying brother.

“I thought about Crystal. I thought about their kids,” Shaw said. “I thought about, ‘How can we help?’ And then I kept going, ‘We just can’t get there. There has to be something else.’ And we all prayed and we all comforted each other and trusted the doctors and prayed for the doctors. And just kept saying, ‘Just tell us whatever options there are. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.'”

During the day, Eric had his mother, Crystal, David, or David’s wife, Kori, at his side, helping to keep his mind off what was happening to him. But in the evenings, when he was alone in his hospital room, he couldn’t help but think about the dwindling medical options and his own death, slowly accepting what he believed would inevitably come.

“They might have told us what the odds were, and I honestly just pushed it out of my brain. If this is the Hail Mary, hey, we’re going to drop back and throw it as far as we can and send prayers along with it and hope it works.”

David Shaw on when doctors revisited the idea of him being a donor for his brother

Over seven years, everything the doctors tried had failed, and the disease always came back more aggressively. He felt exhausted in every possible way, desperate to feel better. He didn’t want to die. All he wanted to do was get better, and see his kids again, hug his wife and go home. But that possibility seemed as far off as the stars.

“The doctors couldn’t help us,” Eric said. “They had lost all hope. There was nothing left, but we were in the deepest part of the valley, and there was nobody there but God. I said, ‘You’re going to take me off this Earth.’ And he told me, ‘Eric, you’re not going to die.’ That was the point at which my faith really took over, and I really had true peace.”

His team of doctors huddled together again and came up with a plan many of their colleagues questioned, simply because they had never attempted it. In mid-October of 2018, they told Eric they wanted to try a third transplant.

Only this time, they wanted David to be the donor and they had only weeks to make it happen.

Eric thought, “Are they trying to kill me?”

When David was initially rejected, doctors had worked for 25 years to find a way to do half-match transplants but had virtually no success. By 2018, doctors explained that a different way to do the transplant had emerged, opening up the potential to try it with Eric. These transplants, called haploidentical transplants, typically use donor cells from a family member.

Dr. Wen-Kai Weng, Eric’s bone marrow transplant physician, explained, “It was relatively new at this time. We decided to go ahead, because we knew if we didn’t do it, the disease would really come back with a vengeance.”

No one had ever done a third transplant with donor cells at Stanford.

“If he didn’t go for this risk, he wouldn’t be here,” said Dr. Youn Kim, who treated Eric and heads Stanford’s multidisciplinary Cutaneous Lymphoma Clinic/Program. “He wouldn’t be living.”

Doctors told Shaw there was a 15% chance he would not survive the transplant itself. If he did survive it, there was only about a 30% to 40% chance the donor cells would work. Compared to much steeper survival odds with no transplant at all, the decision — filled with multiple layers of danger — did not feel risky at all.

They had to try.

“They might have told us what the odds were, and I honestly just pushed it out of my brain,” David said. “If this is the Hail Mary, hey, we’re going to drop back and throw it as far as we can and send prayers along with it and hope that it works.”

Without hesitation, David said to his brother, “Tell me what I needed to do.”

Stanford gathered in its team hotel early on Oct. 27 to begin final preparations before hosting Washington State later that day. David checked in for a 9 a.m. meeting and when it finished, he checked out of the hotel without saying a word. He walked toward the back exit, careful to make sure no one saw him, and snuck out the door to a waiting car.

Shaw sat in the passenger seat, headed toward campus and Stanford Hospital, praying all the while that what he was about to do would work.

He arrived at the hospital and was hooked up to an IV for the first dose of medication. This would not be the more traditional bone marrow transplant, where cells are extracted with a needle through the hips. Rather, the medication flowing through the IV would stimulate his body to overproduce the stem cells needed for the transplant, flooding his blood with them. The cells would then be extracted from his blood, and transplanted into Eric.

Doctors told him to expect to start feeling joint pain and tiredness within 24 hours. Those symptoms would grow only stronger over the coming days, when he came in for more medication. They told him he should stay off his feet, rest and remain hydrated.

That would be nice, David thought. But he had a game to coach. Only two people inside the program knew he had gone that morning: assistant athletics director for football operations Callie Dale, who drove him to the hospital, and defensive coordinator Lance Anderson.

“The way that I do my job, I work really hard not to make it about me,” David said. “Although I wanted my team to know what my family was going through, college football is about the student-athletes. I wanted them to focus on what they needed to do. I didn’t want to pull from that. I didn’t want to, all of a sudden now make it about me and my family.”

A few hours later, he returned to the team hotel and acted as if he had been there the entire day, speaking nothing about his trip to the hospital. Shaw put on his lime green pin and made his way toward the bus. The short ride to the stadium felt long that day. His mind wandered before returning to the flip card in front of him.

As he exited the bus and finished the walk to the stadium, his two young nieces ran up to him. They squeezed him, holding on longer than usual, as if they knew their Uncle David was their only option, too.

David started to feel pain in his knees and legs during the game, a heartbreaking 41-38 loss to the Cougars. That pain only intensified in the coming days as he continued to go in for daily treatments, driving himself on a golf cart from the football facility to the hospital without anyone knowing. It felt as if he had a 50-pound backpack strapped on at all times. He normally jogs from place to place during practice but found it difficult to walk because his legs, hips and shoulders hurt so badly.

He worried players would notice him moving around so slowly. If they did, no one said a word. Shaw kept pushing the pain aside, shoving his emotions down deep, saying prayers every chance he got.

On Wednesday, Shaw woke up and was so lethargic, he felt as if he was moving like a sloth. He went to the hospital for the final procedure: extracting the cells from his blood. Shaw wore comfortable clothes, arranged his pillows and settled in for a long day ahead. Doctors hooked him up to a machine that would do the work through two IVs: One took his blood so the needed donor cells could be siphoned out; the other IV would put the blood back in his body.

Eric rested on another floor in the same hospital.

David worked on his game plan, watched a few movies and occasionally stared at his own blood in the IVs, willing it to save his brother. He kept saying to himself over and over again, “God, I hope this works.”

After eight hours, he was finished. Shaw then went out to practice.

“I remember walking up to him and just asking him, ‘How are you doing, how are you feeling?'” Anderson said. “I could see it in him that he wasn’t his normal self. He paused for a little bit and then he’s like, ‘I’m OK. A little bit tired, but I’m OK.’ You know, just trying to put the most positive light that he could on it.”

The next day, Nov. 1, 2018, Shaw went back to the hospital. It was transplant day, and he had to be with Eric to witness what they hoped would be a miracle. David and Crystal watched as Eric received a transfusion of David’s stem cells, a shimmering light pink fluid flowing into his body. They sang and prayed. Already, they had received one small bit of good news: Doctors extracted 28 million cells from David’s blood, about 20 million more than what they had hoped to get.

Stanford traveled the following day to Seattle, for a game against Washington. David felt guilty for leaving, but he knew there was nothing else he could do. Eric struggled in the hospital, not only from the transplant, but from the heavy chemo and radiation doctors used to prepare his body for the new cells.

Eric ran a fever of 105 degrees and vomited for days. The pain grew so intense he was put on a morphine drip and was in and out of consciousness. In Seattle, Shaw remembers being locked into the game, “except for those little moments where my heart was with my brother.”

Stanford lost another heartbreaker 27-23.

“I know us losing had nothing to do with everything David was going through,” Dale said. “But just piling that on with everything else he was dealing with, it was a lot for him. He brought that up many times, about how Eric would tell him the biggest excitement for him every week was watching us play and watching us win. I know David had a lot of pressure on himself, amongst the pressure he already has as a head coach, to win for Eric. And I know that every time he did, he really felt like it was for him. And when we came up short, I know he was probably even harder on himself than he normally would have been.”

Back at Stanford, David visited Eric when he could. But the waiting game took an increasing mental toll. David prides himself on his ability to compartmentalize, to focus on the only thing in front of him. He never spaces out, and he rarely gets emotional. But Shaw was falling apart on the inside.

He often found himself staring at cut-ups of red zone plays, not realizing the film had been paused for 20 minutes while his mind drifted off. Whenever that happened, he would stop and call someone, either his brother, his wife, his mother or Crystal just to see how they were doing.

“There were times where I thought life was slow motion, but it was actually moving and I was the one who was in slow motion,” David said. “I found myself sometimes saying, ‘Is this real? Is this really happening? This shouldn’t happen.'”

In the middle of every single meeting, in the middle of every single film session, he silently prayed, “God help my brother. Just please let this one work.”

“I look back now and I know more of everything that was going on and the situation,” Anderson said. “I realized how much he was dealing with and how much he had to bear that week. And it’s amazing that he was able to go through that week without really letting any of us really know exactly what he was going through and what a big deal this really was.”

Within a few weeks, Eric started to turn a corner. Though they did not know whether the transplant had worked just yet, he showed enough improvement to leave the hospital after 52 days. David arrived for the big day, and Eric slowly put on a protective mask before shuffling to a waiting wheelchair. Doctors, nurses and support staff lined the hallway, clapping and cheering.

David cries when recalling that moment, his pent-up emotions flooding out as he describes it publicly for the first time.

“This is my little brother, after years of cancer, getting to leave the hospital,” Shaw said, his voice quavering. He pauses to wipe tears from his eyes. “The nurses were crying. The doctors were crying. Because a few months earlier, they were preparing us for him to die. And he got to go home.”

Three days later, doctors met with Eric and Crystal to deliver the results from the transplant. After only 27 days, Eric had none of his own blood coursing through his body.

It was all David’s.

Eric picked up the phone.

“Dave,” Eric said. “You have a twin. We’re truly blood brothers.”

Eric, who turns 46 on Friday, has lived a fairly normal life since he was declared cancer free on Jan. 1, 2019, although the coronavirus pandemic has limited how often the Shaw family can see each other.

In September, they decided to get together to celebrate all of their recent birthdays at David’s house. They stayed outdoors, socially distanced, with masks on. Eric and David allowed themselves a hug, their heads turned to the side.

“Every time I see him, I just smile, you know? Because he gets to be here,” David said.

The Shaws describe what happened as a miracle. So do his doctors, who are now using Eric as a case study for patients with similar diagnoses.

“Even though David wasn’t our first choice, David wanted to be our first choice,” said Dr. Michael Khodadoust, also on the team of physicians to treat Eric. “It’s nice to know that it’s his cells in Eric’s body. It’s not a stranger, it’s his brother that’s keeping the lymphoma away.”

Dr. Weng says he estimates the chances the cancer returns is less than 1%. In fact, his doctors told him he did not have to keep seeing them, because he is no longer a cancer patient.

Eric and David want to share their story, in the hopes they can help cancer patients and survivors, while encouraging people to consider becoming bone marrow donors. David still wears his green pin, calling it a “badge of honor.”

Still, the truly deep, meaningful conversation about the cancer, the ensuing trauma and their shared connection has escaped them, two years later. Grateful hugs often substitute for words.

“It’s beyond uncomfortable,” David said.

How do you ask someone you love how it felt to be at death’s door?

How do you ask someone you love how it felt to save your life?

“At some point where we’re going to sit down, because I know that he has a lot of feelings about playing a role in saving my life,” Eric said. “He’s a little protected, and that’s who I’ve always known him to be. I’ve hinted at what this has meant spiritually and how it’s really changed me completely on the inside. I don’t even know if I’m going to have the words to express how I already felt about him before all of this happened.

“But then, for God to use him to save me and impact me and impact my family, it’s almost indescribable what that means to me, in terms of him being my brother who I’ve always looked up to. We’re gonna need a lot of tissues.”

To learn more about the latest research around bone marrow transplants or becoming a bone marrow donor, click here.

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