Cancer is a Family Affair for Survivor Amy Lesakowski

Through the 11 Day Power Play, family has raised over $5 million for cancer research and support

By Jana Eisenberg

Amy and Mike Lesakowski, back right, with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center President and CEO Candace S. Johnson and beneficiaries of the funds the event raises for cancer research and treatment. Photo by Bill Wippert, courtesy of 11 Day Power Play.
Amy and Mike Lesakowski, back right, with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center President and CEO Candace S. Johnson and beneficiaries of the funds the event raises for cancer research and treatment. Photo by Bill Wippert, courtesy of 11 Day Power Play.

If you’re like many Buffalonians who are passionate local hockey fans, you’ve probably heard of the 11 Day Power Play.

The unique annual fundraising event, co-founded by Mike and Amy Lesakowski, started in 2017, raising money for Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and other organizations.

Amy Lesakowski is a breast cancer survivor; in 2008, at only 35 years of age, she was diagnosed. Her treatment at Roswell, which involved then-new immunotherapy drugs and participation in a clinical trial, was successful.

Grateful for Amy’s survival, and also to honor Mike’s mother, who died in 2016 from lung cancer, the Lesakowskis, an avowed “hockey family,” came up with the 11 Day Power Play, which finds hundreds of volunteer players from ages 11 to 80 in a marathon sponsored game of hockey. The majority of the funds raised (over $1 million each year; as of this year, it’s $5.2 million) are donated to Roswell.

It normally takes place in July, so that more players can take part; this year, because of the pandemic, the 2020 event happened in late August.

Amy Lesakowski spoke with In Good Health about her own extremely positive attitude 10-plus years post-cancer, how she advises others with any cancer diagnosis, and finding opportunity where others might see challenges.

Question.:  What do you say to people who are newly diagnosed?

Amy Lesakowski: I encourage them to get a second opinion. It’s scary when you first get your diagnosis, so take your time and get a second opinion. I also encourage them to go full steam ahead with treatment; don’t look for what you did wrong in the past. A cancer diagnosis gives you a chance to look at your body differently and take care of yourself.

When you are younger, cancer can be more aggressive; it’s helpful for cancer patients to see me doing well. There’s a lot of hope, and there have also been a lot of advancements in treatment.

Q.: How do you think about the possibility of relapse/reoccurrence?

A.: It’s true that cancer survivors have a fear of the unknown, but for the most part, once I hit the five-year mark, I stopped worrying. There’s no sense or use in it. I have so many more years. I try to live life to the fullest. It’s important to take care of yourself and focus on the positive. The most difficult thing is moving past that fear.

Q.: Has COVID changed anything for you?

A.:Going through significant change like this makes us stronger. Our reaction to the pandemic is similar to when I got my cancer diagnosis; we have to get through it and we are not going to stop living, but we’ll do it as safely as we can.

This year, because we didn’t have live spectators at our event, we partnered with Uplifter Video to livestream additional content. We focused on 19 different cancers, raising awareness about treatment and symptoms. That was new for us, and I’m very proud. It was a blessing that we could spend time interviewing doctors at Roswell Park and the team captains; we actually reached more people than ever, while showing the story’s human side. (Visit the 11 Day Power Play YouTube channel for the videos.)

Q.: Why is it important to you and your family to do awareness- and fundraising?

A.:During my three years of treatment, I had the advantage of being on a clinical trial and receiving a recently approved immunotherapy drug. Sadly, the type of cancer my mother-in-law had did not have a trial or new drugs. “All cancers matter” to the 11 Day Power Play. We want to make sure that patients can get the best treatments. We primarily support research into immunotherapy treatments; they use your own body to fight the cancer, and have fewer side effects than standard chemo treatment.

We also support Roswell’s clinical trials and wellness programs. It’s very important — for both patients and their families — to treat the whole person. I sit on Roswell’s Scientific Advisory Committee, which awards grants to Roswell doctors. That helps us know where our funds are going.

We also give a portion of the funds to Camp Good Days, Make a Wish Western New York, and the Oishei Children’s Hospital. When a person has cancer, it’s important to support the whole family. When I was going through treatment, I didn’t know I could send my kids to camp — I thought it was for kids with cancer.

Q.: Why do you think 11 Day Power Play has been so successful?

A.:It’s a true community event, we have men and women, young and old participating. And it just keeps getting bigger. The first year we had 40 players and this year, we would have had thousands, if it weren’t for the shutdown. We’re really “Buffalo proud” — we love emphasizing that the event started here. We’ve got big plans, and we’re moving fast and furious in the fight against cancer. It’s something to be proud of in our city.