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Surfing for Life's Tom Brown at J7 surfboard shop

Paul Wellman

Surfing for Life's Tom Brown at J7 surfboard shop


One Wrist at a Time

Tom Brown’s Quest to Conquer Cancer through Surfing and Your Forearm One Wrist at a Time


The more we pay attention, the more it seems that the power of human spirit is among the most potent forces on this planet. No matter the scale of circumstance — from the massive to the mundane — the steady and rooted power that we all posses on the inside is capable of truly remarkable things when properly activated. Case in point: Santa Barbara’s Tom Brown, a soon-to-be 63-year-young super hero in the worldwide war on cancer.

Six years ago this month, Brown was given 90 days to live after a routine physical led to a brutal stage IV colon cancer diagnosis. Last week, in between rainstorms and rainbows, the still very much alive Brown and I linked up to talk about his journey, the wide-ranging and transformative wonders of surfing, and the intersection of the two — his nonprofit organization, the Surfing for Life Foundation.

It was the eve of his 37th round of chemotherapy (his 15th this year alone!); he was fighting pneumonia and upbeat as ever, dismissing the gravity of his situation with a simple, “I’ve been here before,” and preferring instead to talk about his history with the surf industry and the gratitude and humbleness he has found since starting Surfing for Life three years ago this coming January. “This disease affects everybody. So you have to bring the awareness every single day and be proactive. That is what Surfing for Life is all about and that is why I am still here,” explained Brown as a matter of fact.

Drawing inspiration from the ubiquitous yellow wristbands of LiveStrong, Brown, a retired corporate executive with a background in the surf industry, hatched the idea after waking up from a nap in the healing Santa Barbara sunshine a few years back. He had been daydreaming about ways to give back to a community that had given him so much during his ongoing brawl with cancer and had awoken with a vision. Shortly thereafter, he ordered his first batch of blue bands emblazoned with the Surfing for Life slug, and when they arrived, he took a trip down to the Funk Zone, ground zero for Santa Barbara’s fabled surf industry. “I started at the Beach House with Roger [Nance] and then went to J7 and Channel Islands. The response was incredible. Those first 100 wristbands were gone in a day!” recalled Brown.

The formula is basic. Configured as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity organization, Brown offloads boxes of the bracelets to surf shops the world over, where they are sold for $2 a piece, every penny of the sales going back to the charity. With close to zero overhead (Brown is essentially a one-man band with support from his wife, Nancy), all of that money is then collected, divvied up, and redistributed each quarter to various cancer organizations of Brown’s and the surf shops’ designations.

Spread by nothing more than his will, the vast connectedness of the surf community, a dash of social media, and the fact that that cancer cuts close to everybody, the blue bands can now be found in more than 200 surf shops across 28 countries with more than 22,000 of them sold. “Every one of those wrists now wearing a blue band is a constant and daily reminder of this struggle. Maybe it reminds you to put on your sunblock before paddling out or maybe it gets you to go in for a physical that leads to early detection or it is a show of solidarity for a loved one. It represents the power of doing something and moving forward,” Brown said. “Look, you have two choices when faced with death: You can curl up in a ball and give up, or you can accept it and move forward and never look back. Sure I’m challenged with this disease, but it’s my life, and I have to deal with it. So in between all my treatments, I’m always trying to get back out there, visit the shops, and be proactive. I am like a signal or flag when I walk into these surf shops, just like the bracelet is a signal. I’m still going. The fight continues.”

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To get your own wristband and join the blue brigade, head down to J7 Surfboards, Channel Islands Surfboards, or the Beach House. For more information, see surfingforlife.org.



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