Cindy Crawford’s latest philanthropic campaign hits close to home. When the DeKalb, Illinois-born supermodel was just 8, her 2-year-old brother Jeff was diagnosed with leukemia. And just before Crawford’s tenth birthday, her little brother passed away. The experience left a lasting impression on the model, mom, and advocate: She's been a supporter of pediatric cancer research ever since.
In the past, Crawford supported organizations like the Leukemia Society of America, as well as the hospital where her brother was treated. And now, through her latest initiative with the American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society, she is shedding new light on a fairly unexpected way to help cancer patients: donating blood. “It was new information to me how much blood and blood products cancer patients use, and that we just don’t have enough people donating regularly,” Crawford tells InStyle in an exclusive interview.
According to the American Cancer Society, one in three people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime. What people may not know is that about five units (roughly two liters) of blood are needed every single minute to help a person going through cancer treatments. “Cancer patients use nearly one-quarter of the blood supply, more than patients with any other disease — and the need for blood in cancer treatment is an important and often untold story,” says Gary Reedy, CEO of the American Cancer Society.
Crawford’s current initiative, called Give Blood to Give Time, raises awareness about the importance of giving blood to help cancer patients. “The reason I love this campaign so much is I think often we feel powerless, and this is something simple that pretty much anyone can do,” Crawford says. “Let’s say a friend’s mother gets diagnosed with cancer, and you’re like, ‘What can I do?’ You can give blood.”
Crawford says she encourages her family, including her husband, businessman Rande Gerber, and her kids, Kaia, 18, and Presley Gerber, 20, to give back to similar causes in their own ways. “I believe that kids, a lot of times if they see their parents doing something, they either get inspired or they go, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ And they find their own way [to get involved],” she says, adding that she was the one to take Rande to visit pediatric cancer patients for the first time. “And I’ve taken my children with me since they were little,” she continues. “What they decide to do with that now that they’re young adults, that will be up to them. Like Kaia, for instance, just did a collaboration with Jimmy Choo and got to pick a charity component and she picked St. Jude.”
Crawford says that her mom played a huge role in inspiring her charity work and helping her process what had happened in her childhood. The day that her brother passed, she remembers crying with her family for hours at her grandparents’ house. “That was the beginning of processing it, and going to my brother’s funeral, and then having to go back to school.” School was particularly tough for the then-10-year-old. “That’s such a weird feeling to walk back into your classroom,” Crawford says. “No one knows what to say to you, even the teachers because as a society we are so uncomfortable talking about death and grief.”
But back at home, Crawford’s mom was open about her heartache. “My mother really showed me the way, because she allowed herself to grieve,” Crawford says. Within a year, her mom also started doing charity work, organizing a small dance marathon to raise money for other families touched by cancer. “That was very impactful to me because it showed me there’s something you can do with this grief, something that’s a good thing.”
Throughout her life, Crawford has kept the memory of Jeff alive. She goes back to one story about her brother in particular that, although painful, brings her and her family some comfort. “One day, my mom, who was raised a devout Baptist, found [my brother] sitting at his little table in his room. He had his hands crossed and she’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m praying.’ She said, ‘What are you praying for?’ And he said, ‘So that when I die, you’ll be OK,��� Crawford says. “And obviously I think my mom probably lost it and started bawling. But I think that also gave her some peace that he had such a direct relationship with his god that he wasn’t afraid.”
Crawford also says that the memory of her brother has inspired her to make the best of every second she has. “I think that when you experience that kind of loss at such a young age, you don’t take life for granted as much as maybe someone who hasn’t,” she says. “And I feel that there was some energy of Jeff behind me that helped me set my goals high.” Crawford has always been a high achiever — she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and earned an academic scholarship to Northwestern University, where she was going to study chemical engineering before she left to take on modeling fulltime.
It’s not easy to share such a personal experience, even for someone so used to the spotlight. But Crawford firmly believes sharing her story will inspire others to act. "The American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society are honored that Cindy Crawford was willing to share how her brother's battle with cancer impacted her life, and to shine a light on how blood donations can help patients fight back," says Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross. "I know from my own experience with breast cancer and also watching my husband's battle with lymphoma that this disease is terrifying."
Crawford wants to drive the point home that cancer goes far beyond just affecting the patient. “It’s a diagnosis for the whole family. Everyone’s affected by it,” she says. “And we feel so powerless, but something small like giving blood can help. There’s something that you can do.”
For more information on this campaign and how you can get involved, visit GiveBloodToGiveTime.org.