What killed Joe Pa?

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Today over 10,000 fans payed their respects to Joe Paterno, affectionately known as Joe Pa , the legendary football coach of Penn State.

As a sports fan I am saddened by how the iconic coach had to give up his position as head coach of the team – a position he held for close to 50 years.

As a father of two, and soon three, I am irate of what happened and the fact that no one, including Joe Pa, and yes I am a fan, did not put maximal effort on protecting these kids from sexual abuse.


I have lots of opinions of what occurred at Penn State, but that’s not what this blog post is about.

More interesting to you are the questions: What killed Joe Pa? Was it lung cancer? Chemo?


The story of Dr. Bill Mitchell


Dr. Mitchell was a well-known naturopathic physician and one of the founders of the prestigious naturopathic school, Bastyr University. Dr. Mitchell was respected for his work in making naturopathic medicine scientific – as a result, he wrote several books on the topic.

In 2007, Dr. Mitchell’s 27 year-old son mysteriously died from a heart attack. Hours later, the beloved and respected Dr. Mitchell also died from a heart attack at the age of 59 – only hours later.


What killed Joe Pa?


On October 29th, Penn state football team beat Illinois on a game coach Paterno coached with just signs of aging at age 84.

On November 4th, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is indicted on 40 charges of sex crimes against boys. Some of those charges dated to Sandusky’s coaching days at Penn State.

On November 9th, Joe Pa is fired of head coach of the Penn State football team. A position he held for longer than most people that read this blog have lived.

On November 18th, just 11 days after his firing (give or take), the 84-year-old coach began chemo for lung cancer. The diagnosis was made a week earlier when Paterno visited his doctor for a bronchial illness.

In the Huffington post, a commentator states “ a broken heart did not kill Joe Paterno, cancer did.”

How do you know? You mean to tell me that he did not have lung cancer one-week prior? 6-weeks prior? Or even 6-months prior? Really?


Give me a break.


Cancer is a complicated disease and anyone who claims to know how it works is a moron. But cancer does not happen over night. And yes, it is biologically and scientifically feasible for “a broken heart” to expedite someone’s demise. And yes, un-managed stress, disappointment, depression, uncontrolled anxiety, loss of a loved one or sudden loss of a job that you passionately had can biologically cause a favorable environment for cancer cells to grow and progress.


The science of stress and cancer – overly simplified


There is a section in your brain called the hypothalamus-pituitary axis (HPA) that connects your hormonal system with your nervous system. Once an event or series of events is perceived as stressors, the nervous system sends a message to the HPA to start producing stress neuro-transmitters and hormones called catecholamine’s (epinephrine and norepinephrine) and corticosteroids (like cortisol) respectively – both being immune suppressive. There are hundreds of immune cells and immune mediators that are suppressed by chemicals produced by stress including Natural Killer (NK) cells. NK cells (among others) are notorious for defending the body against cancer cells. Optimizing the activity of these cells is a good idea. (Reiche et al. 2004)


Bottom line


Joe Pa lost his passion, his love and perhaps most importantly, his identity when he lost his job as head football coach of Penn State. So much so that he turned down several NFL coaching jobs during his career. He even failed to report the nauseating actions of his staff member to protect the name of the school and team.

So what killed Joe Pa? I don’t know for sure but a broken heart was indeed a major contributor.




Reiche EM, Nunes SO, Morimoto HK. Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. Lancet Oncol. 2004 Oct;5(10):617-25.



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by Dr. Geo

6 comments… add one
  • Sid Whitkin 01/26/2012, 5:40 AM

    Dear Dr. Espinosa,

    Being a sports fan, I’m moved to comment on your “diagnosis” of Joe Pa’s death. The inescapable fact seemed to be that after he knew about Sandusky’s actions, he never inquired or reported the incidents further than the next person in his chain of command. (Although it seems that at Penn State, he was the chain of command)……..and that was even for years afterward, when Sandusky was no longer on his staff, and he still had the “keys to the kingdom” and could be seen openly bringing young boys into the facility. Hence, after being fired, and his identity and all that it entailed came tumbling down, perhaps for the first time, he realized the enormity of his actions (or lack therof). So it might not have been a broken heart per se, but the awakening (as if from a dream) to the enormity of the situation and the responsibility that he forego; thereby activating devastating emotions that qickened the disease response. Perhaps…..Or on a more conscious level, he was still “dreaming” that he was Joe Pa the king of the kingdom, who could do know wrong.

    Many thanks for your blog. I read it all the time. Hope all is well with you.

    Sid Whitkin

    • Dr. Geo 01/26/2012, 7:51 AM

      Thanks you Sid. Yes, there are multiple reason’s why Joe Paterno’s health crumbled after he was fired. But to say that it was cancer alone and not the physiological and psychological components as major contributors is ignoring the science of psychoimmunology.

  • Robert Schwalbe 01/26/2012, 8:05 AM

    Dr. Geo,
    I am so grateful to you for spelling out the powerful place emotions could have in dictating the physical and mental state of a man.
    Obviously the Paterno case is encumbered with so much outside force that led to his cancer diagnosis imploding.
    In my work as a psychotherapist for men I find that I am often explaining to my patients the powerful impact of the mind/body connection. Once understood the path to clarity comes into view and men are willing to explore the influence of their emotional state on their behavior and their physical condition.
    I respect your infoblogs enormously and I’m proud and grateful to be part of your communiity.
    I hope you are well and the ever expanding family is healthy and happy.
    Best to you….
    Robert Schwalbe

  • Marie Fitzgerald 01/26/2012, 10:42 AM

    Dr. Geo: Thank you for the excellent article, yes, I believe that emotions play a part in cancer, my sister-in-law lost her 19 year old son to a brain aneurism and shorthly thereafter was diagnosed with what turned out to be fatal breast cancer.

    On a different note, I want to complement you on recommending the XY Wellness vitamins (APC) and the APC diet to my husband after his prostrate cancer surgery at NYU. He also had hip replacement surgery later in 2010. At 75 years old, he is in great shape and has made a marvelous recovery. You were right his energy rate is fantastic. He never even got a cold even when the rest of the family were sick. You have changed the formula and we have just ordered a 2nd month’s supply – hope it works as well.

    Delighted to hear of the impending addition to your family.

    I enjoy your blog.

    Marie Fitzgerald

  • ira kalina 01/29/2012, 2:09 PM

    Hi Geo,

    My wife and i were on a cruise in the Galapagos when we heard the news. A number of others on the cruise were from Western Pa and some had gone to Penn State. To a person they wondered if his death was due to the stress and losses he suffered. Also as a Psychologist who often works with grief and loss It would startle me if in fact stress and a broken heart had little to do with the rapid advancement of his illness and his death.


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