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Stand up and fight

Author: Laurie Wertich

As an acclaimed film producer, Laura Ziskin could have simply left a legacy of film and television credits— Pretty Woman, As Good As It Gets, Spider-Man, and the Academy Awards, to name a few. But the fact is, that work is really only the preface to a much more compelling real-life screenplay, where Laura courageously lives with cancer for seven years and co-founds Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C), a grassroots movement aimed at accelerating cancer research and raising public awareness. And that is the stuff of which true legacies are made.

Standing up to cancer

To understand the full impact of this trailblazing, filmmaking cancer warrior, it’s important to rewind the tape. Laura was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2004, in the prime of her 35-year career as a producer and studio executive. Never one to waver in the face of a challenge, Laura not only stood up and looked cancer in the eye— she counterattacked.

Sure, she underwent chemotherapy, an autologous stem cell transplant, radiation, a mastectomy, and even clinical trials. But she didn’t stop at fighting the cancer in her own body; she decided to fight it on a global level—by co-founding SU2C, an organization devoted to using the entertainment industry’s resources to engage the public and spearhead a new approach to cancer research. And although cancer took Laura’s life last June when she was just 61, her global fight lives on.

Changing the culture

“Laura always called herself an impatient patient,” explains Rusty Robertson, Laura’s friend and a co-founder of SU2C. “She had a contagious vision; she borrowed the management phrase culture eats strategy for lunch, turning it into a mantra in the fight against cancer. She believed that if we changed the culture and the way people thought about the disease—both the public and the scientists working to beat it—we could make progress.”

Changing the culture meant getting scientists, corporations, philanthropists, and the public to work together to eradicate the disease. Why the emphasis on collaboration? Because SU2C believes that rather than competing, scientists need to unite against a common foe: cancer.

SU2C fosters this sense of collaboration by funding translational research— research that moves quickly from the lab to the clinic, where it can be used to save patients’ lives. It wasn’t enough to simply raise the funds; SU2C wanted to ensure that the funds had a quick and profound impact. As such, the organization funds two types of research: Dream Teams and Innovative Research Grants. Dream Teams are multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary groups who work quickly and collaboratively to develop new treatments. Innovative Research Grants support individual, early-career scientists pursuing groundbreaking cancer research projects that are high risk but could also be high impact and that have the potential to significantly affect patient care.

Stand up and see results

The bottom line: collaboration works. Currently, 355 scientists from 55 institutions interact and share information through SU2C. The organization doesn’t just talk the talk; it walks the walk. Scientists must meet annual milestones to receive funding for the next year. In other words, when SU2C says it wants to collaborate in order to accelerate the pace of research, it’s not kidding.

So far more than $180 million has been pledged to SU2C, and the initiative has forged relationships within the business, pharmaceutical, scientific, and entertainment communities. The organization produced a groundbreaking, commercial-free telecast in September 2008, which aired on ABC, NBC, and CBS; reached viewers in 170 countries; and raised more than $100 million. The second broadcast in September 2010 aired on all the major networks including FOX, as well as via 14 cable channels and more than 30 online streaming partners, and raised more than $80 million. Plans are under way for the third SU2C broadcast in September 2012.

And this is only the beginning. SU2C has big plans for the future and will extend its global reach through several upcoming events as well as its continued partnership with its founding donor, Major League Baseball. “We are now asking ourselves, What would Laura do?” Rusty says. “Because her presence has not left us. She is guiding us.”

Leaving a legacy

Laura was relentless in the face of cancer. She envisioned a world without cancer in this lifetime. To anyone who dared tell her it was impossible, she would say that we once thought it impossible to land on the moon and to cure polio. In other words, the person who says something is impossible should not interrupt the person doing it. Laura was determined to put an end to cancer, and she leaves behind an organization that is more committed than ever to doing just that.

“Laura would want me to tell you that on the day she passed, 1,499 other people died from cancer, too. And 1,500 people died the next day and the next,” Rusty says. “She would want me to tell you that collaboration is the only way we can truly eradicate this insidious disease. We have the tools to do it, and we will succeed.”

Rusty says that SU2C has changed the culture of everyone it has touched, especially in the world of science. “I speak for everyone on the existing leadership council—Pam Williams, Sue Schwartz, Sherry Lansing, Katie Couric, Kathleen Lobb, Ellen Ziffren, Lisa Paulsen—when I say that we are all better and the world is better because Laura has been in it,” Rusty says.

Rusty and her colleagues are determined to continue the fight that Laura started. It takes a village to stand up to cancer, and losing such a vital member of the village has only strengthened their resolve. “Our motto is and always will be This is where the end of cancer begins,” Rusty shares. “My new motto is This is now where Laura’s legacy begins.

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