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A fight for the cure

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In the battle against cancer, the ACS has boots on the ground

cancer.jpgFor nearly a century, they have faced an insidious enemy, and the battle continues to rage on across the world, the country and in our own backyard. With three million volunteers and more than 3,400 offices nationwide, it is no stretch to call the American Cancer Society (ACS) an army, and it has to be. Cancer, simply defined as a group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells, will affect nearly one in two American men and one in three American women during their lifetimes. In 2006, it is estimated that 1,399,790 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed. But there is hope. The five-year relative survival rate for cancer is now 65 percent, up from 50 percent just 30 years ago. People are living longer; they are beating cancer more than ever before. ACS and its millions of volunteers, staff and researchers are saving lives. Can there be any better reason to fight?

The following interviews provide some insight into ACS’s dedicated individuals and why they stand on the front lines locally and nationally in the ongoing struggle against cancer. Like so many in ACS, they spend countless hours every year trying to help family, friends and complete strangers. They aren’t doing this for themselves; they are doing it for us all.

tb.jpgTerry Birkhoff
executive director of Greater New Orleans ACS

What is the main function of the American Cancer Society, nationally and locally?
What should the public think of when they hear “American Cancer Society”?

The main function of ACS is best described by our mission statement, which basically says we are here to eliminate cancer. We do this in four main areas: research, education, advocacy and service. ACS is known for providing seed money for researchers early on
in their careers. This is important because 38 of our researchers have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, so people can be confident that their money is being used to fund the best scientists in the world. Education is twofold: cancer prevention and early detection. Advocacy is an area we’ve invested money in lately because cancer is now a legislative issue. Laws are being enacted affecting cancer patients every day, and our voices must be heard on the steps of Congress. ACS’s job is to improve the quality of life for cancer patients; therefore, we provide services that impact every facet of their cancer journey.

As executive director what has been your proudest moment working for ACS?

It occurred in the days during and after Katrina. I’ve never seen volunteers and staff respond the way they did. We actually went out looking for cancer patients. The beauty of being involved with a national organization like ACS allowed us to service cancer patients no matter where they were displaced in the storm. For instance, if patients were evacuated to Texas, we had an office in every metro area that could help those patients. Staff and volunteers with fliers went searching for cancer patients in shelters to make sure their current physicians were identified, so medical records could be transferred and the patient could get a new physician temporarily. We have eight offices throughout Louisiana, and we service every single county in the United States. ACS never closed during the storm—24 hours a day, seven days week, so anyone could call our 800-number [800.ACS.2345], or access our web site [www.cancer.org] and get the critical information they needed.

Any recent success you’re particularly proud of?

Besides the ACS Patrick F. Taylor Hope Lodge [free, temporary housing for cancer patients], it would have to be the passing of the smoke-free bill in June. ACS played a major role in getting this legislation passed. The ACS fight will continue until we canprovide a completely smoke-free environment to the community we serve.

fb.jpgFrank Beyer
vice president and director of Merrill Lynch’s New Orleans Complex and president of the Greater New Orleans ACS Executive Leadership Council

What made you decide to volunteer for the American Cancer Society?

My wife is a breast cancer survivor. Let’s face it: Any leader in the community has an obligation to get involved philanthropically. I’ve chosen a few organizations to be involved with and ACS is my main thrust. Yes, it’s because my family has been affected by it, but it’s also because so many have been affected by it. Everyone you know has been touched by cancer. The minute you bring it up in public, you often get a reaction like, “A close friend of mine was recently diagnosed with cancer,” or “I have an aunt who is
battling cancer.”

What’s your role as president of the ACS Executive Leadership Council?

The council itself is a business and leadership group which works in conjunction with the executive director and her staff to help deliver on the strategic priorities of ACS. These priorities include information/quality of life, prevention and early detection, volunteer development and income development. As president, I facilitate meetings, coordinate members, find new members, and I’m active in the community. It’s putting a face on the council and letting the public know we’re here.

Why are these kinds of volunteer efforts so vital in the fight to find a cure?

My wife literally took treatment with a drug that was funded by ACS research. Bottom line: We fund research. We’re the largest, not-for-profit private source of funds for scientists studying cancer. When you raise money for ACS, you are providing for services like improving quality of life. It’s a very emotional time for people going through cancer treatment—they often lose their hair, there’s job stress, the costs involved, and simple things like transportation—so our commitment assists programs that address these issues. Plus in terms of advocacy for cancer patients, it’s getting out into the community and letting cancer patients know what’s out there to help them.

tf.jpgDr. Terry Fontham
dean of the Louisiana State University Health Science Center School of Public Health, member of the National Board of Directors for ACS, chairwoman of ACS’s Research and Medical Affairs Committee

Does your committee make funding recommendations?

The committee doesn’t make recommendations—the ACS has a peer-review system to review and score all grants. In fact, the National Institutes of Health modeled their peer-review system on ACS’s. My committee advises the research staff at ACS on
the overall direction of the program. For instance, a number of years ago, ACS decided that it was important to have a unique niche in the research area, particularly with young scientists. So we evaluate to make sure that is happening. An example of the importance of funding promising young investigators is the fact that ACS funded
many of these investigators before they won the Nobel Prize.

What do you look for in a researcher and what kind of research in general?

ACS has traditionally funded basic science research. In the past decade, however, we have moved toward more applied research including behavioral science, health policy research and research addressing disparities such as outcome differences for various ethnic populations. Basic science research still represents more than half of the grants funded.

What are some new breakthroughs and developments in the research field?

In the area of treatment, aromatase inhibitors [hormone therapy used for some cancer patients] have shown great promise in the treatment of breast cancer. There is a large clinical trial going on right now for the early detection of lung cancer. There aren’t any results at this time, but a positive trial would really change the picture of lung cancer in this country. ACS helped recruit participants for this study.

What is going on locally?

I’m involved in a large study of prostate cancer to determine why some men have a poorer prognosis than others. We’re in the process of recruiting 1,000 men, and we look forward to results in about three years.

ts.jpgDr. Troy Scroggins
chairman of the Radiation Oncology Department at Ochsner Health System, is a member of the Greater New Orleans ACS Hope Lodge Advisory Committee.

The Patrick F. Taylor Hope Lodge recently opened. What exactly is it?

The Hope Lodge is a facility where cancer patients who are actively receiving treatment can have a place to stay free of charge. There are 34 rooms with enough space in each room for the patient and a family member or friend.

Why is this kind of housing so important for cancer patients?

Even prior to the storm, many patients from smaller communities would drive to New Orleans for treatment. Since the storm, we have many New Orleanians displaced who still want to come to the city for their cancer treatments. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can put a lot of stress on a patient’s body, so having Hope Lodge helps relieve some of that stress because patients don’t have to travel far. It also helps to relieve emotional stress by alleviating the financial pressure of having to find a place to stay.

The lodge isn’t just about having a place to stay; it’s more than that. What are some of the added benefits for a cancer patient staying here?

One of the biggest added benefits is that it provides a built-in support group for cancer patients and their families. They can share their experiences with others who are either undergoing cancer treatment or have a family member receiving treatment. Additionally, the Hope Lodge provides an informational library for patients to find out more about their cancer and what treatments are available.

Is there anything that Hope Lodge currently needs?

Yes, there is the issue of transportation. We would like to be able to drive the cancer patients to and from their treatments, but we will need to acquire a couple of vans to do so. That way a patient, who might be fatigued from chemotherapy or radiation therapy, won’t have to worry about driving back to the Hope Lodge. It will make the experience complete.