RISK & REWARD
How the support of young investigators and exceptional projects is changing the future
More than twenty years ago, Dr. David Rimm, the Anthony M. Brady Professor of Pathology at the Yale University School of Medicine, wanted to embark on a study he considered “high-risk, but with the potential for a high reward.” He was curious if the diagnosis of certain kinds of breast cancer could be more precise—and therefore more treatable—if pathologists were able to search for specific biomarkers in the blood of patient tissue samples.
The trouble was his hypothesis, at least from a funder’s perspective, was too unexplored and risky to attract grants from the traditional pool of cancer research funders. “The problem was trying to take it to the next step. For academia and big funders the idea was too speculative,” Dr. Rimm explains. “They wanted to see more qualitative data and evidence before they got behind it.”
So he turned to the Breast Cancer Alliance (BCA), which was willing to take a risk and gave him the funding to start his investigation.
Because of that investment, Dr. Rimm was able to propel his research to a breakthrough place. The BCA-funded research helped Dr. Rimm and his team develop a form of tissue analysis that remains the method diagnosticians continue to use today.
Each year the BCA awards grants to two groups of investigators aimed at advancing the fight against the disease. By design, it focuses on young researchers, whose early work shows promise or innovative projects that need a kickstart to attract the interest of bigger funders. By funding these nascent projects and researchers in the early stages, the BCA hopes to get behind early stage theories that could lead to long-term investments for more research from powerhouse funders such as the National Institutes for Health (NIH).
To date, BCA has targeted more than fifteen million dollars toward this effort. As an early benefactor, Dr. Rimm was so impressed with BCA’s innovative approach to funding research he joined its medical advisory board, a role he’s played for twenty-five years.
Recently, Dr. Rimm received another BCA grant to help his team explore the way certain breast cancers begin, known as carcinogenesis. “We’ve found a subset of breast cancers that seem to do that in a different way,” he says. “So the question we’re asking is, does that different mechanism result in a whole different flavor of breast cancer that might be treated or managed differently?”
The long-term goal, he explains, might lead to new ways to treat and manage these diseases. “The key understanding is that not all breast cancers are the same, and figuring out their unique qualities helps us fight them.”
BCA BOARD PRESIDENT COURTNEY OLSEN shares how her life story led her to frontlines of the battle against breast cancer
Awinning raffle ticket, a little fate and a personal journey as a breast cancer survivor led Darien’s Courtney Olsen to volunteer with the Greenwich-based Breast Cancer Alliance a decade ago. Today she leads the groundbreaking nonprofit as its volunteer board president. It’s a serious undertaking as the BCA devotes millions to supporting innovative breast cancer research, surgical fellowships near and far, and community-based programming focused on prevention and treatment in underserved communities.
In anticipation of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, which kicks off BCA’s busy agenda of annual fundraising and awareness events, we chatted with Courtney about her personal story, the nonprofit’s legacy of accomplishments and goals for the future.
GM: YOU WERE DIAGNOSED WITH BREAST CANCER AT JUST THIRTY-EIGHT AND HAD NO FAMILY HISTORY OF THE DISEASE. THERE ARE A WHOLE LOT OF MYTHS ABOUT BREAST CANCER THAT YOUR STORY BUSTS.
Courtney Olsen: I was completely shocked for all those reasons. I had never had a mammogram, because I wasn’t forty yet.
A lot of people assume if you get breast cancer it’s based on having a BRCA 1 or 2 gene. It turns out that I am not positive for the BRCA gene. I was tested after my diagnosis. I wanted to know, because I have a daughter.
But you know the biggest risk factor is being female. And for some reason, there’s a very high propensity of breast cancer in Long Island and Fairfield County. While there are risk factors, we just don’t know why some people get it and some people don’t.
At the same time, I don’t want a story like mine to scare people. I have so many friends who have a mammogram and they [the radiologists] see something and they freak out and they call me. I know hearing “We want to investigate this” is the kind of thing that takes years off your life. But what I stress to them is chances are you don’t have it. A lump doesn’t mean breast cancer. It’s probably a benign cyst, a fatty nodule. I always tell them take a breath, investigate, do your due diligence but don’t assume it’s cancer.
GM: HOW DID YOU BECOME A BCA VOLUNTEER?
CO: The short version is that I won a raffle! I attended the annual fashion show and luncheon—which we still hold every October—as the guest of another volunteer. The raffle item I won was a tennis outing that led me to the board member who scheduled the event. There was immediately a conversation about ways I could be more involved. In 2012 I was in the fashion show as a model of inspiration. And now, I’m the president! It was almost like it was meant to be.
GM: YOU ARE NOW A TEN- YEAR SURVIVOR. BECAUSE OF YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE, HOW IMPORTANT IS THE BCA’S FOCUS ON SUPPORTING OTHERS COPING WITH A BREAST CANCER DIAGNOSIS?
CO: It’s super important! I consider myself so lucky. I had my husband and a huge support system. I had access to the best doctors in the world and a friend with me at every chemo appointment. Not everyone has that, and I believe that support—and knowledge—is power.
When you get this diagnosis you are dazed and confused and you really need someone at your side just as you are gathering information, because it’s just so overwhelming. We have a million resources right on our website and free online webinars that are amazing. I also think what we’re doing to connect medical care to the underserved is so key—things like free mammograms and biopsies.
When I was in treatment, I had everything I needed to fight this, and I want other people to have that, too.
GM: BCA HAS GROWN SO MUCH IN THE TWENTY-SIX YEARS SINCE IT WAS FOUNDED BY THE FRIENDS OF THE LATE MARY WATERMAN, AS SHE WAS FIGHTING AN ADVANCED–STAGE BREAST CANCER. YET IT’S STILL A FAIRLY LEAN ORGANIZATION. HOW DO YOU GET SO MUCH DONE?
CO: Well, Yonni [Wattenmaker, BCA’s executive director] is a force to be reckoned with. Kristen [Linardos], Yonni’s executive assistant, has really grown with the organization and taken a lot off of Yonni’s very full plate. But the other thing that’s impressive about the BCA is just how hard our volunteers work to make all this happen. We have an active and working board of twenty-six; twenty-seven if you include me. And we have so many other committed volunteers who are involved in so many ways.
GM: IN TERMS OF THE BCA’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS, IS THERE ONE YOU ARE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF?
CO: It’s hard to choose one, but for me it’s the breast cancer fellowships we endow. We need more of those. Having experts in breast cancer working in our communities, especially where people are medically underserved, is so critically important
I feel like these fellowships are a never-ending gift. We have a fellow we funded who is working at a hospital in a border town in Texas. She’s making a world of difference for her patients.
Then I think about the money we are giving to young researchers who are doing groundbreaking work. These are people who probably couldn’t get their grants funded otherwise, and that’s inspiring. It’s incredibly important to support them. But so is the van we have in New Haven that’s out in the community doing mammograms and biopsies.
See? Asking me to pinpoint one thing is kind of impossible.
GM: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS FOR BCA’S FUTURE?
CO: The world is ever-evolving. We dealt with Covid and had to pivot. Now, we’re trying to stay relevant and really get the word out about what we’re doing. We just hired two college interns, one to help us with social media. We need young followers and ways to attract the next generation of supporters. We also need to keep our hands in everything we’re doing. We’re hoping there’s not a recession that will impact the support of our donors.
GM: WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE FOR ANY PERSON GETTING THIS DIAGNOSIS TODAY?
CO: Get a second opinion and, if possible, a third, especially if the second opinion doesn’t echo the first. This can be an enormous undertaking and really overwhelming, but take the time you need to navigate this and get the right diagnosis and treatment plan.
2 BCA FUNDED RESEARCH PROJECTS
Dr. Nora Disis
Associate Dean of Transitional Science at the University of Washington and Director of its Cancer Vaccine Institute
HER TEAM’S FOCUS:
Investigating and developing breast cancer vaccines
HOW BCA HELPED:
In the course of their research into a vaccine known as STEMVAC, University of Washington researchers found that while some patients were developing the desired immunities, about half were not. More research suggested that patients exhibiting a certain kind of T-cell in their blood, known as Bac-TA T-cells, were not developing the desired immune response.
Disis explains funding from the BCA allowed her team to enroll ten more patients in its clinical trial. They were tested for the presence of these T-cells in an effort to take a deeper dive into questions about why they might not respond to the vaccine.
WHY BCA SUPPORT MATTERS:
“They are not just our funder, they are our partner,” says Dr. Disis. “They are interested and excited about our research, want to hear about progress and offer suggestions from the patient point of view, which is invaluable. We wish we had more research collaborations like the one we have with BCA.”
Robert J. Schneider, PhD
Albert Sabin Professor of Molecular Pathogenesis and Co-Director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at New York University School of Medicine
HIS TEAM’S FOCUS:
Potential new immunotherapy focused on managing the response of regulatory T-cells (Treg cells) to fight breast cancer
HOW BCA HELPED:
Breast cancers in particular recruit Treg cells to suppress our body’s ability to carry out immune recognition of the tumor and destroy it, even at very early stages of disease. “The goal of our research that was funded by the BCA was to follow up on a very early discovery of ours, which suggested that Treg cells utilize a novel mechanism of protein synthesis for their development,” explains Dr. Schneider. Funding will help determine whether this discovery is correct and, if so, begin to explore how to exploit it to block Treg-cell development during breast cancer.
The early studies, funded initially by the BCA, are now funded by the National Institutes of Health and other breast cancer foundations.
WHY BCA SUPPORT MATTERS:
“The BCA support of our promising but risky early discovery has had an enormous impact,” says Dr. Schneider. “Funding by the BCA is responsible for enabling our later stage research that is now focused on development of a potential new immuno-oncology therapeutic for women with metastatic breast cancer. Without the seed-stage funding by the BCA, we would not now be embarking on new immune-oncology drug discovery.”
A Champion Mindset
The story of one OLYMPIAN’S MOST IMPORTANT VICTORY
Chaunte Lowe is used to physical challenges. Still, the four-time Olympian and world champion high jumper wasn’t prepared for her diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer when she was thirty-five and still a world-class competitor. The shocking news came in 2015 when nagging suspicions about a tiny lump in her breast motivated her to seek a second medical opinion. Her gut instincts got her into treatment that saved her life.
Now cancer free, Lowe uses her global platform to encourage others to be mindful of their own breast health. The athlete will share some inspiration at the Breast Cancer Alliance’s Annual Luncheon & Fashion Show on Thursday, October 20 at Westchester Country Club in Rye. We talked with Chaunte about her passionate support.
GM: YOU BEAT TRIPLE–NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER, WHICH IS A FAIRLY COMMON FORM OF THE DISEASE IN WOMEN OF WEST AFRICAN DESCENT. HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR YOU TO USE YOUR PLATFORM TO RAISE AWARENESS?
Chaunte Lowe: With a diagnosis of breast cancer comes a responsibility to use my privilege as an elite athlete to help those who have been diagnosed— or may be diagnosed with breast cancer—and do everything that I can to help make their story and their outcome better if I can.
So, for me that means spreading the message of early detection and sharing my story of how I found breast cancer myself before even being of age for a mammogram.
GM: HOW WERE YOU DIAGNOSED?
CL: After hearing a story of a fellow Olympian that had found stage-zero breast cancer by doing self-breast exams, I began doing my own. The exams were uneventful for the first couple of years, but toward the end of the second year I found a tiny rice sized lump. I immediately went to get it checked. I was initially told it was a swollen lymph node and not to come back for six years. But something was irking me. Something inside of me was telling me, “That’s not right.” Eleven months later I went in for a second opinion, and that’s when I was diagnosed.
GM: SO HERE YOU ARE, THIS INCREDIBLY HEALTHY OLYMPIAN. YOU MUST HAVE BEEN SHOCKED?
CL: I was floored at the diagnosis, because I believed I was doing everything right to make sure that I did not have this diagnosis. I was unaware that there were specific types of breast cancers that impacted African American women. That’s why it is so important for me to share the message, because I believe there are others that do not know their risk.
By sharing my story it might help them become more vigilant, and if there are those that would be diagnosed with breast cancers, hopefully they would find them at early stages where there are a lot more options and they are more treatable.
GM: DID THE EXPERIENCES YOU HAD TRAINING AS AN ELITE ATHLETE HELP YOU COPE WITH TREATMENT AND RECOVERY?
CL: Yes! The mentality I had to take was the same one I used as an elite athlete coming back from pregnancy. I have three amazing children I call my three Olympic gold medals.
When I came back from each pregnancy, I had to learn to take it a step at a time, be very patient with my body, but consistent. I understand the importance of prioritizing what’s important versus what might not be so important, and really giving myself the grace to develop naturally and not put the pressure on myself that I have to do everything right now.
I did decide to continue training for my fifth Olympic Games through chemotherapy and my double mastectomy, because I understood that the platform of getting on the world stage would amplify the message of breast cancer awareness. And I felt like having such a strong and lofty goal would be the anchor to pull me through the difficulties of treatment. I definitely feel like what I learned from training for competition is what was able to help me get through treatment.
GM: YOU WERE A TEACHER AND REMAIN A BIG PROPONENT OF STEM-BASED EDUCATION. YOU MUST LOVE THE EMPHASIS THE BCA PUTS ON SUPPORTING BREAST CANCER RESEARCH AND THE WORK OF YOUNG INVESTIGATORS.
CL: I always say that our future is in the hands of our children. When we get the opportunity to educate our students and expose them to the excitement of science, technology and mathematics education, as well as engineering, we are really setting ourselves up for a future that is going to be innovative and find solutions to the problems we are facing today.
I believe that when a woman or man goes through breast cancer, it is not only them that are impacted but their families, their children, the people that love them and watch them. And I think that when we get children excited about research, excited about finding solutions, especially for those that have watched loved ones go through it, there is a sense of urgency and passion that fuels them.
I love that BCA understands that and has actually put dollars toward that to really cement in the fact that our future is in the hands of our students. So, I am 100 percent in love with that commitment, and I am very excited to see what the young people of today will do to help us solve the problems that we are facing now.
GM: WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
CL: I was able to write a children’s book talking about my adversities, some of the difficult challenges I faced—including poverty, domestic violence and even homelessness—and giving students the tools to be able to navigate through those things. That’s coming out in March 2023.
During the pandemic I launched a business as a professional speaker— encouraging and inspiring and uplifting people within the workforce, within the foundation community, within philanthropy, being able to share that message of hope with groups big and small. It’s my passion project. It’s my life. I’m always going to stay fit, but of course continue to advocate for breast cancer awareness. I am so excited about what is to come.
ADVANCING THE MISSION
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR YONNI WATTENMAKER ON THE UNWAVERING COMMITMENT TO SAVING LIVES
Once again, or perhaps still, we find ourselves in challenging times. As much as we hoped Covid would be in the rearview mirror, it is still a factor with which we need to contend; and due to a variety of world circumstances, our economic situation has been volatile,” says Yonni Wattenmaker, executive director of the Breast Cancer Alliance.
“Despite all of that, breast cancer persists. I recently fielded advice and referrals for three newly-diagnosed patients, and that was just in one week’s time. While not every week looks that way, too many do. As a result, our goals are steadfast. We want to educate as many people as we can with tips on prevention, the need for early detection, surgical options and advances in treatment. We want to build awareness of BCA’s work to expand the audiences we reach and, most important, to raise the funds necessary for doctors and scientists to keep advancing the field, improving outcomes and saving lives. These annual luncheons, and our GoForPink initiatives throughout October, are where the bulk of those funds are raised. The more support and involvement we have in those efforts, the more impact we can make in the year ahead.”
The BCA will observe Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a series of October fundraising and awareness events. The annual Luncheon and Fashion Show: A Celebration of Beauty, Courage and Authenticity will be held on Thursday, Oct. 20 at Westchester Country Club in Rye.
The fashion show is presented by Richards and Carolina Herrera in collaboration with Creative Director Wes Gordon. Special guests will include Olympian Chaunte Lowe and Ann Caruso, celebrity fashion stylist and two-time breast cancer survivor.
For information on October events and to purchase tickets to the luncheon, visit breastcanceralliance.org/events.