This October, I wanted to begin with a throwback conversation to honor those who began what we now recognize as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In my world, the more people you have helped the bigger the celebrity you are. So two years ago when I had the privilege to talk to Myra Biblowit, the President and CEO of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) I was everything you would be when meeting your hero…nervous, anxious, excited, and truly thrilled to share her remarkable journey to change the lives of millions of women around the globe.
Our conversation was timely because just two days before we spoke, a friend of mine had a mastectomy. Myra was beyond lovely, compassionate, soulful, and truly inspirational in her commitment to prevent and cure breast cancer (the second most common cancer) by advancing the world’s most promising research. Although October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, this disease doesn’t care what day or month it is. Every 2 minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. Myra, her team, and a remarkable group of people are all changing the game and after our conversation, I can see that cancer doesn’t stand a chance with this beautiful lady starring it down.
Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what BCRF does?
Myra Biblowit: We want to put an end to breast cancer and our goal is to have no more fear, no more hospital visits, no more side effects, no more needless suffering, and no more loved ones lost to breast cancer and the only way to achieve our goal to prevent and cure breast cancer is through research.
Charity Matters: What was the moment that The Breast Cancer Research Foundation began?
Myra Biblowit: BCRF started in 1993 but I met Evelyn Lauder in 1985 and we forged an incredible friendship. Evelyn called me and said that she had an idea to create a foundation that focused on breast cancer research after seeing the pace at which breast cancer research was moving. Evelyn had looked around the country and there was not one organization that was doing research with a laser-sharp focus. Evelyn said, “I can do this and if I can do it and I don’t it, it would be a sin. Will you help me?” Evelyn had a soul and a heart that was enormous. She was working on the pink ribbon symbol and knew she could make this an ubiquitous symbol of the cause and get this issue out of the closet.
The story doesn’t end with creating awareness, it extends to harnessing dollars towards research to change the future. I told Evelyn, I would help her find an Executive Director and help her get BCRF off the ground. I was working at the Museum of Natural History at the time. In 1993, BCRF began at Evelyn Lauder’s kitchen table with our dear friend Dr. Larry Norton of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Seven years later when I was working at NYU, I had had a few job opportunities arise and I reached out to Evelyn and Leonard Lauder for their advice as friends and Evelyn said, “Well this is a slam dunk, this is bashert (Yiddish for meant to be)….last night the Executive Director told us she wanted to stop working.”
By Monday, I was the President of BCRF. Evelyn gave up the Presidency and became Chairman and Founder and I went to work for my darling friend. I started April 1st, 2001, and I told her I would take the organization international, I would raise a lot more money and I would create a strategic thoughtful grant program to ensure that the dollars we are raising are wisely meeting the organization’s targets.
Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?
Myra Biblowit: We lost Evelyn in 2011, and I do what I do in her memory and in her honor. BCRF is her legacy and I work hard to make sure that we are the gold standard. Our work stands as a tribute to her vision. Today we are the largest global funder of breast cancer research. We are the most highly rated breast cancer organization in the country. Evelyn had such vision and clairvoyance, breast cancer was in the closet when we started and thanks to pioneers like Evelyn breast cancer and women across the globe, it is out there now.
The dollars that we are investing at BCRF are not only answering questions about breast cancer today but a multiplicity of other cancers as well. Evelyn would not have envisioned the relevance that BCRF would have.
Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?
Myra Biblowit: Since BCRF was founded there has been a 40% decline in breast cancer deaths worldwide. The proof is in the pudding and truly we can tell you that BCRF has had a role in every major break thru breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship as well as an advancing knowledge about other metastatic diseases.
When Evelyn and I were working together we were mainly talking about diagnosis and treatment. We knew then and know even more now that research is THE reason. Today that continuum begins with prevention and extends with survivorship. The connector is that research is THE reason, it is the glue.
Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had at BCRF?
Myra Biblowit: I think it is important for people to know that breast cancer is rapidly transitioning to a manageable chronic disease. People need to not be fearful of the stories of the past from their mothers and grandmothers. Treatments are much more targeted. When a woman is diagnosed today they can try to find what type of tumor she has and then find the right treatment for that tumor type, which is huge.
We now know that breast cancer is not one disease but made up of four or five different diseases in terms of tumor types and each one has more in common with other forms of cancer than with each other. Today’s treatment has a far greater likelihood of success and they are far less toxic.
One study that BCRF was involved with was the TAILORx, a major multi-year and multi-country study to determine what women needed chemo who had early-stage estrogen-positive breast cancer. We knew women who had a high score needed chemo and women who had a low score did not need it. We didn’t know for the 70,000-100,000 women in the middle range if they needed chemo or not. Today we now know that those women do NOT need chemotherapy. This study proved the power of research. These are the advances that change the future for our mothers, our daughters, and our friends.
Charity Matters: What is your vision for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation going forward?
Myra Biblowit: In the current year we raised $80 million dollars and we awarded grants of $63 million dollars to over 300 researchers across 14 countries. We could have funded more had we had more funds. We are one of the few engines that give resources to cutting edge researchers. We are the engine that tells researchers to take that chance. We are a rare funder in our flex-ability taking research down the path of greatest opportunity because the stakes are so high.
We devoted a fund to metastatic disease when Evelyn died by creating a Founder’s Fund. We want to use that fund to find more about metastatic disease, we want to invest in young researchers, and the more dollars we can give to our researchers the more breakthroughs we can make.
Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience? How has this journey changed you?
Myra Biblowit: You know Evelyn gave me an opportunity to do something professionally that touches people’s lives profoundly. How lucky am I? Evelyn was grateful for everything that came her way. She was a child of the Holocaust and her family fled when she was an infant. Everything that she and Leonard achieved was a partnership. She was magnetic and wonderful and when we lost her, Leonard stepped in. I am filled with gratitude every day and for the opportunity to learn from the extraordinary Lauder family. What fed their soul was to make the world a better place and it was infectious.
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