A decade ago, some of Hollywood's fierceset female leaders combined forces to raise funding for cancer research and drive an innovative "dream teams" model for scientists — $500 million later, the surviving co-founders open up about how they are fighting as hard as ever.
With more than $500 million raised for cancer research — funds that have helped bring five treatments to market — Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C) is marking its 10th anniversary doing what its co-founders do best: fighting on. SU2C's sixth biennial fundraising telecast will air Sept. 7, with Bradley Cooper (who lost his father to lung cancer) returning for the second time as co-executive producer. The special — which debuted in 2008 on ABC, NBC, CBS and E!, all donating the time commercial free — will run on more than 60 broadcast and cable networks as well as digital and streaming platforms. "For the networks and cable channels, to whom I'm forever grateful, to give us one hour every other year is unheard of," says SU2C co-founder Sherry Lansing, whose mother died at 64 of ovarian cancer. "Lives have been saved. Drugs have been discovered from the science we started. But it's not good enough because every day you hear about somebody who doesn't beat this disease." Adds fellow co-founder Katie Couric, "You have no time to waste when you have cancer."
At a May 20 gathering of the nonprofit group's eight surviving co-founders, along with president and CEO Sung Poblete, the talk is of growing the vision they set 10 years ago, nearly to the day. "We all agreed from the start that we had to be measurably impactful," says philanthropic strategist Ellen Ziffren, whose late mother was a lymphoma survivor. "Research was not progressing quickly enough because everyone was working on their own, competing for the same money." So at its inception, SU2C — which brought on Nobel laureate and RNA splicing co-discoverer Phillip A. Sharp as its chief scientific adviser and the American Association of Cancer Research as its scientific partner — engineered a model to encourage collaboration: "Give them a big enough grant and they'll find a way to share," says Lansing of the strategy to create scientific "dream teams" with a powerful mandate. "The teams had to go to clinical trials within the three-year term of the grant. They had to show patient benefits," explains co-founder and communications strategist Kathleen Lobb. Since that first telecast in 2008 — which raised $100 million and featured a surprise opening appearance by Patrick Swayze, then in the midst of his battle with pancreatic cancer — more than 1,500 scientists and 79 teams (24 of them multiple-institution dream teams) have received SU2C funds.
SU2C, a division of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, started out as three different groups, each with an ambitious idea to fight the disease that claims 1,600 lives a day in the U.S. When she was still at NBC's Today, Couric — whose first husband, Jay Monahan, died in 1998 of colon cancer and whose sister Emily died in 2001 of pancreatic cancer — had not only been increasing awareness through her on-air colonoscopy in 2000 but also had been raising money to fight colo-rectal cancer through the EIF, working with then-CEO Lisa Paulsen and Lobb. "I saw these extraordinary fundraising telecasts after 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami," says Couric. "I thought, ''Wow, look at what they can do in a single night. Look at the collective star power they can engage. Why can't we take that model and raise money for cancer research?' "
Independently, Ziffren had been meeting with Lansing about a Hollywood initiative to fight the disease and called Paulsen for counsel. "When I got that call I was on my way to see my mother in Indiana, who was battling ovarian cancer," recalls Paulsen, whose father had died earlier of lung cancer. In early 2006, she, Couric and Lansing secured a verbal commitment from Jeff Zucker, then president of NBC and a two-time colon cancer survivor, to participate in a roadblock telecast. Meanwhile, TV producer Noreen Fraser (Entertainment Tonight, Home Show) and marketing pros Rusty Robertson and Sue Schwartz of the Robertson Schwartz Agency had joined forces with film producer Laura Ziskin (No Way Out, Spider-Man) to produce a cable special supporting research for breast cancer — a disease both Fraser and Ziskin were battling. "Laura was mad as hell that her diagnosis was no different than had she been diagnosed 40 years previously, in terms of the treatments," recalls Pamela Oas Williams, Ziskin's producing partner and now a member of the SU2C leadership group. Adds Robertson, who lost her mother to lung cancer, "This was so personal for all of us."
Paulsen learned of this other group's efforts in 2007 — she mentioned them to Lansing, who called Ziskin to propose combining forces. Soon after, the co-founders worked with Ziffren's husband, attorney Ken Ziffren, to get ABC's then-president, Anne Sweeney, and CBS' Leslie Moonves on board for the telecast. A crucial get was convincing Major League Baseball to sign on as a founding donor to the tune of $10 million. Lansing recalls their 15-minute meeting with MLB's then-commissioner, Bud Selig, at a hotel in Century City. "Laura [Ziskin] talked about how she's battling cancer and what it means and it's just a heart-breaking story and how she doesn't have time," remembers Lansing. "When it's my turn, my job is to say, 'And so we'd like you to give us $10 million over the next three years' as if I was asking someone to pass the tea. I had never asked anybody for $10 million." When Selig said yes, continues Lansing, "A lot of the women started to cry. Afterward, I said, 'You'll never cry again.' And someone said, 'Why? It was wonderful!' I said, 'Because crying means you didn't think you were gonna get it. We have to show no doubt, so we don't cry anymore.'" For Schwartz (who lost her mother to multiple myeloma), MLB signing on was a seal of approval. "Not only did they give us $10 million that first year, they gave us the credibility that when we went to other people, they were like, 'OK, this is the real thing.'" Since then, such corporations as MasterCard and American Airlines have signed on as partners, while more than 700 stars have taken part in SU2C telecasts, PSAs and other activities.
It was just a coincidence — or not — that all of the SU2C leaders were women. "This was long before it was mandatory to have a lot of women doing something, but there is just something about our collective energy that is powerful. We all want to see things done differently," says Ziffren. Seconds Couric, "I always say, hell hath no fury like a bunch of type-A women pissed off at the pace of cancer research."
Along the way, Ziskin and Fraser pushed everyone to dream big. "The two of them were looking us in the eye every day," recalls Lansing.
"Laura was the ultimate impatient patient," says Poblete. "She'd say, 'It's not good enough. How can we do this faster?' " Ziskin died in 2011 at 61, while Fraser died last year at 63, having survived with cancer for 16 years. But thanks to efforts like SU2C — whose five Food and Drug Administration-approved treatments are benefiting patients with breast, pancreatic and ovarian cancers, and certain leukemias — the death rate from cancer has fallen 26 percent in the U.S. since 1991. "Someone once said to me, 'What movie am I the most proud of?' " says Lansing. "Don't get me wrong, I love the movies, but I say I'm most proud of this."
A version of this story appears in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.