When Ordinary is No Longer an Option

When Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin was diagnosed with breast cancer she did what comes naturally—she started solving the problem.

By Diana Price

Laura Ziskin is not a superhero. I don’t think. She does not leap tall buildings in a single bound; she does not live in a cave or drive a crazy, futuristic car. As far as I know, she has no metal body armor. And though I interviewed her by phone, I’m pretty confident that she was not wearing a shiny Lycra bodysuit when we spoke. Still, she may have more in common with one particular masked crusader than first meets the eye.

In the blockbuster 2002 film Spider-Man, the story’s hero, Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man), says, “Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to lead an ordinary life is no longer an option.” Like Peter, Laura, who produced Spider-Man (and its sequel, Spider-Man 2), knows what it means to have your life unexpectedly turned upside down and your priorities reconfigured. And though in Laura’s case the catalyst was a cancer diagnosis—not a radioactive spider—there is no doubt that she too was meant to make a difference.

Living with Cancer
As a Hollywood producer with a long list of film and television credits—including Pretty Woman, As Good as It Gets, and the Academy Awards—Laura was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2004.

She had undergone repeated mammograms over several years, and though the tests did not reveal any issues and her gynecologist continually assured her nothing was wrong, she had a consistent feeling that there was a problem. “I kept going in and being told that I was okay,” Laura says, “and because I wanted to be okay, I believed it.” But when she noticed an indentation on her breast, she insisted on further testing. The result: a series of biopsies confirming a 10-centimeter tumor. Further testing revealed 30 malignant lymph nodes.

Chemotherapy, an autologous stem-cell transplant, radiation, a mastectomy, and reconstruction followed her diagnosis. For three years her tumor markers were stable, until they slowly started to rise again. About a year ago, Laura was diagnosed with metastases to her liver. She chose to participate in a clinical trial, which again stayed the progression of the disease. In March of this year, the markers again started to rise, sending her on a search for a new treatment plan.

And yet what comes across most clearly when hearing Laura speak about her treatment and her current prognosis is not the challenge of the past six years but rather her single-minded determination to keep moving forward: she is living with cancer, not dying from cancer, and her attitude is at once pragmatic and hopeful. “My treatment is a part of my life,” Laura says. “When I’m feeling good physically, it’s much easier. When a treatment makes me feel bad, that’s much harder. I live with it, and I don’t like it, and it’s scary, but it’s a part of my life, and I’m okay.”

Open communication with her doctor, who has worked with her to maintain the best possible quality of life throughout, has been incredibly helpful. “I have an absolutely extraordinary doctor,” Laura says. “When I met my doctor, I told my husband, ‘Well, he’s my doctor because he looks at me like I’m going to live; and if he believes in me, I have more belief in myself.’” Bolstered by this productive relationship and by the love of her family and friends, Laura continues to focus on living well with cancer.

Making a Difference
Also an integral part of Laura’s life with cancer has been her commitment to advocacy. Following her diagnosis and initial treatment, Laura was galvanized by what she saw as a common misperception about the state of cancer research: “In 2006 I was in remission, and I wanted to do something about cancer—the state of cancer. Most of us, when we’re diagnosed, don’t know what a huge epidemic it is. And we think, Aren’t we doing much better than we were a decade ago? And it turns out that we’re not.” For Laura this state of affairs was unacceptable; and because it’s what she does best, she got busy solving the problem.

Her initial plan was to produce what she calls a “we better wake up” documentary. At the same time, it became clear that there were others involved in the entertainment industry with a similar desire to make a real impact in the fight against cancer. In 2007, the group, which includes Katie Couric and two representatives of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF): CEO Lisa Paulsen and SVP Kathleen Lobb (EIF is the non-profit with whom Couric co-founded the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance); Sue Schwartz and Rusty Robertson, co-founders of the Robertson Schwartz Agency; Noreen Fraser, television producer and founder with her husband, Woody, of the Noreen Fraser Foundation; philanthropy executive Ellen Ziffren; and Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount Pictures and founder of the Sherry Lansing Foundation, came together to create Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C), a grass roots movement aimed at accelerating cancer research and raising public awareness.

The powerhouse organization quickly proved its commitment to the cause—and its collective clout—by producing a groundbreaking “roadblock” telecast in September 2008, which aired on ABC, NBC, and CBS; reached viewers in 170 countries; and raised more than $100 million. But in planning the event, Laura says, the group had quickly realized that raising the money was not the end of the road. The real question was How will this money have the biggest impact?

The answer, they agreed, lay in funding translational research—research that quickly progressed from the bench (or laboratory) to the patient’s bedside. To make this model effective, the co-founders worked with a scientific advisory board to identify “Dream Teams,” or collaborative working groups, drawing from research talent across institutions and disciplines, that would focus on very specific problems in cancer. To ensure that the teams move at an accelerated pace, Laura says, they operate “under the mandate that the replenishment of their research funds is dependent on their meeting milestones and getting real therapies to patients in three years.”

Now, almost two years later, those Dream Teams are actively engaged in translational research, and SU2C has plans for another major event (see sidebar). In addition, the organization remains focused on another important aspect of its work: raising awareness about the impact of the disease and uniting survivors under the banner of cancer advocacy. “We need to be united,” Laura says. “And we have to be noisy, demanding, and mad as hell.”

Who Needs a Shiny Suit?
Those who know Laura are inspired by her relentless approach to advocacy and her personal strength in the face of her diagnosis. “Laura is the greatest female inspiration I have ever had in my life,” says Rusty Robertson, co-founder of SU2C and a friend of Laura’s. This intense personal connection combined with Laura’s ongoing battle with the disease continually drives home the relevancy of their shared mission and creates a labor of love: “She is fighting for her life,” Rusty says, “and I hope I am going to be able to be a big part of saving her life.” Between her own passion and her connection with Laura, Rusty finds no room for fear or doubt as they push ahead: “I have a personal inspiration to pick up the phone and call anyone , anywhere to convince them to be a part of our movement,” Rusty says. “Laura has made no mountain too high; I have no fear that we will not succeed.”

Sue Schwartz, co-founder with Laura of SU2C, says, “Laura motivates me, inspires me, and astounds me every day with her vision, her brilliance, and her can-do attitude.” As the “heart and soul of SU2C,” Sue says, “there has never been a time when Laura has said it can’t be done. Rather, she dreams big and attacks every challenge with intelligence, imagination, perseverance, energy, and a work ethic second to none.”

The work ethic and the energy that Sue describes have made it impossible for Laura to remain on the sidelines in her own—and the larger—fight for a cure. “For me it’s therapeutic because I’m a problem solver by nature; that’s my profession. If I were to sit here and wait for someone to fix me, I wouldn’t believe it’s going to happen. I have to take an active role in it.”

Laura’s active—and transformative—role in cancer advocacy and research efforts has changed the way we think about treatment and activism. And she’s not ready to slow down. She has a few more important items on her to-do list. First-up: “make everyone diagnosed with cancer a survivor.” And she’s not willing to settle for less. As she continues to recruit celebrities and friends, works to raise funds, and challenges the research community to step up, she has a simple message: “When I call people, I say, ‘We’re trying to cure cancer; and it’s not a joke. It’s for real.’”

Confronted with the challenge that cancer presented, it’s clear that, in Laura’s case, leading an ordinary life was no longer an option. So maybe when we talk about superheroes, we need to learn to think outside the box and adjust the criteria. Because who needs a shiny suit when you have a will of steel and a pocketful of can-do?

Tune in to Stand Up!
On September 5, 2008, the original SU2C telecast aired on ABC, NBC, and CBS, reaching viewers in 170 countries. The historic, star-studded event included more than 100 celebrities, survivors, caregivers, and leaders in cancer research, who joined forces to raise more than $100 million toward accelerated cancer research.

Now SU2C is ready to do it all again. On September 10, 2010, the organization will produce a second simultaneous telecast across major networks and cable channels. With an even broader reach than the 2008 event, organizers say the show will include increased celebrity participation and more music, building on the tremendous support garnered over the past two years. For anyone touched by cancer—and that’s all of us—this will once again be must-see TV.