Sherry Lansing has often been called “the most powerful woman in Hollywood.” She is one of those rare people who can open any door, plus she follows through and makes things happen. In 1982, Sherry Lansing was appointed President of 20th Century Fox, a move that made her the first woman to head a major film studio. From 1992 to 2005, she was Chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, a tenure that brought Paramount unprecedented creative and financial success. As both a studio head and an independent producer, Sherry has shepherded blockbuster films like Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic, Fatal Attraction, The Accused and Indecent Proposal.
My dear friend, Laura Ziskin, used to say, “Raise your hand if you’ve been touched by cancer,” and every hand in the room would go up.
The first time I met Sherry was in 2012. I was still doing Breast Cancer Sisterhood, where I had created a Top 10 Breast Cancer Blog and the only Survivorship resource for families. Since the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer, 11 years ago, I’ve gotten to know which cancer organizations are the real deals and which ones are not. The Sherry Lansing Foundation and Stand Up To Cancer, which Sherry co-founded, are at the top of the list of dedicated, fiscally responsible organizations, making tangible differences in the fight against cancer.
In 2005, Sherry’s passion in the area of cancer led her to create The Sherry Lansing Foundation, dedicated to funding and raising awareness for cancer research, health, public education and encore career opportunities for men and women of “a certain age.” (More about Encore in a future blog.) In 2008, Sherry and eight other well-known, visionary women in media started Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a 501c3.
SU2C is nothing short of brilliant. Instead of starting yet another nonprofit, looking for a cure for cancer, the Stand Up To Cancer model has changed the culture of research and brought a new, collaborative way of thinking to the world’s top cancer research scientists. By funding research grants to multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary Dream Teams of researchers from around the world—teams that work together, instead of competing for the same research dollars and working in secret—SU2C’s goal is to deliver new and better treatments in a more timely manner. And they’ve done that.
To date, more than $370 million has been pledged to support SU2C’s translational research. SU2C has funded 16 Dream Teams, 2 Translational Research Teams, 26 early-career Innovative Research Grants, involving 1,000 scientists in 129 institutions in 23 states and 7 countries. SU2C researchers have planned, initiated or completed 154 clinical trials, involving more than 6,000 patients. Some of the key accomplishments that have extended from this research include:
- Breast Cancer: After members of the SU2C Breast Cancer Dream Team demonstrated that the drug palociclib (Ibrance) was effective, it received accelerated approval from the FDA.
- Pancreatic Cancer: Members of the Pancreatic Cancer Dream Team showed the effectiveness of a two-drug combination (Abraxane plus gemcitabine), leading to FDA approval. The Dream Team is now testing new three-drug combinations.
- Women’s Cancer Dream Team: The P13K Dream Team showed that a new two-drug combination holds promise for ovarian and breast cancer treatment.
- Tumor Organoids: SU2C researchers in the Netherlands developed, and are using, a radical new technology to test anti-cancer drugs quickly: tumor organoids. These actual, living cells from patients’ tumors—grown in a laboratory—mimic the structure and biology of cancer tumors. These “tumors in a dish” allow for drugs to be tested much more quickly and will speed up the search for effective therapies.
- Immunotherapy is a new approach that uses the body’s own immune system to help fight cancer and is an exciting new frontier of cancer treatment. SU2C is among the organizations at the forefront of this promising research field and is investing millions of dollars toward immunotherapy. SU2C Dream Teams using immunotherapy approaches to treating cancer include (but are not limited to) the SU2C/ACS Lung Cancer Dream Team; SU2C/CRI Immunology Dream Team; The SU2C/St. Baldrick’s Pediatric Cancer Dream and The SU2C/Farrah Fawcett Foundation HPV Translational Team.
Leading up to SU2C’s fifth telecast in September, 2016, 1010ParkPlace is doing a series of pieces to raise awareness about SU2C by introducing you to some of their partners, scientists, celebrity ambassadors, volunteers, ways you can help and some of the lives that have been changed by SU2C’s groundbreaking research.
Today, I want you to meet Sherry Lansing. She is an amazing woman. Her smile is easy and genuine, and her eyes let you know she’s laser focused on what you’re saying. Here’s part of our recent conversation in her office:
BRENDA: What are the skill sets that took you from being a substitute teacher to where you are now?
SHERRY: It’s always hard to talk about yourself. I’m an extraordinarily hard worker, so that’s number one. From the time I was in school, I over-studied, over-prepared and really worked hard. I’m incredibly persistent. I do not give up. In the movies we made, Fatal Attraction and The Accused, both were turned down by every studio. Twice. I just had great persistence and couldn’t imagine giving up on them because I believed in them.
I’m resilient. I don’t take things personally. I like people and like to bring people together. I like people to collaborate, and I usually try and figure out why they’re not and try and solve that problem. I can’t imagine giving up on a donor. My dream is that disease becomes manageable in my lifetime.
BRENDA: I’m not sure whether to ask you this or not. How have you stayed so grounded in this town? I mean that in the…
SHERRY: I understand. I’m from the Midwest, Chicago, so that is who I am. There are wonderful people in Hollywood, too. You choose who to be friendly with. When I came out to Hollywood, I met people who just wanted to make good movies. They were very grounded; they had families; they had kids; they were committed and passionate about their work, and that’s who I hung out with. They weren’t really interested in money. They would have done it for free. They really weren’t interested in power. They just wanted to do the work, in whatever form it took—film, television, a video—they just wanted to be creative.
BRENDA: I know Stand Up to Cancer started with a group of high-powered women in media, including you, Laura Ziskin, Noreen Fraser, Rusty Robertson, Sue Schwartz, Ellen Ziffren, Lisa Paulsen, Katie Couric and Kathleen Lobb. How did you come together?
SHERRY: It started with a group of women who had been touched by cancer. Two of the women were actually battling cancer. My dear friend, Laura Ziskin, used to say, “Raise your hand if you’ve been touched by cancer,” and every hand in the room would go up. We came together, and we started to think about what we could do that was different.
We explored a lot of ideas, particularly funding research and breaking down the silos. If you’ve experienced this disease, you sometimes find the doctor at one hospital doesn’t talk to the doctor at another hospital. That’s changing because of Stand Up, and other organizations as well, because we wanted to break down the silos. We wanted the doctors to work together. We wanted to create, which we have, dream teams where we bring the best and the brightest from around the world to attack a specific area of cancer research.
BRENDA: How does your funding process work?
SHERRY: We have a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) led by Phil Sharp (geneticist and molecular biologist and a professor at the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research), who won the Nobel Prize; Arnie Levine (molecular biologist at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ) and Bill Nelson M.D., Ph.D., who is Director at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD). Our SAC helps shape the direction of what areas we want to research. Researchers self-organize these collaborative Dream Teams. They formally respond to a “Call for Ideas.” The SAC selects teams to prepare detailed proposals and then finalists are selected to present to the SAC, which asks detailed and rigorous questions.
The SAC might say, “There’s a scientist you don’t know about who we want to add to this,” or “We want to combine these two things because you’re working in the same area.” Every team is different. Every team has a different way they came together. Then they select how to allocate funds. More than $370 million has been pledged to support SU2C research so far. Our scientists, from different institutions, are now working together. They’re collaborating. Scientists that hated each other and were so competitive, now are going on vacations together.
BRENDA: You and the other founding SU2C women are also a dream team. You’ve been able to do something extraordinary: To get the SU2C telecast on every network and most of the cable channels.
SHERRY: Yes. I remember one of our early conversations: We started talking about maybe doing a telecast on one network to raise money. Wouldn’t that be a big thing? “I’ll call this one, and you call that one.” We got all three networks the first year, and we thought we could take all of our contacts in the entertainment industry, and we could get celebrities to work with us.
We were blessed. It’s not a question of what celebrity can we get? It’s a question of how do we say no, because the entertainment industry has embraced this and helps us raise this money and helps us raise awareness for this dreaded disease. I guess we’re the only group of people who want to go out of business; who hope that someday, cancer is manageable, a chronic disease or cured. It’s been thrilling.
BRENDA: Didn’t you raise over $100M the first year?
SHERRY: Yes. When we started, we thought it was a one-off. Then we went, “We can’t stop now.” Then we thought, we can’t do it every year, so we’ll do it every other year. Then we thought, if we got all the networks, we can get all the cable channels. Thanks to the cables, except Nickelodeon, children’s channels and PBS, which are not allowed to carry it. I’m grateful to them for everything. We’re on the air every other year.
BRENDA: That’s an amazing achievement. I can only imagine. What are you most proud of in light of all of this?
SHERRY: That we’ve gotten all of these scientists to collaborate. That one plus one doesn’t equal two. It equals five. It’s exponentially so much bigger. The other thing I’m the proudest of is we’ve also broken down the silos of foundations, of different organizations. We’re partnering with just about every single organization. I’m on some of their boards. Therefore, if we’re doing work with prostate cancer, we’re partnered with FasterCures. We acknowledge the partnerships. Therefore, we can often leverage the money better too.
BRENDA: In some cases, isn’t that a tremendous breaking down of egos, to get them to partner?
SHERRY: Maybe, but most people who are involved in cancer research, or in any disease, have been struck by it in some profound way. You don’t choose it. It chooses you most of the time. It changes your life forever, and your ego goes out the door. You just want to save lives so no one has to suffer. I think about this all the time. So no one has to suffer… like I watched my mother suffer. Or like I watched Laura suffer. Unfortunately, as you know, Laura lost the battle. You just can’t get those images and their bravery out of your mind.
BRENDA: I know. I still carry the images of my first husband, who died of lung cancer. His doctor was Steve Rosenberg at NCI, in the early days when Steve was looking for the magic bullet.
SHERRY: You went to the best doctor, and he got the best treatment. Steve is amazing.
I’ve obviously read your blog, Brenda. When you read about your husband and what you talk about with women, and you see people who are battling true adversity, you think, “I’m worried because a parking place wasn’t there, or my plane was late?” It puts it all in perspective, and you think, “My God, I lead the most blessed, lucky life. Every day is a gift. Health is everything.”