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Turning 'Cancer Fear Into Cancer Fierce'

Former vice president Joe Biden addressed hundreds across the country during the Biden Cancer Summit.
BY Jessica Skarzynski
PUBLISHED September 21, 2018
The fight against cancer is a literal race against time.

That idea was not just something each speaker touched on during the Biden Cancer Summit on September 21st, but one of the driving principles behind both the summit itself and the organization responsible for its creation. 

On an overcast Friday in Washington, D.C., organizers from the Biden Cancer Initiative brought together more than 350 attendees at the onsite event, along with satellite events happening in 450 communities around the country, for what they described as "a different kind of cancer meeting."

The event was created to foster a more connected, collaborative cancer community and to instill a sense of urgency in the search for solutions to the most daunting problems faced by those on the cancer journey.

That sense of urgency began with former vice president and Biden Cancer Initiative Co-Chair Joe Biden as he kicked off the day’s program praising the work that’s already been done while simultaneously spurring attendees to further action.

"Today, we celebrate the survivors and the caregivers, the doctors and nurses, researchers and scientists, by highlighting their stories," Biden said. "But we’re not here just to talk. We’re here to act."

Biden further explained that the Summit aimed to pick up where the Cancer Moonshot left off. "How many times have patients said to you, 'Doc, I know I’m not going to live, but can you give me one more month? Because I want to see him graduate,'" he asked the crowd. "Or 'Can you give me just three more months, so I can get my finances in order so she’ll be OK?' It’s about days. It’s about weeks. It’s about months."

To shine a light on those who stand to benefit from the work being done by the Biden Cancer Initiative, seven patients, survivors, caregivers, oncologists and more then took the stage and shared their stories of courage, loss and hope in a series of brief, poignant talks. While each person’s experience was unique, every speaker embodied the event’s core mission: turning cancer fear into cancer fierce.

First up, tap dancer and osteosarcoma survivor Evan Ruggiero, who jokingly calls himself "Lord Peg Leg," literally kicked off the presentation. After undergoing 13 surgeries and the amputation of his right leg above the knee due to an aggressive recurrence while pursuing his degree at Montclair State University in New Jersey, Ruggiero told his doctor, "I promise you, I’m going to tap dance again."

And dance he did, for an awestruck crowd, before explaining how he went from strapping on his tap shoe and prosthetic leg just 18 months post-amputation to traveling around the world as an actor, dancer, singer and motivational speaker.

Next, Shawna Butler and Chérie Petersen shared the story of losing their 33-year-old mother, Lorna Jean Vacher, when they were just 8 and 13 years old. Butler and Petersen took turns talking through the shock, disbelief and fear they experienced as they learned of their mother’s terminal diagnosis. They reminded the audience that their experience, although heartbreaking, is not unique.

Primary care physician and researcher Joseph Ravenell, M.D., an internist at NYU Langone Health, spoke about his experience of losing a dear friend to colorectal cancer. He focused on the importance of community and the promotion of awareness, particularly in the African American community.

"Black men in the United States have the highest risk of developing colon cancer, and of dying of it, because all too often we don’t get screened early enough," Ravenell said. "My friend did not have to die of colon cancer, like so many others."

Paul Hancock went on to tell the story of his wife Kim’s diagnosis of multiple myeloma, and the subsequent treatment and transplant she underwent to achieve remission. But Hancock stressed that while she received the best care — and had a built-in navigator in her medical oncologist husband — there were still gaps to be filled.

"We all know what we’re here for," Hancock said. "We all know what we’re fighting against. We’re fighting against cancer. But let’s never forget who we’re fighting for."

Cornell University cancer researcher Kristy Richards, M.D., Ph.D., shared her experience of getting a new perspective on the cancer journey when she received her own breast cancer diagnosis.

Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium (PNOC) Foundation founder Bruce Campbell followed, with a story of how, in 2010, he learned that his then 6-year-old son, George, had a malignant brain tumor the size of a lemon behind his right eye. Now a middle school honors student, George’s story has a happy ending, but as Campbell stressed, this is not always the case. For this reason, Campbell and his wife Allyn created the PNOC Foundation and have pledged $1 million to cancer research over the next three years.

"All of us will be touched by cancer. But each of us has the power to create change," he said. "The time to act is now. And together, that’s how we’ll go from cancer fear to cancer fierce."

Finally, Jacqueline Smith, a 15-year survivor of stage 3 melanoma, turned the focus to an often-forgotten topic: cancer survivorship. "Survivorship is difficult," she said. "As we move on to transition cancer to a curable condition, let's think about mitigating all the adverse and late side effects of treatment. It's a long road."

Biden Cancer Initiative Co-Chair Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in education, took the stage with a touching personal account of what the summit means. "Our time together is precious and irrevocable," she said. "Together, we are stronger. We are fiercer. We are more powerful than this disease."

She also helped reignite the fire within each attendee. "It's about time we gave the fierce, courageous, relentless survivors a chance to share their victories," she said. "It’s about time that we say, ‘Not one more mother. Not one more grandfather. Not one more son.’ It’s about time. This is the urgency of now."
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