When one of Cathy Wilcoxen’s best friends was diagnosed with breast cancer, Cathy tapped the power of thousands of friends, family and even strangers who united to fight the disease. This team effort ultimately grew into a generous gift of more than $140,000 to The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. These gifts to support the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine are leading to breakthroughs in breast cancer treatment.
Cathy had a natural network to involve in the cause. At the time, she was president of the Missouri State Fraternal Order of Eagles Auxiliary. Cathy began rallying the organization’s members in 2008.
What began in her hometown of Springfield, Mo., soon spread across the state.
More than 100 years ago, the Fraternal Order of Eagles nonprofit organization was created to raise support for communities and charities, specifically with a mission of “people helping people.”
The Eagles organization is made up of state and local clubs, called “Aeries,” throughout the U.S. and Canada, and each club has an Auxiliary. To maximize fundraising efforts, Cathy’s Auxiliary partnered with the Eagles Aerie, led by Rick Randol, which was also raising funds for research at Siteman.
Cathy engaged several thousand Eagles members from more than 60 Missouri Eagles clubs to join her in raising money for breast cancer research. The Eagles’ “Charity Team," including Cathy and her husband, Bud, Randy and Linda Riggs, Sherry Randol, and John and Pam Boyd, developed creative ways to raise money. They sold trinkets through a traveling store, held raffles, coordinated fishing, golf, and pool tournaments, and even collected pennies.
Through their efforts, they met people all over Missouri affected by breast cancer. One young woman’s mother had died of breast cancer. Cathy recalls, “She heard we were collecting pennies, so she gave us a whole jar of her coins. She cried as she gave it to us. That really hit me.”
These kinds of heartwarming encounters fueled the Eagles’ passion over the next year as they pursued raising funds for research.
“We’re a quiet organization that gives to charities faithfully every year,” Cathy says. “We hope our support of breast cancer research leads to ways to manage the disease better because it hits close to home far too often.”
Genetic Research Leads to Personalized Treatments
Matthew Ellis, MB, BChir, PhD, The Foundation’s Anheuser-Busch Endowed Chair in Oncology, is a world leader in cancer genetics and the clinical management of breast cancer. The Eagles’ gift is supporting some of his current research. Most recently, he and his colleagues sequenced the genomes of tumors from 46 breast cancer patients. A genome holds all the patient’s genes and DNA, the organic substance that carries this genetic information. Dr. Ellis’ team of scientists uncovered incredible complexity in the cancer genomes they studied, discovering changes that only occur in cancer cells, not in normal, healthy cells. These changes could explain why some patients’ breast cancers respond to hormonal therapy—anti-estrogen therapy—while others don’t.
ER-positive cancers, fueled by the hormone estrogen, account for about 75 percent of all breast cancers. The majority of these patients respond to hormonal therapy. However, 20 percent to 30 percent fail to respond and are left with few effective treatment options. Dr. Ellis’ work focuses on understanding why hormonal therapy is unsuccessful in these patients and finding alternative solutions to improve their outcomes.
“Gene sequencing can help physicians pinpoint the specific type of breast cancer a patient has to make better decisions about individualized treatment,” Dr. Ellis says.
Support Keeps Research Momentum Going
Thanks in part to the critical support from the Eagles to The Foundation, Dr. Ellis is building on these discoveries and moving promising treatments forward. Each of these discoveries is ultimately getting us closer to the overarching goal in cancer care today—getting each patient to the right treatment option as quickly as possible in order to have the best outcome. One of Dr. Ellis’ current clinical studies for ER-positive patients is testing traditional hormonal therapy in combination with a new tumortargeting therapy, with the goal of finding better outcomes than hormonal therapy can produce alone. If successful, this combination treatment could spare these patients from more intensive chemotherapy, which has more side effects, and hopefully also reduce the likelihood of the cancer recurring.
Currently, this combination treatment for ER-positive breast cancer is exclusively available at Siteman through the clinical study, but what Dr. Ellis’ team learns will help breast cancer patients everywhere. Dr. Ellis says the work his lab has done with the Eagles’ support has also led to a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for further studies with more patient groups, which could make new treatments available sooner.
“The Eagles’ gift to The Foundation made a huge impact in helping my team keep the momentum going in the pursuit of promising personalized therapies,” Dr. Ellis says. “And the only answer to a cure for everyone is by individualizing patient treatment.”
Cathy and other Eagles members continue to closely watch the research progress as new hope in the fight against breast cancer takes flight.
Support the Missouri Fraternal Order of Eagles Breast Cancer Research Fund (#6854) at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital online now. If you have questions, please call David Sandler at (314) 362-3499 or email GivingBarnesJewish@bjc.org.