Honoring the Life and Legacy of Elizabeth Alling Sewall

A Conversation with Eric Winer, M.D., on Metastatic Breast Cancer Research

As the Elizabeth Alling Sewall Endowment prepares to make its first disbursement for breast cancer research this October, I had a chance to talk with Dr. Eric Winer, Chief of the Division of Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber, about research efforts Elizabeth’s fund will support.

For those who would still like to contribute to the 2015 Team Elizabeth Pan-Mass Challenge ride, donations should be made by October 1st, as the PMC officially closes its fundraising year then. As always, every dollar contributed to Team Elizabeth or one of its riders goes directly to the EAS Endowment for breast cancer research at Dana-Farber.

Eric Winer is not only a dedicated physician, dividing time between patient care and breast oncology research, he is also a dedicated rider in the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) bike ride which raises funds to support cancer research and care at Dana-Farber. In fact, in the Winer household, the PMC is a family affair, with Winer’s wife riding alongside him annually and even his kids joining on occasional years. A regular on the ride since 1998, Winer has personally raised over $680,000 in that time.

As many readers know, Dr. Winer was Elizabeth’s physician at the end of her life. She considered herself lucky to be in his care and had the utmost confidence in the research efforts he directs.

This October, Elizabeth’s endowment will make its first distribution to support Dr. Winer’s team in breast cancer research, specifically focusing on the type of metastatic breast cancer from which Elizabeth died. Those who witnessed the energy, integrity, and determination Elizabeth brought to causes she believed in will not be surprised that the fund established in her memory has accumulated enough resources in just three years to begin providing support for research efforts. A feat that usually takes much longer to achieve, the success in fundraising for Elizabeth’s endowment is a powerful testament to her legacy and to her family’s on-going dedication to honoring it.

“Elizabeth was amazing,” Dr. Winer said, when we spoke shortly after this August’s PMC ride. He noted that just as he’s done in the past two years, he’ll be designating a significant portion of the funds he raises this year to her endowment, a gesture that speaks volumes about his respect for her legacy.

As we talked, Dr. Winer described the dramatic advancements today in our understanding of the molecular biology and genetics of breast cancer; “stunning results,” he emphasized, that now need to be translated into more effective treatments and care. The fact that federal funding has diminished so significantly means that private support for such efforts is more important than it has ever been.

For metastatic breast cancer, in particular, Dr. Winer stressed the need for better therapeutics. Specifically, he said, preventing drug resistance has the potential make a huge difference in extending people’s lives. Sadly, drug resistance is what often takes someone’s life when there are no options left to keep the cancer at bay, he noted.

Dr. Winer also indicated that an ongoing focus of research in metastatic breast cancer is to find therapies that are less toxic but still as effective as what is available now so that quality of life for patients can be improved. Better yet, he said, his hope is that research will result in therapies that are less toxic and more effective than what we have now.

In May of 2012, Elizabeth elected to undergo surgery for the sole purpose of extracting tissue from her tumor so that it could be studied in the Dana-Farber research lab. After having had so many procedures as part of her treatment, she would have been completely justified if she’d decided that the effort of this surgery was more physically demanding than she needed to endure in the last months of her life. Yet, she elected to have the surgery nonetheless.

The day after the procedure, Elizabeth was touched when a member of Winer’s research team, Dr. Elgene Lim, visited her in the hospital to personally thank her for her tumor donation and let her know that her tissue was already being put to work in the lab to study the drug resistance of her particularly aggressive form of invasive lobular carcinoma. “Can you believe it?” she marveled.

Elizabeth’s hope that she might help future generations of women avoid a terminal diagnosis left her feeling “humbled and proud,” she said at the time, and gave her a sense of creating something positive that would ripple out to help others long after she was gone. Seeing the incredible effort and enormous amount of love that has been channeled by her wide circle of family and friends into building the endowment in her memory over the last three years, I can’t help but hear her words all over again. I am certain she would still use them now…humbled and proud.

—Lucy Mathews Heegaard

The EAS Endowment balance was $330,000 before this year’s PMC fundraising began. Gordon Sewall will report with a fund update later this year after 2015 contributions are tallied.

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