By  on September 30, 2009

October is an important month for Evelyn Lauder, who joined the battle against breast cancer 21 years ago. Since then, she has been a leader in raising more than $252 million for her Breast Cancer Research Foundation and has overseen the distribution of 100 million pink ribbons through the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign conducted by the Estée Lauder Cos.

This also is the 10th anniversary of an initiative to illuminate famed buildings with pink light to raise breast cancer awareness. On Tuesday night, Lauder, accompanied by breast cancer survivor Melissa Etheridge, flipped a switch at the Delta Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York and boarded a pink ribbon-decorated Delta jet to Washington for a research foundation symposium. And Thursday night, the Time Warner Center in Manhattan will be lighted, along with the adjacent Columbus Circle fountain. On Oct. 12, the Bloomingdale’s flagship is to be bathed in pink. In all, more than 200 world landmarks are expected to be illuminated.

The pink ribbon campaign is entering the world of digital, social networking. People from around the world have been invited to upload their pictures online to be melded into a huge mosaic in the shape of a ribbon.

Perhaps most noteworthy was the opening in September of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, replacing a much smaller facility.

Lauder, who is a senior corporate vice president of the Estée Lauder Cos. as well as chairman of the research foundation she founded in 1993, began her philanthropy career in 1966 with her husband, Leonard, chairman emeritus of Lauder.

Dr. Larry Norton, scientific director of the research foundation, said Lauder’s contributions have gone well beyond fund-raising. She has been involved in every phase of the fight, from the driving philosophy behind the foundation — providing coordinated research that is “translational from lab to bedside” — to the aesthetic decisions in designing the new breast cancer center. Norton said the typical pattern in research is the achievement of small steps that set the stage for a big breakthrough that turns a scourge into a curable disease. For breast cancer, “it can happen anytime,” he said.

The sense of empathy that Lauder brought to her anticancer effort was heightened by the scare she had with the disease.

WWD: How did you get involved in the breast cancer crusade?
Evelyn Lauder: In 1988, the entire industry got together for the Look Good, Feel Better program. We saw a film.…It was a coincidence that the patients who were willing to allow themselves to be photographed happened to be breast cancer patients. They allowed themselves to be photographed bald — no eyebrows, no eyelashes, just a round head and a pair of eyes.

At the end, they had their wigs on. We had seen them get their eyebrows drawn in, eyeliner, rouge, lipstick, earrings, scarves with hats. Everybody was in tears. We said, “We all have to do this” [leading to the creation of the annual Dream Ball].

WWD: Were there a lot of groups out there raising money to fight against breast cancer?
E.L.: There were people raising money, and there were people at that time who were also doing a very, very good job on awareness for mammographies. But there was no one who was doing any coordinated research that was integrated throughout the U.S., similar to the other diseases, like, for example, the diabetes groups [and] polio. You had individual universities, laboratories and hospitals, which were each doing cancer research, but nothing was coordinated and integrated. That’s when we founded the foundation because this was the missing piece.

We created a model for being able to actually do research in a coordinated way. I asked Larry Norton if he would be the scientific director and he conceived of a medical scientific board who knew the players all over the U.S., and now, all over the world. Today, we fund almost 170 people.

WWD: How has the fund-raising field changed since you started the foundation?
E.L.: One of the people who was one of our grantees actually was tapped to be the medical director for the Susan Komen Foundation, and now we are working on projects together.

We give about $250,000 to [researchers] every year. There has been a great deal of progress from our end. We have two new drugs that we participated in creating. There’s a new methodology of giving the treatment. In addition, there’s a new drug that helps elevate the white blood cells, so if a person gets chemotherapy, they’re unlikely to get an infection. They can even [get] the treatments closer together so it doesn’t allow the cancer to mutate or to become drug-resistant. We were involved in a study, which proved that high fat in the diet increased a woman’s risk for breast cancer [as does obesity, excessive alcohol intake and smoking]. We were part of the [group that] funded research into the negative affects of estrogen therapy, which was very major.

WWD: Should the government play a greater role?
E.L.: The answer is absolutely. During the Clinton administration, there was a great deal more money. However, with the various wars that we’ve had to fund, we have had a huge drop in funding from the NCI [National Cancer Institute]. As a result, doctors are very, very reluctant to spend six months making applications to the NCI for what they call a Special Project of Research Excellence Grant. You could spend six months getting ready for this thing and there’s a 20 percent chance that you’ll get it, so there’s no point. We’ve stepped in and give funding for people who have a hypothesis for an idea that might work. If it works, then there’s more likelihood of them getting funding from the NCI and it’s bigger funding. An average SPORE grant is $1 million.

Now breast cancer is becoming a chronic disease that women can live with for many years, like diabetes.

WWD: Has the recession forced you to shift tactics in fund-raising?
E.L.: We have to work a little harder and be a little bit more imaginative. Our figures did go down, but not nearly as much as most other charities. I think we only had a 15 percent decrease. Last year we raised $35 million, and this year we raised $32 million. So there’s only a $3 million drop.

WWD: When it came to the original idea for the breast center, what was your vision?
E.L.: This is one of the things that I think I’m most proud of. I’m a marketer. I’m also a shopper, and I wanted to have the mall of medicine. I wanted everything under one roof. So I was on the board at Memorial [Sloan-Kettering], and at the time, the doctor who was in charge of the hospital said they were building a breast center. And I said, “Oh, this is fabulous. What are you going to have in the breast center?” So he said, “We’re going to have oncology and we’re going to have mammography.”

I said, “Is that it?” He says, “Well, what else do you want?” And I said, “Well, I would want physical therapy, psychological counseling, an education center so that we could pick up information in either leaflets or online, nutritional counseling, a pharmacy so you don’t have to go running around the city to get everything you need, a boutique that might sell all the needs of a woman while she’s waiting for reconstruction to get the right bra and to do whatever is necessary — bathing suits, you know?” Even toiletries and cosmetics, thinking about the Look Good, Feel Better program, which also exists at the center.

The whole idea was to have coordinated services under one roof. That had never been done for one disease. Three years ago, when this new center was a germ of an idea [she said of the original site], we were sending away at least 30 percent to 40 percent of the requests to see patients. We were below ground — the bottom two floors plus an office upstairs and another office. Now they have 150,000 square feet.

WWD: How much did the new building cost?
E.L.: The budget originally was estimated at $150 million [although it finally totaled $200 million]. And thanks to my husband’s generosity, a major part of that was his donation.

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