August 26, 2010

Group forms to raise cancer research funds

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Members of the newly formed Young Ambassadors group have pledged to raise funds for research at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Group forms to raise cancer research funds

Nearly two-dozen young professionals are harnessing their social, work and family networks to raise money for innovative cancer research at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

This Young Ambassadors group has made a commitment to raise $35,000 to fund a VICC Discovery Grant, awarded to young cancer investigators who don't yet have significant government or industry support to test their scientific theories.

Members of the newly formed organization say the mission is personal. Emily Blake (EB) Jackson, chair of the philanthropic group, has watched three of her grandparents struggle with or succumb to cancer. EB's husband, Todd, and his family have had their own cancer challenges.

“Nearly everyone has a cancer story. My mother had breast cancer, my father had esophageal cancer and I had a brain tumor,” said Todd Jackson.

The 36-year-old health care IT executive began having seizures when he was a teenager. By 2003, the mass in his head started to grow and Jackson was referred to Reid Thompson, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Brain Tumor Center and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery. Thompson told the young man they needed to operate on the cancerous tumor, even though the growth was perilously close to the brain's speech center.

The surgery went so well that Todd was soon running 5k and 10k races again, and he and EB decided to help other families struggling with cancer. They were joined by other young professionals with their own family cancer stories, and by last November, with the help of VICC leaders and Vanderbilt Development and Alumni Relations, they had formed the Young Ambassadors to support cancer research.

“We want to do something productive in the fight against cancer and strongly believe that VICC is the place where the science is being created,” EB Jackson said.

The group decided to focus on young cancer investigators who need a financial jumpstart to make inroads in cancer research.

“These are new researchers coming in with passion and vision and they may be the ones to develop a new cure for cancer,” said Kate Steinbeck.

Kate, and sister Carrie Steinbeck, joined the Young Ambassadors because of the care their father received at Vanderbilt while he was battling lung cancer.

“It's not an easy time for the family, but the level of care and knowledge shown by the team of doctors at Vanderbilt was incredible. We never felt that our dad was 'just another patient.' Our family became part of their family,” said Carrie Steinbeck.

Most members of the Young Ambassadors didn't previously know one another, but they have found common ground in their commitment to cancer research. They are using e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and other social media in addition to traditional outreach to raise funds. Beth Franklin, VICC Board of Overseers member, local philanthropist, and mother of Young Ambassador Ruth Franklin, has served as a mentor to the group.

“We are all business people and not scientists, so leaders in the Cancer Center are going to give us a list of Discovery Grant-ready projects that they would fund if they could. We will interview the researchers and choose the project we find most compelling,” said EB Jackson.

The Board of Overseers has agreed to match the money raised by the Young Ambassadors to fund a second Discovery Grant. The group — which has raised nearly 75 percent of its goal — will award the first grant this fall.

“There are two ways to deal with life — proactive and reactive,” said Todd Jackson. “You can take control and search for ways to beat cancer, and the way to beat it is through research.”

For more information about the Young Ambassadors initiative, go to