For Laura Ziskin, who is being recognized by the Producers Guild of America as its 2011 Visionary Award honoree, 2004 posed something of an inconvenience. In the midst of producing the second installment of the “Spider-Man” series, she received news of a shocking diagnosis: She had developed stage 4 breast cancer, the most advanced form that exists.
“I was a lucky girl: Nothing bad ever happened to me, and then it did,” says Ziskin, who is being honored by the Guild for what it defines as “uniquely positive or uplifting contributions to our culture through inspiring storytelling or performance.” “Very few people get away without something.”
The busy producer has survived the past seven years thanks to “every treatment known to man” and a slew of experimental treatments at UCLA Medical Center.
Forty years after President Nixon declared a war against cancer, Ziskin suddenly found herself in the depths of its deepest stage. “My cancer was very large and was missed repeatedly on a mammogram,” she says. “Mammography is not a good diagnostic tool; (my cancer) was missed in mammograms and sonograms. … I call myself a pissed-off patient.”
As a result, Ziskin teamed with colleagues, friends and their mutual media-resources and created Stand Up to Cancer in 2008. In its first year as a nonprofit foundation, a star-studded TV event that aired that September raised upward of $100 million.
Through her work with her foundation, Ziskin has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention greater awareness.
“Where we were (initially) out looking for donors, they’re now coming to us,” she says. And with 100% of the public money going directly to measurable research methods, it’s no wonder. The Natl. Institute of Health as well as the Natl. Cancer Institute are both looking at the success of Stand Up to Cancer’s research models.
“The way scientists were doing cancer research was broken,” Ziskin says. “(Scientists) weren’t encouraged; in fact there was a disincentive for them to collaborate and work together, and they were competing against each other instead of competing against the disease. We have a very unique funding model where the money goes to teams of scientists across institutions and disciplines to mandate they work together, and they have to deliver on the science much like a venture capitalist endeavor.”
Stand Up to Cancer notched another milestone recently when the diagnostic technology it has been funding, the Circulating Tumor Chip, received a $30 million investment from Johnson & Johnson.
“If we put ‘1,500 Americans Dead’ on the newspaper everyday, people would be alarmed,” Ziskin says. “The goal is to make everyone a survivor.”