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Breast Cancer Survivor Searches for Disease’s Origin

Alumna’s work supports research into environmental causes

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After Ellie Anbinder was diagnosed with breast cancer, in 1991, she underwent a partial mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, and six weeks of radiation. Some 20 years later, the cancer has not returned.

But as anyone who knows Anbinder can attest, she was not about to leave it at that. Long after her treatment ended, she grappled with the question: where had the cancer come from? She had no family history of the disease. She was conscientious about her health and had never skipped her annual mammogram.

“I kept having this feeling that breast cancer came from somewhere outside my body,” says Anbinder (SED’62).

Outspoken, indefatigable, an advocate for women’s issues, and an inveterate networker, Anbinder has made it her mission to find an answer. A decade ago, she and her best friend, Joyce Creiger (CAS’62), then owner of a Newbury Street art gallery, cofounded a public foundation that raises money to fund research into environmental causes of breast cancer. “I said to Joyce, ‘Let’s start a foundation,’” Anbinder recalls. “We’ll fund research, and you can give me 10 percent of everything you make.”

They called it Art beCAUSE Breast Cancer Foundation. “Joyce owned an art gallery, I owned breast cancer,” Anbinder says. “She had the better end of the deal.”

Since then, the organization has awarded $85,000 in grants to researchers, including David Sherr, a School of Public Health professor of environmental health. After a decade of operating at the grassroots level, the group plans a surge in fundraising this year.

“If you die, I’ll never talk to you again”

Anbinder was the mother of two grown daughters and the owner of the Business Group, a company that helped professionals network, build businesses, and exchange sales leads and contacts, when she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ. The cancer was caught early; it had not spread to her lymph nodes, and chemotherapy wasn’t necessary.

“My response to all of that fit into the old dodged-the-bullet thing,” she says. “It made me realize that I was very lucky.”

The American Cancer Society estimates that 230,480 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and that nearly 40,000 will die. But only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases are the result of inherited mutations or changes in the breast cancer susceptibility genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2.

“Here’s the proposition that I’m trying to figure out,” says Anbinder. “At the end of World War II, this enormous plastics industry came into being, and 30 years later, women, as they went through menopause, started getting breast cancer. Alarmingly. And another part that’s really scary: breast cancer is the leading cancer death among young women from 25 to 50. So what’s happened? Where is that coming from?

Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography

Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography

In 2001 Anbinder (left), who had been active in the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition for several years, turned to art consultant Creiger, who owned the Creiger-Dane Gallery in Boston and had been involved in the establishment in 1975 of the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, Mass. The two had been friends since the 1960s, when Anbinder moved to Framingham with her family. Their children grew up together. “We really have been buddies forever,” says Anbinder. “The kind of best friend that, when I got diagnosed, she did one of those: if you die, I’ll never talk to you again.”

When Anbinder approached her friend with her idea for a foundation, Creiger didn’t think twice. She asked a friend in public relations, Joan Schneider (COM’72), now president of Schneider Associates, to get involved. “She helped rally people to get us off the ground,” Creiger says. “And it took on a life of its own. We did a number of big galas and raised money, brought together a board of directors, and created the foundation.”

In 2005, Art beCAUSE Breast Cancer Foundation awarded its first grant, of $5,000, to the Newton, Mass.–based Silent Spring Institute, which focuses in part on identifying links between the environment and breast cancer. Since then, the foundation has given progressively larger grants: two awards totaling $22,500 to SPH’s Sherr, $15,000 to a scientist at the University of Rochester, $15,000 to a Tufts University researcher, and in 2011, $30,000 to the Silent Spring Institute.

Sherr, who serves as a medical advisor to the foundation, says such organizations are unusual. “It’s kind of surprising that other agencies have not understood the significance of prevention and the environment in the context of breast cancer,” he says. “The system seems to be biased toward therapies, I think, because that’s where the money is.”

Sherr is studying the role of a protein called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR)—found in the cells of humans and most animals—in triggering the development of cancerous cells.

“There are three things that cancers do,” he says. “They grow too fast. They don’t know how to die. And they have an identity crisis: they don’t know who they are anymore, so they don’t stick around in the organ in which they originated. They start invading and metastasizing to other organs.”

His research has shown that in the breast, for example, environmental pollutants such as PCBs, dioxins, and hydrocarbons bind to, and turn on, the AhR. Once the receptor is hyperactivated, he says, it induces cells to grow aggressively and spread. And, he notes, the AhR remains activated even after the environmental chemicals have been metabolized and excreted from the cells.

He is working on ways to block the AhR activity. If his approach works, it could be used to treat other cancers as well. “If you look at the AhR in other kinds of cancers, you find it’s hyperactivated in lymphomas, leukemias, myelomas, prostate cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer,” he says. “We’re trying to stay focused on breast cancer and not to get too excited yet about the potential relevance of our studies to these other types of cancer.”

Jonas Salk moment

In addition to raising money for research like Sherr’s, the foundation has been collaborating with Massachusetts photographer David Fox on a portrait project. In the last few years, Fox has taken scores of black-and-white portraits of survivors of breast cancer. Anbinder’s group has created an exhibition and calendars, which it sells. The 2009 calendar featured one man and 11 women, including Bridget Mooney (CAS’05), who was diagnosed with breast cancer a week after she graduated from BU. The 2010 calendar featured all men. The portraits have been shown at the New England Institute of Art, Boston’s South Station, and the Massachusetts State House. There are plans to produce another calendar, of survivor families, to publish a book, and to show the portraits at the group’s next fundraising gala, in October.

Ed Westerman (CGS’66, COM’68), principal of Westerman Consulting and a member of the College of General Studies Dean’s Advisory Board, is a member of the foundation’s board and a former chair. Westerman has more than a passing acquaintance with cancer. His father died of the disease when Westerman was a child. His late mother had breast and lung cancer. He had twin sisters, one of whom was diagnosed with brain cancer, then lung cancer; he believes she ultimately died of breast cancer. And his son, now in his 30s, was diagnosed with testicular cancer just after his 23rd birthday.

Westerman says the group’s fundraising has two goals: raise money to hire at least one administrative staff member to help Anbinder, and, of course, fund research. “We want to be giving $50,000, $100,000, $150,000 grants,” he says. “That’s where you begin to make a major difference in research.”

Creiger has no doubts about her friend’s ability to build the organization and achieve that goal. “She’s an amazing person. She’s very dynamic and creative. When she gets her mind to do something, you can guarantee it will get done.”

Anbinder, who was honored for her work in 2009 by The One Hundred, the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center’s annual fundraiser, says her plan this year is to raise $200,000 and to give a substantial amount of it away.

“I believe in cure, I believe in awareness and all of those things. But I most fervently believe that if we can find cause, we can find prevention,” Anbinder says.

“Essentially, I’m looking for my Jonas Salk moment.”

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu. Grace Ko can be reached at graceko@bu.edu.

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