The California Cure Breast Intentions: Laura Ziskin

“Be in the moment, Laura—be in the moment.” I was talking to myself on the way to my first biopsy. I was working (as producer) on the first Spider-Man in the spring of 2001. I’d had routine mammograms over the preceding two years and an occasional ultra­sound, but none of my doctors saw anything that worried them. Then suddenly I was asked to come in for a biopsy, because they noticed something.

This was not easy—especially for me. What I do for a living is all about looking to the future. I start a project, like Spider-Man, and it won’t be finished for five years. Constitutionally, it’s hard for me to be in the moment. I am always looking ahead. I am a producer.

Cut to me on the Spider-Man set, all bandaged up from the biopsy, when the doctors called and said it was benign—everything was fine. The movie debuted in May of 2002 to what was at the time the biggest opening weekend in history. When we saw the grosses on Saturday morning, I turned to my spouse, Alvin Sargent, and said, “This is too much abundance. Something bad is going to happen.”

But then we started Spider-Man 2, and all seemed well. Though I continued to feel a lumpiness in my breast, everyone said it was scar tissue from the biopsy. Around Christmas of 2003, I noticed an indentation when I raised my arm. I thought, Gee, that is weird, but carried on. In January ’04, I went in for another mammogram and ultrasound—my third in a year—and I was told by the female radiologist, “You have dense tissue—so do I. You’re fine.” Still, I was uneasy. By then, it had been three years of feeling uneasy, but I kept being told I was okay. And I wanted to be okay, so every time I heard it, I breathed a sigh of relief.

What no one ever told me was, “You’re a patient with an ongoing complaint—you should have an MRI.” I didn’t know an MRI was a better diagnostic exam and that the reasons they didn’t suggest it were because insurance didn’t cover it then and there could be false positives. (I would much prefer a false positive to a missed positive.) After this last series of tests, it dawned on me: Wait a second—I’m not fine. So, I went back to see the radiologist. “Would you look at this?” I said, pointing to the dent. She turned white and said, “I am not a clinician—you have to see a breast surgeon.” Then she ran out the door.

I saw the surgeon and had 10 new biopsies. I remember the voice-mail: “Yes, you have lobular breast cancer, and you need to come in as soon as possible.” I was frightened, but I knew nothing about the disease, so I didn’t know what was coming. What a steep learning curve awaited. They said, “It is probably two—stage 2A or 2B. We don’t see any lymph-node involvement.” In hindsight, I most assuredly had cancer for years, but the doctors missed it.

To his credit, my internist said, “Every single person who treated you owes you an apology, starting with me. That I missed this is just unconscionable.” And as much as I was thinking, Yeah, you missed it—shame on you, at least he owned up. My gynecologist, on the other hand, said, “At least you were right.” Who wants to be right?!

None of these doctors are any longer in my life. Instead, I needed an oncologist. My friend Amy Pascal called Bryan Lourd, who knew Lilly Tartikoff. Lilly led me to UCLA—to Dr. Dennis Slamon and his colleague Dr. John Glaspy. Slamon is the man who discovered the drug Herceptin, which has had a huge impact on HER2-type breast cancers. I walked into Glaspy’s office and saw...well, I’d cast him as a small-town sheriff. He had the absolute kindest eyes of anyone I have ever met. For the first time, I felt like I was going to be okay.

Nine out of 10 new biopsies came back malignant. And the prediction of no lymph-node involvement was dramatically wrong—I had 30 malignant nodes. This thing was big, and I needed a mastectomy. Also on Slamon and Glaspy’s recommendation, I had a stem-cell transplant—a procedure in which they take and freeze your stem cells, then nuke you with chemo until your white blood cell count is almost gone. Then they reinject your stem cells, and you are “reborn.”

The treatment meant being in a special hospital ward. I entered UCLA the night after the Spider-Man 2 premiere in Westwood. I could see the Village Theater from my hospital window. I would joke that while my white count was going down, at least the grosses would be going up. They had told me I would be in the hospital no less than 21 days, but I got out in 17...and then I went home and cried a lot. There are people who say cancer makes you take a look at your life and think about what you would have done better—take stock, if you will. I was not one of those people. I wanted my life back, exactly the way it was.

It took about a year to regain my energy. By the fall of ’05, I was making Spider-Man 3. In 2007, I produced the Academy Awards for the second time. This past April, I had new scans—my cancer had metastasized. I had tumors in my spine and liver and some fluid in my lungs—bad news. But I have been on a new trial drug for four months, and it seems to be working.

When I got cancer, I thought, Oh, all these people are working to fight cancer. We have made huge progress, and my prognosis is better today than it was 15 years ago.

Not true, I discovered. While there has been progress, cancer will still be the leading cause of death by 2010. Some 1,500 Americans die every day of cancer—one a minute. And 4,000 Americans are diagnosed each day. It was that realization that led me to create Stand Up to Cancer with Sherry Lansing, Lisa Paulsen, Katie Couric, Ellen Ziffren, Rusty Robertson, Sue Schwartz, Kathleen Lobb and Noreen Fraser—to make cancer research and treatment a first-tier issue in this country. We have raised more than $100 million to fund accelerated collaborative research, and the response to our September 2008 TV show—carried simultaneously by three networks in prime time—was massive.

President Obama said a line on our show that still resonates, “We need to wage a war on cancer as aggressive as cancer wages on us.”

And we need to do it now. We need to make cancer the manageable chronic disease it can be. There are 12 million cancer survivors in this country. Stand Up to Cancer’s goal is to make everyone who is diagnosed a survivor. I am one of them. It has been almost six years since my diagnosis, so I am proof that you can live with it, and live well. To quote Dr. Glaspy, “Cancer is the only game where a tie is a win.”

Please go to standuptocancer.org to learn more and donate.