When the curtain goes up this month on Stand Up To Cancer’s sixth biennial fundraising telecast, the stage will be filled with A-list celebrities. But just offstage will be another, less-heralded group taking their own well-deserved bows: nine dynamic women—seven of Stand Up’s original cofounders, plus two more of its current leadership, many of them bold-faced names in their own right—who are methodically building a movement to defeat a disease that claims 1,600 Americans every day and, in one way or another, touches the life of everyone reading this.

For anyone near a television at 8 p.m. on September 7, the Stand Up To Cancer telecast will be all but impossible to miss. Carried live on nearly every major broadcast and cable television network and many online platforms, the one-hour “roadblock” special will raise millions of dollars to fund a distinctive approach to cancer research that emphasizes collaboration among scientists from different institutions and across multiple disciplines.

When it was first launched by SU2C 10 years ago, this collaborative research model was rare, if not unique, in the cancer-fighting community. Since then, it has proven to be extraordinarily effective: In just the past few years, research projects funded by Stand Up To Cancer have contributed to FDA approval of five new cancer treatments, all in record time. Most important, these five new treatments are saving lives now.

But before the Hollywood celebrities and the roadblock telecasts and the groundbreaking cancer research, there were those nine women, each of whom had a very personal reason for taking a stand against cancer. Two of them, business partners Rusty Robertson and Sue Schwartz, live in communities neighboring Conejo Valley. After losing close family members to cancer, the two award-winning marketing veterans vowed to put their skills to work on the cause of ending this seemingly intractable scourge.

Each of the other cofounders had her own reasons to stand up. For Katie Couric, the award-winning journalist, it was the loss of her husband, Jay, to colon cancer and sister, Emily, to pancreatic cancer. For Sherry Lansing, the former head of Paramount Pictures, it was losing her mother to the disease. Lisa Paulsen, who lost both parents to cancer, was the longtime CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and Kathleen Lobb, who lost two close friends, was EIF’s communications strategist. Ellen Ziffren, who lost her mother to lymphoma, is a veteran of several philanthropies with strong ties to Hollywood. Legendary film producer Laura Ziskin was herself contending with breast cancer, as was TV producer Noreen Fraser; since then, cancer has taken both of their lives. (After Ziskin’s death, her producing partner, Pamela Oas Williams, became a member of the SU2C Council of Founders and Advisors. Sung Poblete, RN, Ph.D., the CEO of Stand Up To Cancer, joined the leadership group in 2011.) 

“I guess it was a little audacious of us to think that our group—producers, marketers and the like, without a scientist in the bunch—could help change the way cancer research gets done,” Robertson recalls. “But tackling big challenges demands some audacity.” 

That was 10 years ago, and in the short span of a decade those audacious women—with help from countless others in the entertainment, sports, music, media, business and scientific communities—have in no small way done exactly that.

“Before Stand Up To Cancer and our collaborative research model, researchers competed with each other for funding and resources,” explains Sue Schwartz. “We asked cancer research experts for their opinions on that model and they told us that competition among researchers inhibited progress. Our goal was to gather the best and brightest minds and give them the funding they needed to try new things, seek innovative solutions to the most vexing cancer questions, and to do it faster than ever before. But only if they joined forces and worked together.”

To ensure that they got the science right, the cofounders teamed up with the highly respected American Association for Cancer Research, the world’s oldest and largest scientific organization focused on cancer research. They helped Stand Up To Cancer form a Scientific Advisory Committee led by the Nobel Laureate Dr. Phillip Sharp and populated with highly accomplished clinical investigators, senior laboratory researchers, physician-scientists and patient advocates, as well as representatives from the industry.

 The next big challenge was to engage the public, and what better way to do that than with the help of the national media and the Hollywood elite. With the Entertainment Industry Foundation as SU2C’s parent nonprofit organization, the major television networks did something unprecedented (outside of a major disaster): They agreed to simultaneously air a one-hour fundraising special, featuring celebrities from the worlds of television, movies, sports and music. Once the networks were onboard, droves of top talent enlisted in the effort. The first show aired in 2008.

While a one-off TV fundraiser was a great start, the Stand Up To Cancer cofounders knew that big, complex research projects required predictable, sustainable funding. For that, Robertson and Schwartz looked to corporate and institutional support, starting with Major League Baseball. “We met with [then Commissioner of Baseball] Bud Selig and his wife, Sue. We had barely finished explaining the idea when Sue leans into her husband and says, ‘Buddy, what are you waiting for?’” recalls Robertson. “It was the nudge heard around the world.”

Since then the partnership with MLB has only grown stronger. The Stand Up To Cancer placard moments at the MLB All-Star Game and World Series have become iconic, encouraging millions of baseball fans, players, umpires, coaches, even hot dog vendors, to literally stand up for the cause. For the few readers who haven’t seen it, the “placard moment” is an especially moving pause in the game when everyone in the stadium holds up a cardboard placard on which they’ve written the name of someone they know (or perhaps simply admire) who has been affected by the disease. “There is nothing more powerful than to see all these fans and players—some pretty tough and stoic characters—with tears in their eyes… I get choked up just describing it,” Robertson adds.

Stand Up To Cancer’s biennial telecasts are now a fixture of popular culture. The list of stars involved read like a red carpet rollcall, including Halle Berry, Marcia Cross, Sheryl Crow, Matt Damon, Viola Davis, Ellen DeGeneres, Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Jesse Tyler Ferguson, America Ferrara, Tony Goldwyn, Tony Hale, Jon Hamm, Tom Hanks, Marg Helgenberger, Felicity Huffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ken Jeong, Anna Kendrick, Jaime King, Eva Longoria, Rob Lowe, Kyle MacLachlan, Sonequa Martin-Green, Jillian Michaels, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rob Riggle, Seth Rogen, Julia Roberts, Jimmy Smits, Emma Stone, Eric Stonestreet, Taylor Swift, James Taylor, Maura Tierney, Justin Timberlake, Bree Turner, Sofia Vergara, Denzel Washington, Kerry Washington, Kristen Wiig, Charlie Wilson, Rita Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Stevie Wonder. The 2016 telecast featured musical performances from Celine Dion; Dierks Bentley, joined by Keith Urban and Little Big Town; and others.

The names of stars participating in the 2018 telecast had not been announced by press time, but suffice it to say that it will feature a cast of similar renown, including many who have appeared in past telecasts as well as some joining the Stand Up cause for the first time. Bradley Cooper, who hosted the 2016 telecast, returns as co-executive producer for the 2018 broadcast, along with the award-winning live-event producing team Done + Dusted, working again with the Stand Up To Cancer production team.

“As someone whose family has been significantly touched by cancer, I am proud to again have the privilege of co-executive producing this year’s Stand Up To Cancer telecast,” said Cooper. “This show reminds everyone that you are never alone… that there is a community of support out there when you need it most. That’s the power of SU2C. And most importantly, the telecast showcases the significant progress being made in the fight against cancer, instilling hope in those facing the disease.”

For all its success in attracting top talent and major donors to the cause, where Stand Up To Cancer has really delivered is in the benefits reaped by patients. There is an untold number of cancer survivors who are alive today thanks to research funded by Stand Up To Cancer.

“We’re changing the whole culture at the core of cancer research—breaking down silos and getting scientists and other experts to share information and collaborate in entirely new ways—so that today we’re able to accomplish in just two or three years what used to take 10,” said Phillip Sharp, Ph.D., the Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher who chairs the SU2C Scientific Advisory Committee.

“It is an enormously promising time in cancer research,” said SU2C President & CEO Sung Poblete, Ph.D., R.N. “Some of the most exciting recent advances in the field involve using the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, and SU2C is a leader in immunotherapy. Stand Up started out with our signature Dream Teams and individual Innovative Research Grants and then added new approaches. Our ‘convergence’ teams pair scientists not normally associated with cancer research—physicists and mathematicians—with oncologists. SU2C Catalyst® uses funds and materials from the pharmaceutical industry to rapidly explore new uses of compounds for cancer prevention, detection and treatment. We’re also breaking new ground in the emerging field of interception, where we interrupt the cancer development process in the early stages and block the disease from progressing. In another out-of-the-box initiative, we’re working with Microsoft to use artificial intelligence to find patterns that can help identify which patients are most likely to benefit from treatment.”

To date, Stand Up has garnered nearly half a billion dollars in pledges. Since its inception in 2008, the organization has funded two dozen “Dream Teams” composed of top scientists from more than 180 institutions and funded a total of 79 team research grants involving more than 1,500 researchers. Over 12,000 patients have participated in more than 180 clinical trials of treatments developed with SU2C funding. And it bears repeating that all this work has contributed to FDA approval of five new treatments for breast, ovarian, lung and pediatric cancers.

“We are proud of all that we’ve accomplished in just 10 short years,” says SU2C Cofounder Sue Schwartz. “But we are careful not to feel too celebratory, since there remains much more work to do. Our goal is to transform cancer from a life-altering, often fatal disease into a condition that can be managed and survived.”

While securing the support of Major League Baseball was a home run in terms of building Stand Up’s early credibility, Robertson and Schwartz knew they had to reach beyond baseball fans to broaden the organization’s grassroots support. So they turned to three of the most widely known consumer-facing brands for support: Mastercard, CVS and American Airlines, each of which collaborates with SU2C to raise funds and enhance awareness among millions of customers and employees. 

“It turns out that the collaborative model we applied to cancer research also works for engaging the public,” notes Robertson. “Just as the celebrity community helps attract attention to our cause, these major donors help us engage widespread consumer support. All three of these gold-standard brands have earned the trust of their customers, so when they endorse a movement like Stand Up, it carries a lot of weight.”

One of the ways Mastercard engages with Stand Up is its annual Dine Out campaign, which focuses on supporting the millions of caregivers who give strength and motivation to cancer patients. Robertson and Schwartz worked with CVS to create a point-of-sale donation program that lets consumers add a small donation to Stand Up to their purchase. Stand Up’s work with American Airlines is multifaceted and includes the Miles To Stand Up program, where the airline awards AAdvantage® miles for every dollar donated to SU2C.

Increasingly, Stand Up also facilitates collaborations among and between its corporate donors, such as the one this past spring that brought together Marvel Studios and American Airlines in a joint promotion for the hit movie Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Infinity War.” As part of the campaign, American Airlines wrapped one of its aircraft with an enormous graphic featuring characters from the movie, SU2C scientists and American Airlines employees who are cancer survivors.

While endorsements from superheroes and big-name celebrities connect Stand Up to popular culture, few spokespersons are as powerful in their message as those who are battling or have survived the disease. One in particular stands out: Pearce Quesenberry, who appeared at age 10 in Stand Up To Cancer’s first televised fundraising special in 2008, and returns this year as a poised, confident college senior who is entirely free of the brain cancer that very nearly claimed her life.

As an intern this summer in the offices of SU2C, now 21-year-old Pearce attended an employee event at Mastercard headquarters in New York, where she shared her remarkable story. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. “Pearce motivates people to get involved. I watched spellbound as she inspired thousands of Mastercard employees, a living, breathing embodiment of the type of life-saving research their corporate and individual donations enable SU2C to support,” Robertson recalls.

Quesenberry is one of many survivor success stories. But as Sue Schwartz points out, “This is no time to rest on our laurels. We are thrilled that Stand Up To Cancer has given new hope and delivered real benefit to so many patients, but there is much, much more work to be done. When Stand Up To Cancer marked its 10th anniversary in May of this year, we were very clear that the real celebration would only occur when every cancer patient becomes a long-term survivor. On that day we will turn out the lights, lock the office door behind us, and consider this work done. Until then, we will continue to stand up to cancer, and work to persuade others to support the scientists trying to end this awful disease—to whatever degree they can. Every dollar helps.”

The Stand Up To Cancer telecast airs Friday, September 7, at 8 p.m./7 Central, on every major broadcast network and online streaming platform. For more information about Stand Up To Cancer, or to donate to support its lifesaving research, visit StandUpToCancer.org.