Lazarex Cancer Foundation in Danville provides a unique resource for patients given a terminal diagnosis by their doctors. Not only does the foundation help patients to research and navigate clinical trial options, it also helps them pay to participate.
Dana Dornsife, who started Lazarex three years ago in Danville, says the cost of taking part in a clinical trial – including travel, lodging and living expenses during treatment – can be prohibitive for many families.
"People who have access to a big checkbook can afford to take part in clinical trials, while others have to pass," says Dornsife. "We thought that was fundamentally wrong."
She says the foundation fills the gap in resources so that money is not a barrier to patients who are otherwise eligible for a clinical trial.
Dornsife decided to launch Lazarex after her own family's experience with a terminal cancer diagnosis. She says her brother-in-law Mike Miller was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer at age 42.
"He was basically told to go home and put his affairs in order," says Dornsife, who explains that only .5 percent of patients survive such a diagnosis. "It's basically a death sentence."
The family began to research alternative treatments, hoping for a "different result" for the father of three.
"Our goal was to keep Mike alive long enough for his youngest child Caitlyn, who was 4 at the time, to remember him," says Dornsife.
Miller was accepted into a clinical trial for a drug called Rexin-G, which Dornsife credits for extending his life by nearly two years and allowing him to create "very sweet memories" with Caitlyn and his other children.
"It really opened our eyes to the value that clinical trials provide," says Dornsife. "It gives hope to end-case cancer patients and improves their quality of life."
Very Important Patients
Another patient who is benefiting from Lazarex is the foundation's VIP Brittany Hess. The 27-year-old has been battling alveolar soft part sarcoma since 2001 when she discovered a small lump on her left thigh.
Since then she has undergone 23 surgical procedures to treat tumors on her thigh, lungs, liver, brain, breast, tibia, spine and abdomen. Lazarex has enabled Hess to take part in three clinical trials for the rare disease, including paying for travel with her parents to locations in the United States and Canada for treatments.
While chronic pain and side effects from the medication she is taking currently prevent her from pursuing her plans to become a nurse, Hess remains buoyantly optimistic.
"I'll never give up," she says, "I have too much to live for."
Scott Zenaro, who passed away in February, was the "poster child" for Lazarex for the past two years. Zenaro was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in 2004, when he was 30 years old.
After exhausting conventional surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, he was referred to a clinical trial at Dr. Chawla's Sarcoma Oncology Center in Santa Monica. However, Zenaro was unable to afford the relocation and the expense of living in such a costly city.
Dr. Chawla put Zenaro in touch with Lazarex and within a day he received news that the foundation would pay for all his living expenses, allowing him to receive the treatment.
"I was completely and utterly shocked that something positive was happening," wrote Zenaro at the time. "Dana provided the miracle that I so desperately needed."
Zenaro's sister Carron Riddle wrote a letter to Dornsife after her brother's death.
"The pain of losing Scott is intense," she wrote. "The day before Scott died he said, with tears in his eyes, 'I guess this is it for Lazarex.' I promised him this was not it. My family and I are committed to keeping Scott's memory alive by supporting the foundation you began."
Lazarex, which has helped approximately 1,600 patients since its inception, including financial assistance to more than 1,100, relies heavily on the private sector and fundraisers for money.
"Friends, families that we've helped and businesses are very generous," says Dornsife.
Although she'd like to forge more partnerships with government and corporations in the future, the foundation decided to focus on fund-raisers in 2009.
"That was a good decision because a lot of government agencies and corporations have cut back," says Dornsife, who is happy to report that the foundation broke the $1 million mark for income in 2009.
Dornsife, who is one of three volunteers and two paid staff, is also proud that the foundation has been able to keep its overhead low.
"For every dollar we receive, 87 cents goes to program services," she says.
The next big fund-raiser is May 16 and 17 when Lazarex teams up with the Major League Baseball Alumni Association for a Celebrity Dinner and Golf Tournament at Green Valley Country Club in Fairfield.
Paul Hirsch who handles communication for the foundation said there will be a MLB player at every table during dinner and guests will also bid on autographed memorabilia. The players will also be on the links for the golf tournament, where each foursome will include an MLB alumnus.
Dornsife says that Lazarex doesn't just help cancer patients.
"Lazarex is a healing vehicle for all of us," she says. "It unites us over something that could be devastating to a family."
Tickets for the Celebrity Dinner are $180; entry in the Golf Tournament is $250 per player. For more information call Susan Sappington at (510) 757-5034. The deadline to register is April 30.
For more information on the Lazarex Cancer Foundation, visit www.lazarex.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call toll-free 1 (800) 866-9523 or (925) 820-4517. The foundation is located at 169 Front Street, Suite 203, Danville.