In its fourth year, Howard County nonprofit the Marcie and Ellen Foundation continues support of ongoing research at Johns Hopkins that could bring faster detection and treatment to doctors across the country.
Since the organization's inception in 2012, the Marcie and Ellen Foundation has raised more than $70,000 for breast cancer research, according to its annual financial report for charities, donating 100 percent of the raised net fundsto the Breast Cancer Therapeutics Laboratory at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
On Friday, Oct. 21, organization president Cathy Byrne says the foundation's breast cancer awareness and research funding efforts will continue with its fourth annual breast cancer benefit dinner.
Byrne said her endeavor to raise breast cancer awareness began after her sister, Marcie Westermeyer, lost her battle to breast cancer in October 2006 at age 43. Westermeyer's friend, Ellen Ervin, was later diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2009 and died in November 2015; she was 51.
Both women grew up in Montgomery County, she said, but raised their families in Howard County. Westermeyer is survived by her husband, Gary, and daughters Lauren and Katie; while Ervin is survived by her husband, Bob, daughters, Caitlin and Meaghan and son, Bobby.
"It was hard. It was just a devastating blow," Byrne said. "I weirdly had a dream with pink balloons, woke up and decided that it would be a great idea if both families had a dinner dance. It has been a really healing endeavor. Our goal is just to continue to raise more money every year and funds for Dr. Ben Ho Park."
A professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins, Park said he spends most of his time in the Breast Cancer Therapeutics Laboratory advancing his research in breast cancer therapies and treatments. His recent research includes blood tests to analyze genetic changes in cancer cells in the blood.
The new blood test could replace biopsies, which remove tissue samples, and detect the development of cancer sooner, as well as determine if cancer treatments have been effective. Park said breast cancer kills 40,000 women each year in the U.S.
"The blood tests are going to be our pie-in-the-sky goal over the next five to 10 years when we try to prove that the tests are as good as we think they are," he said.
One of the most common diagnostic tests is the CAT scan, which Park says is unable to detect cancer at the microscopic level.
Park, who treated Ervin following the recurrence of her breast cancer in 2012, said funds from outside groups are important as federal research grants diminish.
"Specifically for breast cancer research, the funding has kind of run dry at the government level," Park said. "Even though it's still there, it's nowhere near the level it was 15 or 20 years ago. That has really created a challenge for people like me, so philanthropy and the support we get from a foundation like Marcie and Ellen really keep everything going."
According to the National Institutes of Health, breast cancer research funds decreased between fiscal 2012 and 2013 from $800 million to $657 million. In the current fiscal year, $699 million is being allocated.
Multiple research projects are underway at the lab at Johns Hopkins, Park said, including studies into the genetic changes in cancer cell growth and their resistance to drugs.
"We don't actually have a test right now that tells us whether patients are cured. We take our best stab at it and cross our fingers," Park said. "If we actually had a way to detect microscopic cancer cells after all the therapy we give them, that provides an opportunity for us to intervene. So far, we don't have those types of tests, but we actually think we do now."
After countless years of funds and donations, Park said clinical trials have begun on the new blood tests and are the first trials in the United States through 14 of the 17 institutions of the Translational Breast Cancer Research Consortium If successful, the tests will become a game-changing breakthrough in cancer research.
Park also receives grants and additional funds through dozens of other organizations, including the Avon Foundation and the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute as well as former and current patients.
"In this country, we treat almost everyone," the oncologist said. "We know as a population, we're doing far more good than harm, but wouldn't it be great if after surgery, we took a blood test and could say, 'Hey, you're cured and don't need to get chemotherapy,' or 'You're not cured, get chemotherapy, but then we can tell if it's working or not.'"
Park's efforts are recognized by the Marcie and Ellen Foundation, Byrne said, and Park will speak at this week's fundraiser.
"He is a phenomenal man," Byrne said. "He'll come out and say he is going to cure cancer. He is just that sure of the research he's doing, which I just love to hear. I hope he does."
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Caitlin Rossi, Ervin's daughter and foundation board member, said continuing to support Park through this benefit in Howard County is a blessing. Rossi described her hometown of Highland and the surrounding area as a "tight-knit community."
In addition to dancing at the event, Rossi said prize baskets will also be raffled off throughout the evening.
"It's a really fun event and we get really excited about it," Rossi said. "Our attendance has grown each year and there's just so much energy in the room and so many passionate people who show up to support such a great cause. It's an event that touches everyone and everyone wants to contribute to finding the cure."
"I'm not the doctor, but we believe in what Dr. Park is doing with the genetic testing," the foundation president said. "I can only say that I hope that what we're doing is a small part of curing cancer."
The Marcie and Ellen Foundation breast cancer benefit dinner will be held Friday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Gathering Place in Clarksville, 6120 Day Long Lane. Tickets are $85 and available via Pay Pal using credit card, debit card or direct transfer at marcieandellen.org/events. Donations for breast cancer research are also accepted on the Marcie and Ellen Foundation website.