Rusty Robertson helped launch Stand Up To Cancer following personal loss

Rusty Robertson shares the story of loss that helped launch Stand Up To Cancer, an organization that breaks down barriers in cancer research

Rusty Robertson helped launch Stand Up To Cancer following personal loss

Illustration Matt Chase

Helplessness is not a feeling I’ve experienced much—I’ve run my own entertainment marketing and branding firm for more than 25 years. But when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, I was overwhelmed. She collapsed on the way to dinner, and when we got to the hospital, an MRI revealed the 10-centimeter tumor. It had been growing under her breastbone for two years. By the time she was diagnosed, it was everywhere, and inoperable. 

I immediately started making calls, asking what we could do, where we could go. I didn’t believe there wasn’t anything the doctors could do. I didn’t even know the right questions to ask. It was the most helpless I had ever felt, and within four Sundays of being diagnosed, my mother would be gone.  

Neither of us knew how long she would live, but we both knew something had to come out of this experience. Before my mother could no longer speak, she told me, “Liz (Rusty’s a nickname thanks to my red hair and freckles), I hope you can do something about this disease. This shouldn’t have happened the way it has.”

My mother raised me to believe I could do anything. Soon, I had formulated the main question that needed answering: Why had my mother’s cancer gone undetected for so long? I didn’t know it then, but that initial sense of helplessness would motivate me to change how things work in the field of cancer research.

A lunch with my future Stand Up To Cancer co-founder Noreen Fraser and her doctor, Dr. John Glaspy, a professor in UCLA’s Division of Hematology and Oncology, changed everything. “We’ve unlocked the door, and we’re in the room,” John told me about the state of cancer research, “but we need to do more.” Doctors and scientists don’t share data, he said, not even from one floor to another. Finally, someone had given me an answer. Recognizing the glitch in the system gave me hope—I could help change it.

I knew I needed to help break down barriers in the research community, and that there needed to be a funding model to support it. Thankfully, I had some extremely smart and driven people to help me. Laura Ziskin, a prolific movie producer and friend, had breast cancer, and shared my vision. Soon our co-founders included Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing, Kathleen Lobb, Lisa Paulsen, Sue Schwartz, Pam Williams and Ellen Ziffren—all personally and profoundly touched by cancer, all with successful careers in entertainment, all knowing we needed to move the needle and change the cancer conversation. 

We met with scientists, explaining how we would leverage our stronghold in the entertainment business to help create a new model for funding research. We created a structure in which esteemed researchers and our Scientific Advisory Committee would have the power to recommend where the money would go. They would receive novel ideas from scientists around the world, and would be mandated to share data with newly created “Dream Teams” of researchers from all disciplines.  

I distinctly recall, years after that lunch, sitting in a room at one of our summits, listening to hundreds of scientists—some of the best minds in medicine—asking each other, “Have you tried that?” and, “Let me tell you what I’ve done.” I turned to one of them and asked, “Do you mean you never shared like this before?” He said, “Rusty, you have no idea what you women have created. You brought us back to why we became scientists and researchers.”

I’m proud to say Stand Up now funds 20 Dream Teams, six Translational Research Teams and 46 early-career Innovative Research Grants. We’ve engaged more than 1,200 researchers from over 140 institutions in the U.S. and seven other countries, and have planned, started or completed 170
clinical trials involving more than 9,000 patients. 

I’m in awe of the patients we’ve been able to help, like the Baltimore policeman who told me, “You saved my life,” or a pregnant woman who in 2010 had stage 4 pancreatic cancer—I saw her again in 2016 with her son. It’s in perfect opposition to when my mother was diagnosed.

“You have to do something,” my mother told me that day, but I know now it was she who laid the groundwork for all this. The unbelievable, unconditional love that she gave me was the true source of the strides Stand Up To Cancer has made. 

Corporate responsibility and global citizenship are integral parts of the American Airlines identity. We believe that by helping others through our partnerships, we can help make the world a better place. In honor of our collaboration with Stand Up To Cancer, we have an incentive program to say, “Thank you.” When AAdvantage® members give to SU2C, they will receive AAdvantage® miles for their donations. Visit aa.com/standup for more information.