Noreen Fraser clearly recalls the day in 2003 when her doctor informed her that the breast cancer she had been diagnosed with 2 years earlier had metastasized to her bones. She also remembers her reaction. “Hysteria,” she said. “Days of crying. Days of trying to digest what it really mean[t].”
What it meant was that Fraser’s cancer was now at stage IV—incurable, her doctor told her. “Am I going to die?” she asked him. Her physician told her he had patients who survived for 5 years with stage IV breast cancer. “Then I got really hysterical,” Fraser recalled. “To him, that was good news. To me, it was the death sentence. I cried even harder.”
Fraser needed time to digest and understand the news she had been given. After telling her husband she needed a couple of days alone, Fraser jumped in her car and drove to the Ojai Valley, approximately 2 hours north of Los Angeles, California. She said she sat in a hotel room, ordered room service, and thought about how she was “ going to beat this,” she recalled. “I had to organize things in my mind, because I’m a television producer, so I was going to lay out everything I was going to do.”
Her thoughts turned to her 10-year-old daughter Madelyn. Then she became angry. “She is not going to get this, and she is not going to die from this,” Fraser decided at the time. “And all those darling fourth-grade girls who come to our home for sleepover—I will not allow this to happen to them.” But she was stumped on what she could do to keep it from happening. “I switched back to crying. I didn’t know anything about science or cancer. What was I going to do?”
Then a light bulb went on. She decided to organize a telethon to raise money for cancer research. After some Internet research, she discovered that some of the biggest grants awarded were for a mere $250,000. “I thought, ‘How can anyone make any headway?’” She decided it was time to create a new model for doling out research funds and scheduled a conversation with her doctor, John Glaspy, MD, at University of California, Los Angeles.
“I told him that from what I could see on the Internet, no one is sharing any of the information,” Fraser recalled. “Everyone is hiding in their lab because they represent a university where they have to make sure that they get the Nobel Prize and that their university gets the accolades that come with that and the money that would eventually come with that.” Fraser felt that the researchers were “hiding” in their labs and failing to share potentially important finds. She pointed out that when research funds are doled out, the amounts are small. As a result, little was accomplished. Exasperated, she told Glaspy, “It’s a vicious cycle of trying to raise money and get something done.” He agreed. So, she decided to do something about it.
Fraser developed a concept for her television program, deciding it would focus solely on breast cancer, and she sold the idea to Lifetime and the Oxygen Network. She then formed the Noreen Fraser Foundation, set a goal of raising between $5 million and $10 million, and decided that all the funds raised by the telethon would go to the “one person who has the best idea: the low-hanging fruit that is going to make a difference.”
She set up a meeting with film producer Laura Ziskin, who, in 2002, became the first woman to produce the Academy Awards telecast alone. “She knows all the Hollywood celebrities, and I need[ed] her to help me book talent for the show,” Fraser explained. She said her philosophy was, “The bigger the names, the more money we’ll make.” Subsequent meetings followed, including one with Sherry Lansing, a film studio executive. The decision was made to target the telethon’s message to all cancers. Lansing felt this would enable her to convince all the major networks to broadcast the telethon. “I agreed [to the change] because I know that whatever advances are made in one cancer will help all cancers. And I knew that if the viewership was quadrupled, the more money we would make and the more we could put into fighting cancer.”
Fraser’s thoughts proved prophetic. The telethon was called Stand Up to Cancer. It aired simultaneously on ABC, CBS, and NBC, and featured more than 50 of the most renowned personalities in the television, film, sports, and music industries. It also raised more than $100 million for cancer research. “I look back and I’m proud,” Fraser said. “But I don’t sit on that. I think, ‘I’m not done yet. Now what am I going to do?’”
Fraser decided that she needed to refocus her efforts on breast cancer—until she saw the statistics for ovarian cancer. “Seventeen-thousand women die each year from [ovarian cancer],” she said. “It’s caught so late, and no one is really helping these women.” She decided to shift her focus to all women’s cancers. “It’s all hormonal,” she observed.
Fraser wanted to distinguish her foundation from the many other breast cancer organizations. Then one of her board members suggested recruiting men to support the cause. “I said, ‘My God, that’s it. No one is using men,’” Fraser recalled. “All these walks, they marginalize men. They have brainwashed women into thinking that only another woman can understand how you feel, so you’d better get another woman to walk with you. No one walks with her husband. No one walks with her brother. It’s all women, and that’s nonsense. Men care. Men are there and support their women. I think men would love the chance to stand up for their women, the women they love: their wife, their sister, their mother, their grandmother.”
Fraser’s foundation started the Men for Women Now campaign. Her first recruit was the actor Jack Black. As momentum grew, many other luminaries followed, including Kevin Connolly, Zach Galifianakis, Neil Patrick Harris, Bob Saget, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
On December 4, 2010, Variety will host Variety’s Power of Comedy, an evening of comedic performances at the Palladium in Hollywood, California, to benefit the foundation’s Men for Women Now campaign. “I think we’re on the cusp of doing something big,” Fraser said. “It’s going to be fabulous, and [it’s] something we’ll do every year.”
Fraser said her children are very proud of what she has accomplished, but she notes that neither one is interested in volunteering time to the women’s cancer cause. Her philanthropic activities have not gone unnoticed, however. Her daughter Madelyn, now 19, has become active with Educate Girls Globally, an organization that promotes the education of girls in developing countries. It began with a trip to India several years ago and blossomed thereafter.
“She has the girls [in India] make necklaces and other items,” Fraser explained. “Then she brings them back and every year she has a booth at a fundraiser, with all the money going back to India. It only costs $85 to buy a uniform and educate a girl for an entire year in India. Her efforts have educated more than 100 girls. I think that’s the influence I’ve had on her.”
And what about Fraser? “For 6 years, everything was cool,” she said. “Then about a year ago, my tumor markers, which had never moved, began climbing upward, which means there’s activity.” In the last year, Fraser said she has had to undergo bone scans and CT scans every 3 months and has been receiving Faslodex injections every month. None of this has slowed Fraser down. “That’s the crazy thing,” she said. “How can you have stage IV incurable cancer and not really look that much different than before anything happened? I have more wrinkles because I’m older, and I feel for the first time ever I have to make more lists,” she added, but said she does not know whether that is the result of natural aging or the cancer medication. “Physically, you wouldn’t know I have cancer by looking at me. You wouldn’t know I was sick,” she said.