June 2010: Noreen Fraser at The Today Show studio in New York, NY, where she appeared to discuss National Cancer Survivors Day.
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.”
From Introspection to Anger
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.
October 2010: Noreen Fraser with Robert Redford at The Women’s Conference in Long Beach, CA. Fraser produced a segment of the conference called “Once-in-a-Lifetime Conversation With a Legendary Architect of Change,” a discussion with Redford hosted by Linda Ellerbee.
From Anger to Action
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.”