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Dan L. Duncan Family Takes Aim at Cancer Before it Starts

Conquest - Summer 2008

By DeDe DeStefano

In an effort to prevent cancer in millions of people who might one day be diagnosed with it, the Dan L. Duncan Family Foundation has given M. D. Anderson $35 million to establish the Dan Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment.

The gift is the institution’s largest to the cancer prevention program and the second-largest gift in its 67-year history. At a press conference announcing the gift in M. D. Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Building, Jan Duncan expressed her family’s desire to see the disease prevented.

“Our family’s personal experiences, coupled with the tragic loss of lives each day from the disease, has inspired us to make medical research, treatment and prevention a key component of our giving,” she says. “God has blessed us in many ways and He has given us the responsibility of using the gifts He has given us to help others. Our family can think of no greater joy than to be a part of preventing the pain, as well as the emotional, financial and physical challenges of this horrible disease.”

The Duncan family’s gift will be used to mitigate cancer risk in individuals who might be at higher risk for developing the disease by assessing genetic risk factors and lifestyle habits, and then recommending a course of action for them. The Duncan family’s support also will enable M.D. Anderson to study the incidence and determinants of cancer in medically underserved and minority communities. A major element of the Duncan Family Institute will address cancer-related behavioral and genetic risk factors in medically underserved communities to better develop cancer prevention strategies and ultimately reduce cancer-related deaths in this rapidly growing segment of our population.

 The gift also will allow M. D. Anderson to recruit additional researchers and clinicians to implement new or enhance current prevention programs and examine the effects of behavior and lifestyle choices on developing cancer.

“Jan and Dan Duncan and their family are well known for their phenomenal efforts to eradicate a disease that affects millions of people,” says M. D. Anderson President John Mendelsohn, M.D. “We are extraordinarily grateful to them for teaming with M. D. Anderson to continue to pioneer new prevention methods. Their support will save countless people the pain and challenge of fighting cancer and will provide them the priceless gift of more time with their friends and family.” 

Many disciplines: one target

The Duncan Family Institute will be directed by Ernest Hawk, M.D., vice president for prevention and head of M. D. Anderson’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences. It will bring research and experts together from many disciplines, including epidemiologists, behavioral scientists, biochemists, molecular biologists, computer and information scientists, clinical scientists and others to leverage and amplify the discoveries of each investigator and laboratory. The Duncan Family Institute will collaborate in related research with Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital and other Houston institutions.

From left: Dan Duncan, Jan Duncan, M. D. Anderson President John Mendelsohn, M.D., and State Rep. Ellen Cohen, representing Houston Mayor Bill White, admire a document proclaiming “Duncan Family Day” in honor of the Duncans’ generous gift.

“This is indeed an exceptionally generous gift, and we are humbled by the honor that the Duncan family has bestowed upon us. We are grateful for the trust it represents. And we’re particularly in tune to the responsibility that it engenders,” Hawk says. “They have made a wise investment in my view. Cancer prevention is an area in desperate need. M. D. Anderson is an institution that’s known for world-class treatment, and this gift will help us to similarly be known for cancer prevention. Already in a research setting you see evidence of that, but we hope to disseminate that into the practicing care setting as well.

“Every cancer patient has typically three realms of questions when they’re diagnosed,” Hawk continues.  “The first is, ‘What does this mean for me?’ The second often is, ‘What does this mean for my family?’ That’s where prevention can play a very important role in providing answers to that question. And third, ‘How can I help others to ensure that they don’t follow the path that I’m on?’ That sort of intrinsic altruism is what brings us to work every day, what makes prevention terribly relevant.”

Philanthropy and volunteering a family tradition

Dan Duncan and his family have long supported M. D. Anderson through financial gifts and volunteer activities. Daughter Randa Duncan Williams has served on the University Cancer Foundation Board of Visitors since 2006 and is a former member of M. D Anderson’s Advance Team. 

“The Duncan family is proud of its long-standing relationship with M. D. Anderson, which is recognized the world over for its groundbreaking achievements in the fight against cancer,” Dan Duncan says. “With these additional resources, the talented doctors, researchers, administrators and employees of M. D. Anderson are poised to extend the institution’s tradition of innovative advances to the field of prevention, hopefully sparing future generations the ordeal of cancer treatment.”

In a flat climate of federal funding, philanthropic gifts are increasingly important to help fund underserved areas, bridge the gap between grants and provide the seed money necessary to successfully compete for federal funding.

“The Duncan family has supported M. D. Anderson for more than 25 years. Their unwavering commitment to the institution is helping us to continue to deliver the best possible outcome for our patients, who are the common denominator in all that we do,” says Patrick Mulvey, vice president for Development. “Their support throughout the years has provided our researchers the resources they’ve needed to successfully compete for grants and has helped move findings into the clinics quickly. Through their generosity, lives will be touched for decades to come.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center