Betsy Vincent, of Dallas, knew she had no real answers when her 6-year-old son, Garrison, asked, “Mom, what’s being done for your cancer?”
Vincent, diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, an aggressive cancer originating in the smooth muscle tissue, could only reply, “Not much,” and determined that this fact had to change.
In 2004, Vincent began visiting hospitals to determine a cause for chronic abdominal and back pain. Ten doctors and three years later, she learned about the disease gripping her body.
“I was sad and mad at the same time,” says Vincent. “I knew the best hope for me was at a place like MD Anderson.”
Vincent asked her oncologist, Joseph Ludwig, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sarcoma Medical Oncology, what was limiting progress in leiomyosarcoma research. He cited lack of funding as the culprit.
“We have 50 sarcoma subtypes, so it’s challenging to fund each equally,” Ludwig says.
Determined to alter this paradigm, Vincent asked for a figure. With $200,000, Ludwig said, he could hire two physician-scientists dedicated to leiomyosarcoma research. With that, the Betsy Project was born.
In an effort as grassroots as they come, Vincent established a website and held a three day phone-a-thon with assistance from family and friends. Neighbors held bake sales, sent emails, created yard signs and hosted a hot chocolate party during a rare snowstorm. Vincent’s former school in Alabama jumped in and sold T-shirts.
Within a year, more than 800 people had donated contributions ranging from $5 to $20,000, totaling $355,000.
No targeted therapies exist for leiomyosarcoma. But with support from the Betsy Project, researchers are developing noninvasive tests to assess tumors, uncover molecular abnormities and eventually translate this knowledge into new treatments.
For Ludwig, the funding speaks volumes about the difference one person can make.
“It’s nothing short of amazing that the Betsy Project raised so much money so quickly from so many,” he says.
In a disease as complex as it is malicious, the line separating progress from the status quo is marked with great opportunity. While progress requires effort and dedication — traits of the hundreds of Betsy Project supporters — it begins with a clear vision. For Vincent, that vision is a world without leiomyosarcoma.