Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman knows firsthand how devastating it can be when a family member suffers from cancer. Her mother, Janelle, was diagnosed with breast cancer when Kidman was 17. She was successfully treated and remains cancer-free today.
“I think that was the pivotal point in my life because I was about to lose — or thought I would lose — the most important person in my family, the heartbeat of my family,” Kidman told a crowd of 350 people Nov. 20 in Menlo Park, Calif. Kidman said she prayed for her mother’s survival, resolving then to commit to helping other women who faced the threat of cancer.
The actress and her husband, country music star Keith Urban, made a rare Bay Area appearance at a luncheon at the Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club to support the Women’s Cancer Program at Stanford. The program, part of the Stanford Cancer Center, encompasses the work of dozens of faculty in a comprehensive effort to improve survival and cure rates for breast and gynecologic cancers.
Kidman spoke passionately on the issue of women’s health, while Urban, a two-time Grammy Award-winner, treated the audience to three tunes from his catalogue. It was the first time the couple has done a double-act together and the first time Urban said he had been introduced by his wife.
Kidman came to Stanford at the invitation of Jonathan Berek, MD, professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology, and a longtime friend of the actress. He introduced Kidman to the array of research and clinical programs in women’s cancer that are under way at Stanford.
“I so believe in the work of the researchers and scholars here,” Kidman told the audience. She said she was optimistic about the prospects for a cure.
“I truly believe in my lifetime it can happen, but it will take a tremendous amount of support,” she said.
Berek said researchers at Stanford are attacking women’s cancers on multiple fronts. He is an internationally known expert in ovarian cancer, a disease that is particularly difficult to manage because of a lack of effective prevention and screening tools. He and his colleagues are currently working to develop therapeutic vaccines for ovarian cancer, to complement the human papilloma virus vaccine that effectively prevents cervical cancer.
Berek noted that the medical center has a unique program in cancer stem cells, which are believed to be at the root of all malignancies. Michael Clarke, MD, professor of medicine, first identified the breast cancer stem cell and is working with Irving Weissman, MD, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, in characterizing the ovarian cancer stem cell. Both Clarke and Weissman are members of the Stanford Cancer Center.
In addition, intensive work is under way to develop drugs to interfere with some breast and ovarian cancers that are associated with specific genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Along with this drug development work, genetic screening techniques are being explored that could one day result in a simple, inexpensive blood test using genetic profiling; these tests could not only determine a woman’s chances of getting breast, ovarian or other gynecologic cancers, but could also tell physicians which treatment protocols are likely to be most effective.
The center also has numerous clinical trials in progress to develop innovative treatments. For instance, Ellie Guardino, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine, is leading a study of a vaccine for treating breast cancer, and is investigating methods that corral the immune system in fighting the disease.
Guardino told the audience that she will be presenting results of her clinical trials in December at the International Breast Cancer Conference in San Antonio. These include studies aimed at destroying cancer cells and preventing cancer growth, as well as the vaccine data for a group of patients treated in the United States and Europe.
Guardino also described her own personal struggle as a cancer survivor. “I know firsthand the fear and anxiety that cancer brings,” she said. “I have a greater understanding and a deeper empathy for my patients,” who, she said, inspired her to press forward in the search for a cure.
Berek emphasized Stanford’s important role as a National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in bringing together the various components of the women’s cancer program. “By coordinating our efforts in breast and gynecologic cancers under the umbrella of a comprehensive research and treatment program, we hope to create even greater synergies between doctors and scientists working together with the common goal of curing women’s cancer,” Berek said.
He said he hopes the event will help call attention to the health needs of women and engage the community in Stanford’s work in women’s cancer.
“We see this as a very bright future in partnering with you,” he told the audience.
The event is expected to raise $250,000 for the Women’s Cancer Program at Stanford to support research into the causes, treatment and prevention of breast, gynecologic and other cancers unique to women. The event was sponsored by Dianne and Tad Taube, through the Koret Foundation and Taube Philanthropies. Lisa Schatz, former executive at Esprit and The Gap, chaired the event, along with Susie Fox, Lisa Goldman, Lainie Garrick and Dianne Taube.
In addition to Kidman’s advocacy work in cancer research, she serves as the Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, which has the goals of empowering women, promoting gender equality and women’s rights around the world and ending violence against women. Kidman was awarded Australia’s highest honor, the Companion in the Order of Australia, for her contributions to the film world, as well as for her work in promoting cancer research and women’s and children’s health.
Along with his two Grammies, Urban has won Country Music Association Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards and Australia’s coveted Aria Award. He has gained a worldwide reputation as a songwriter, vocalist and virtuoso guitarist, routinely performing to sold-out arenas. He and Kidman live in Nashville, Tenn.