With Breast Cancer Awareness Month upon us, it's only natural to take a moment to honor Evelyn Lauder, the daughter-in-law of cosmetics guru, Estee Lauder, and the genius behind the ubiquitous and symbolic pink ribbon, which she co-developed in 1992 with Alexandra Penney--the then-editor of SELF magazine. A fairy godmother of sorts to the fateful disease, Mrs. Lauder has spent the last few weeks jet setting to turn world landmarks into glowing pink monuments heralding awareness for breast cancer and the women--and men--affected by it.
Mrs. Lauder's life story is one of both extreme misfortune and privilege. From a narrow escape from the Nazi annexation of Austria to living in England during the Blitz to marrying the scion of a cosmetics company soon to become a leader in the industry, what makes her story remarkable is not the turning point of her own life, but the fact that she has used her position at Estee Lauder to further the worthy cause of breast cancer research. Mrs. Lauder now holds the position of Senior Corporate Vice President of The Estee Lauder Companies and is the founder and Chairman of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, established in 1993.
During October, Mrs. Lauder is celebrating the opening of the new Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Imaging Center in New York and painting towns pink. She spoke to HuffPost Living about advances with breast cancer research, her hopes for the future, and the importance of sleep and cruciferous vegetables.
What was the initial motivation behind your fund-raising for breast cancer research?
Initially it was to raise funds for what I considered to be a vacuum in the marketplace, so to speak, on breast cancer. At the time awareness was very prominently supported, and there were support groups for women who were diagnosed with the disease, but I felt that the missing piece was in research. There was research being done, but it was being done on an individualized basis in various institutions with government support. There was no one grassroots organization like the March of Dimes or the Diabetes Foundation which actually coordinated research among doctors and investigators on the causes, the new treatments and to bring the disease forward for cure. That's when we thought this was something that needed to be done. And once you know that something needs to be done, if you don't do it, then you're committing a sin.
Why is the issue so close to your heart? How has breast cancer touched you personally?
It's close to my heart because when I saw the Look Good, Feel Better video which had patients who were volunteers for the cosmetic industry to do makeovers for women who had cancer, most of them were being treated for breast cancer. I asked about breast cancer and it turned out that twice as many women were dying of breast cancer as people who were dying of AIDS. And there was no publicity, there were no stories about it. It was a taboo subject. I felt that we needed to get it out in the open, we needed to be able to actually take away the fear and all the taboos.
Did you envision in 1992 that the pink ribbon would become such a powerful symbol of solidarity for women?
I was hoping it would, and it did take a few years until it launched like a rocket. But until it launched like a rocket it did have a slow start. People didn't really recognize it. The more ribbons that went out there, the more we stuck with it, and the more we continued to hand it out, the more recognizable it would become and then it was suddenly launched. And now it is a recognizable, ubiquitous symbol which has people doing all the correct things because it acts as a reminder. This year we will have given away a 100 million pink ribbons, cumulatively over the years since it got started.
What do you think contributed to the decrease in breast cancer deaths (a new study says they're down 2% annually, down 30% since 1990)?
Well, there are several things. Early detection is a huge aspect of it and with people no longer being as frightened of it as they used to be, they know that if it's detected early it's 98% curable. I think that the awareness campaign and the press, the wonderful stories written by editors have reduced the fear and increased the information and the knowledge that women have. They go to get themselves checked more frequently. I think there's also been an improvement in treatment, a drastic improvement in treatment in the last many number of years. There's also been increase in population, and that's in spite of that. There's been an increase in the number of people who are diagnosed with it, but there are fewer deaths, so that's extremely impressive.
What personal experiences have reinforced your commitment to this cause?
The calls that I get on a daily basis from friends and people I meet in restaurants and God knows. I had a call just today from a friend. Happily, I was able to get her connected to an excellent surgeon to review her situation.
What progress has been made in researching the causes and cures of breast cancer? Which findings are you most excited about?
Treatment is better. Now, even advanced cancers are being treated in such a fashion that they are becoming chronic diseases instead of life threatening unless of course they're diagnosed very, very late. There are many different kinds of breast cancers. There are some that are more aggressive than others, so one has to factor in all those variations. Causes that can be prevented: lowering the intake of alcohol to maybe a total of 2 to 3 glasses of wine a week, cease to smoke because both those increase risk. And the same with obesity. Obesity not only has an effect on colon cancer and diabetes, but also on breast cancer, because fat in the body holds estrogen. The more estrogen a woman has, the higher her risk for developing the disease.
Exercise is extraordinarily helpful in lowering the risk, and also eating cruciferous vegetables. Crucifix refers to a cross, and at the bottom of a cauliflower or cabbage, you see the veins form a cross, and that's where you get the word cruciferous. So brussel sprouts, cabbages of all kinds (red, white, savoy, asian), and broccoli, squashes, orange vegetables are very healthy, and foods that have high values of omega three. And now they have recently discovered the risk of cancer increases with low vitamin D levels. It's important to get your vitamin D level checked by physician, to get to the level that is correct. Everybody has a different level, so you can't say everyone should take x thousands of units of vitamin D. It's an individualized thing, depending on the results of the vitamin D level test. But apparently vitamin D is helpful in lowering risk.
Who has inspired you the most through your work with breast cancer?
I think that the people that have inspired me the most are the researchers are so dedicated and so tireless in their concern, and in the amount of time they give to it, that they fuel my energy a great deal. That's why I work for them because they are all so dedicated.
Based on your experience working with breast cancer research and survivors, what are some lifestyle tips that you would share with our readers to preserve good health?
I think I may have alluded to some of them already: not drinking, not smoking and vitamin D levels. They've also done a study to prove that if a person doesn't get enough sleep it increases their risk for disease. So, it's important to get sufficient amounts of sleep.
Besides medical treatments, do you believe in the restorative impact of alternative methods of healing? Which?
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center there is an integrative health facility and we have a branch at the new Breast Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering that's just opened. There is yoga, which is helpful. They've discovered also that it doesn't do any harm to have acupuncture. All oncologists are very strict about not taking vitamins and minerals which interfere with traditional medicine, so the integrative center coordinates with the patient those things that are harmless with those things that are being used by the doctors in traditional medicine. For example, if a person is taking chemotherapy, I understand that they are not supposed to have to many minerals that have metals in them like zinc or iron because they block the efficacy of the treatment. These are medical questions that would probably be better answered by people at the integrative center, like Dr. Larry Norton, Dr. Barrie Cassileth, or the chief there, Dr. Cliff Huddis.
What's your next step in your involvement with the cause?
The next step is always a part of the staircase and at some point I would like to get to the top of the staircase. The top of the staircase would be to get out of business, to cure the disease and to prevent the disease from happening. That's the end of the story, so to speak, to make it a factor of the past. In the meantime, we want to keep working until that happens. The doctors find new challenges every time they make a new discovery and it pushes the time line back another year. And then they make progress, find something new and get another year of study. One isn't a 100 percent sure but certainly, hopefully, within the next 10 years it should be there. They're making phenomenal progress.