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Laura Ziskin Headshot

I Have Cancer, But I'll Buy You a Drink

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Since co-founding Stand Up To Cancer in 2008, and because of my own bouts with the disease, I have spent many nights reading informative articles on things like translational research, immunotherapy, and gene pathways. For all those heady scientific journals on possibilities, it's the personal stories, like Chicago Tribune reporter Duaa Eldeib's moving portrait of Nick Schmidt and Bahar Mallah that are the loudest drumbeat, in the war against cancer.

Nick was already diagnosed with cancer when he met Bahar at a bar one cold Chicago night. She noticed he wasn't drinking. "I have cancer, but I'll buy you a drink," Nick said. "That's your line?" Bahar replied. "That's a horrible, horrible line."

And so began their journey as a couple, "blissfully in love." He was the patient. She was a pharmaceutical rep who could change his IVs and manage his ports. Save for the cancer, their lives were similar to all those other "blissful couples" who were just beginning a life together in 2008. But we all know cancer complicates everything, even falling in love.

What is so striking about the piece is that in learning about the courage of this couple (in Nick's case, his willingness to experience love in spite of his disease, and Bahar's willingness to risk loving someone whose life would likely be cut short) we are forced to ask ourselves, "Would I marry someone I knew was terminal?"

If there is one ultimate dividing line in our collective being, it is a line between those who take risks and those who play it safe. How many of us, on hearing the word "cancer" in a pick-up line, would bow out gracefully? How many would have not returned a phone call, or declined an invitation from a handsome man going through chemo? How many of us would have said, "She'll never be interested in me, why bother?"

Bahar told the Tribune: "There are people who beat this... why can't he be one of them? Every new treatment he was on didn't exist when he was on the treatment before that. There will come a time when science is going to catch up, so (we) should keep trying."

In that one sentence, Bahar embodies everything that is right with the cancer movement. And we, the risk-takers, who know that 51 days spent with the love of your life is better than a lifetime of never experiencing love at all -- we are the ones who must stand on the frontlines of this fight to end cancer. We are the only hope to end it.

The first step is embracing the spirit that inspired Bahar Mallah -- go forward despite the odds. We must put aside our cynicism and hopelessness, and embrace the risk-taker in science, in love, in art, in life, in ourselves.

Sir Richard Branson understands this intuitively. It's why he's had all the wild success he's achieved. Recently, Branson's Virgin America struck up a novel partnership with Stand Up To Cancer. As you fly Virgin America and enjoy their in-flight entertainment system, you can now donate to Stand Up To Cancer right from your seat. Virgin America has also initiated a series of online promotions to encourage donations from the ground.

I mention this because as we kicked around Branson's idea, there were those on our team who thought the public wouldn't be interested. Why donate to cancer just because an airline asks you to? Yet, since September, we have received tens of thousands of dollars for innovative cancer research projects from passengers, crew and Virgin America "teammates" who have engaged in Virgin America's pledge to fight cancer. This is just the start of Sir Richard's plans to combat cancer from 35,000 feet -- he wants to name planes, donate portions of sales, and maybe host benefits from the sky. He has an idea a minute, and they are usually extraordinary.

Sir Richard's effort is one small example of an individual rethinking what's possible vis-à-vis cancer. I could name hundreds. But it's not enough. It will take all of us, risking big and small. Stand Up To Cancer, along with many other organizations, is working to change the dynamic in the field of cancer research. Believe it or not, that's the easy part. The harder part is moving the public to take action, to reinvest, and restore its faith in the 40-plus-year war on cancer. There are many credible and rational reasons why this is. But like Bahar discovered, sometimes a risk is worth it, despite the odds, and the naysayers.

I would be remiss not to mention my friend, and tireless health care advocate, Elizabeth Edwards. She lived her life to the fullest despite her disease. Elizabeth said in recent years, "I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful."

The connection between Elizabeth Edwards and Bahar Mallah runs deeper than just two people affected by cancer. They are two people who bravely stood up against cancer, whose lives weren't defined by it, and who believed life was worth living even when you are forced to play an impossible hand.