From Outrage To Action: Dian (CJ) Corneliussen-James and METAvivor
“I started METAvivor out of outrage.”
Dian (CJ) Corneliussen-James, Co-Founder of METAvivor Research and Support, Inc
Born from the outrage of four women, METAvivor Research and Support, Inc. is a non-profit with a purpose–To increase research funding for metastatic cancer.
Dian (CJ) Corneliussen-James is one of those women. A self-described shy child, Ms. Corneliussen-James (or CJ as she likes to be called) is anything but retiring and reserved. Raised by a progressive cause-oriented Pastor father and reserved Quaker mother, CJ got a taste of traveling as an exchange student in Germany 1968-9 and Rotary Fellow in Austria 1972-3. After getting a masters degree, CJ joined the Air force in 1979 “to pay college loans.” She stayed with the Air Force for 24 years. “I had a great life– variety, travel, pay and promotions.” During her time in the Air force she tracked and analyzed Soviet satellite activity, collected information against the Eastern Bloc, served as intelligence lead on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Somalia Conflict and resolved the cases of Americans lost during the Vietnam and First Gulf Wars. In 2003 she retired as a Lieutenant Colonel and began a second career in the civil service as the Senior Intelligence Officer at the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.
Three months after a clean mammogram she felt a lump in her breast. Her world changed with the diagnosis of stage II breast cancer. . “Surgery, chemo, radiation, pills…Welcome to the Pink World,” CJ quips. Her career was cut short with a subsequent diagnosis of systemic lupus and the spread of breast cancer to her lung – all in a period of 19 months. She’s had a lobe of her lung removed as well as continuous chemotherapy since then. This year she had surgery for the collapsed remaining lung. “Recently a former HS teacher said I was the only one she knew who has been reincarnated several times in one life. “ CJ stated.
Although she retired, CJ didn’t stop working. She turned her analytical mind, vast experience and understanding, to her disease and began to search for research on metastatic breast cancer (MBC). What she found was a dearth of research on metastases of breast cancer and on metastases of all other cancers.
What are metastases? People who have Stage IV cancer have metastatic disease. Metastases means the spread of a cancer from the place of its origin, be that skin, breast, blood or lung, to other organs throughout the body. “The public doesn’t even know what mets is. Say you’re stage IV and they ask when will treatment end. The Answer: When I die, “ CJ explains.
“A few cancers kill without metastases. Ninety percent (90%) of metastatic cancer patients die of metastases. One hundred percent (100%) of metastatic breast cancer patients die of metastases,” CJ states.
Why is there so little research on metastases? CJ found that most of the funding from donations and taxes has gone to early detection, prevention and treatment. “In the US only 2% of research funds goes to Stage 4 cancer….One study showed the American Cancer Society gave ALL stage IV cancers 2.3% of its research budget in 2010. The Federal government gave 0.5% to stage IV cancers in 2005. “ The same is true for other organizations. “ACS, Komen, Avon, NBCC , ALL focus their funding on prevention and have NEVER defined CURE.”
Yet people are dying from metastases. “Prevention and treatment have failed to make a difference for most cancers. Only lung and colon cancer have seen improvement…[with this type of funding.] “ CJ states.
CJ began making contacts, asking questions and collecting information. Her quest led her to friendships and working relationships with well-known researchers and cancer advocates such as Danny R. Welch, Ph.D. and Clifton Leaf. There are “Superb Stage 4 researchers and proposals. But if [they are] funded at only 2%…they can’t do much with that, “ she says.
CJ’s physicians also sent other people with metastatic breast cancer to her for support. She was shocked to find that virtually none of the support, research or activities that typify the very successful “pink” breast cancer movement extended to the metastatic breast cancer community. “People don’t like to think about stage IV. Too depressing. We’re in the closet…Breast Cancer events don’t address Metastatic Breast Cancer. [These organizations] think it will dampen mood. No Metastatic Breast Cancer speakers, topics or literature. Metastatic Breast Cancer questions [are] avoided, “ CJ explains. Metastatic cancer patients are not welcome at many support programs. “Newly diagnosed [MBC] patients not infrequently approach Breast Cancer groups for support. Unfortunately, these groups often suggest to MBC patients that they are not welcome, or that they must not mention their diagnosis to the others for it would be too frightening for them in their fragile condition. This can be devastating.”
However CJ believes that Metastatic Breast Cancer patients are really better off with other metastatic patients. “In all honesty,…only other MBC patients can provide true insight, advice and understanding. Discussions concerning mastectomies, lumpectomies and getting through treatment to return to normal life are not helpful and only serve to remind the MBC patient that she has a much more difficult road ahead.”
In 2007 CJ officially established a local support program in Annapolis Maryland that within six months grew to 24 members.
Soon she was looking for ways to increase funding for metastatic breast cancer research. “METAvivor was created to fill a critical gap in Awareness, Research and Support. Many don’t realize stage 4 needs and the disparities in support and research. Educating people is critical.”
CJ and three other women who were part of the support group she had established in Annapolis created METAvivor in 2009. “We had to be a nonprofit to raise funds. The four of us followed the free non-profit checklist on Maryland’s state government site. Our Goal was to do everything possible free or donated.” And they achieved this: METAvivor is 100% volunteer and a 501c3.
Two of the four women who worked together to create METAvivor died during its first year of existence. “Patients are so devoted they work with us until weeks before death. We would never ask or expect it, but they do. [METAvivor is that] Critical…to them.”
One of the main problems with metastatic disease is finding the numbers. “Numbers a HUGE issue. There is no code for Metastatic Breast Cancer. It is counted only if the person’s first diagnosis is stage IV. There is [clear indicator] how many live with stage IV. Others try to down the numbers. Stats are very hard to find.” Yet even with people who are first diagnosed with stage IV cancer the figures are shocking, “One third of cancer patients die annually, most from metastases. Stage 4 research needs one third of the research funds, not 2%.”
METAvivor expanded its support function and now helps people elsewhere establish their own support where programs are lacking. “The problem is that Stage 4 patients have unique needs. They need dedicated Stage 4 SUPPORT. We can combine with other Stage 4 cancer patients, but not with primary patients. “ Sadly there are only 40 support programs nationwide for MBC patients, ten of these in NY State. “The vast majority of patients have nothing ,but MBC has far more than most stage4. It’s TRAGIC,” CJ states.
CJ and others at METAvivor are on a quest. “For us this isn’t optional. We are driven by a critical need and a mission no one else does. We can’t stop until we get proportionate research and support.”
CJ and METAvivor know that research on metastases in all cancers is needed. “Research for breast cancer does little to nothing for me. Research for stage IV anything DOES help me and all stage IV [cancer patients]. This is [the] critical point. Progress in any stage IV cancer research helps other
stage IV cancers. We want stage IV research across board,” CJ states. “This is a stage 4 problem…we need to rally the stage IV community of all cancers and have the healthy community help raise our voices … say enough already! Help us promote 30% for 30%! They are welcome to 70% to use as they wish. No new money …need to redistribute.”
METAvivor created their ribbon in order to involve all metastatic cancer patients. “Our Ribbon’s blue/green base means stage IV. We hope other stage IV groups will use our base and replace pink with their color to show our common bond/cause.”
People with metastatic cancer need those who are not sick to speak up. “Everyone has challenges. I’m in remission and retired but help my 96year old mum and I have a husband newly diagnosed with cancer and I’m in ongoing treatment…
METAvivor Inc is 60 percent patients and 40 percent not. All have challenges. Some live alone. Some are quite ill. Some are overworked. But all highly devoted,
We need more non-mets help pushing fairness for all terminal cancer. It’s [healthy] people… that will help achieve parity in research. Be vocal. Challenge organizations to increase research. “
To this end, METAvivor is starting an ambassador program.
“We will have teams nationwide, broken down into 11 regions, working on building awareness and promoting increased research for MBC and simultaneously for all stage IV cancer. …I am currently working with a very small team to build a comprehensive plan… In the meantime, if people wish to express their interest…, they are welcome to email their contact information and geographic location to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
METAvivor has an extensive and growing awareness program with annual campaigns such as 30% for 30% (2011) and the Elephant in the Pink Room (2012). It also offers donors the rare opportunity to donate exclusively toward metastatic breast cancer research and have 100% of their donation used toward that end. METAvivor is in its fourth year of awarding annual metastatic breast cancer research grants and by the end of 2013 will have awarded more the one-half million dollars. CJ served four years as President of METAvivor, stepping down this year to have more time to focus on her area of passion – advocacy. She now serves as METAvivor’s first dedicated Director of Advocacy.
Based on March 21, 2013 transcript of #HCHLITSS twitter chat.