publication date: Oct. 16, 2020
“Political oncologist” Helene Brown dies at 91
By Paul Goldberg
A cancer pioneer, Helene G. Brown had coined the name for her peculiar subspecialty: political oncology.
For at least six decades, if you were trying to get something done in cancer, Brown was someone you needed to have on board. She had served on many boards—the National Cancer Advisory Board, the board of the American Cancer Society, to name two big ones—and she opened many doors, sometimes to let good people in, sometimes to throw the rascals out.
Brown, who died on Oct. 4 at age 91, had no medical training. Her cancer education began when she was 16 and her father was stricken by lymphosarcoma. Helene learned to administer morphine.
“I’d always been interested in science,” Brown said in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times, but “I was a child of the Depression, and accounting was something that could get you a job.”
As a young woman, she was horrified to learn that Pap smears were available for screening women in the 1930s, but mass screening efforts began a quarter-century later. This discovery got her interested in public health.
Helene knew everyone, referring to movie moguls, billionaires, NCI directors, and politicians (including one former U.S. president) as “good friends.” People drop names; Helene didn’t. These really were good friends, either because they wanted to tap into her deep connections and her vaults of knowledge—or because they liked her.
Helene was a four-foot-something-tall human internet, an exchange of presumably reliable information. Moral outrage blasted like a big tuba through the drumbeat of her brutal observations. Betrayal of public trust made her blood boil.
Many of Helene’s stories focused on the American Cancer Society, a charity with which she had a life-long love-hate relationship. Dinner with Helene meant hearing about ACS in the bad old days.
There was a story about the wife of a former executive who was known to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue as a chauffeur, an ACS staff member, waited for her in an idling limo. She loved telling the story of a trip to the Vatican, where top-tier ACSniks—executives of a secular charity, no less—received a papal blessing.
She told stories of debauchery, malfeasance, payoffs, and non-disclosure agreements. A rumor had it that at one point Helene had files documenting all that. I hoped she did, but Helene would neither confirm nor deny. (Decades have passed, people have died, statutes of limitations have run out, but it’s never too late for something that juicy to see the light of day.)
There were also stories of Helene and her husband Bob barnstorming in their single-engine Cessna across the U.S. to promote screening for cervical cancer.
A Jewish Amelia Earhart, Helene sported a white silk scarf, or so her story went. The purpose of these trips was to promote cervical cancer screening—and ACS. To Helene, a small-d democrat, ACS was all about the grassroots.
Also, she believed that the society had the potential to bring together the disparate interests that make up the cancer field. Once united, cancer groups would be in a position to ask for more money, or so she seemed to believe.
When I met her in the early 1990s, Helene seemed convinced that dark days were over at ACS, almost certainly with the help of her deft political oncology maneuvers, and that the new CEO, John Seffrin, a good friend, would do a fabulous job at the charity’s helm.
In the end, Helene would be disappointed, but we are getting ahead of the story.
In February 1994, I was writing an obit of Mary Lasker, the philanthropist who made the National Cancer Act of 1971 happen. Of course, I called Helene. Did Helene know Lasker? She did. Mary was a good friend; what else?
So, I quoted Helene:
“Mary used to say, ‘You can get more money out of the government in one day than you can get by going door-to-door for 10 years.”
I remember making an effort to work in Helene’s recollection of Lasker oft-repeated pronouncement about Republicans: “There’s some good ones.” I seem to have failed to weave that into the Lasker obit (The Cancer Letter, March 4, 1994).
Two weeks later, The Cancer Letter started reporting the beginnings of a scandal that ruined the career of one of cancer’s greats—the surgeon Bernard Fisher. Scientific fraud committed by another surgeon, in Canada, seemed to have tainted the breast cancer data collected by the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project, the cooperative group Fisher ran (The Cancer Letter, March 18, 1994).
Facing scrutiny from congressional investigators, NCI fired Fisher, touching off a massive scandal that concluded years later with an apology to Fisher (The Cancer Letter, Nov. 1, 2019).
Back in February 1994, having rotated off NCAB, Helene was in no position to help Bernie.
So, to cheer up her good friend, Helene went to a hardware store, bought the biggest screw she could find, had it embedded in Lucite and scribbled a note—I believe it was a poem, but wouldn’t swear to that—about Bernie being a true gentleman who didn’t deserved to get screwed.
She placed the object and the note in a FedEx box and sent it off to poor Bernie.
It’s not publicly known whether Fisher was cheered up or driven deeper into despair by this emanation of Brownian humor.
About a year later, Helene told me about another good friend, the financier cancer survivor Michael Milken putting together a strategy for a new war on cancer. How did Helene happen to meet Mike?
Well, it’s a good story. She met him well before his conviction, before he went to Wall Street, before he went to college.
Here is what I wrote at the time (The Cancer Letter, Nov. 24, 1995):
It appears that from the start of this intellectual journey, Milken realized that he needed a political road map, a way of distinguishing the white hats from the black hats.
To that end he recruited Brown, a long-time cancer activist who describes herself as a “political oncologist.”
Over four decades of cancer activism, Brown has offered many a word of advice to a long line of NCI directors as well as activists including Lasker and Armand Hammer.
To sundry others, she has delivered an ultimatum or two. Brown is a member of the board of directors of the American Cancer Society and the advisory board of the NCI Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. She is also the director of Community Applications of Research at the University of California at Los Angeles Jonsson Cancer Center.
Brown first met Milken when he was a student at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. Brown’s children were attending the same school. The two were re-introduced years later by Hammer, then chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel.
As Milken was starting CaP CURE, he invited Brown to serve on the board.
My decision was simple,” Brown said. “Here is a man who has the courage and conviction and the need to do something.
Enormous advances come from people who think differently. What Michael did in financial markets was astounding. He came up with a new way to finance business. If there is a new way to get at the cancer puzzle a bit faster, Michael has the kind of mind to be able to do that.”
As Milken’s interest in cancer grew, Brown acted as a guide, opening doors, steering the foundation toward the mainstream, and preventing gratuitous conflicts with other groups.
Brown said that now that Milken’s interest has broadened to all cancers, he finds himself in the advantageous position of having the support of virtually all major cancer interests while incurring none of the logistical problems of maintaining a membership-based organization.
“He is extremely interested in working with every stake-holder in the cancer program,” Brown said. “He doesn’t need his own constituency, and the existing constituencies need a leader. It’s a beautiful exchange.”
Milken’s appearance in cancer politics stirred up the calcifying field. Milken put together a march on Washington, which was modeled on the original Earth Day. The objective was to build a massive constituency for cancer research.
At the same time, NCI Director Richard Klausner asked NCAB member Ellen Sigal to reach out to the film industry.
This is what I wrote at the time (The Cancer Letter, Oct. 31, 1997):
“We got cancer politics out of Washington and took it to the community,” Sigal said to The Cancer Letter.
Exclusive reliance on scientists as advocates for science did not strike Sigal as an effective strategy. Something else had to be thrown onto the battlefield. “I thought it was very clear: you need to combine research, survivorship and high-visibility people in a high-visibility business,” Sigal said.
With the help of Helene Brown, a self-described “political oncologist” and an official at the University of California at Los Angeles, Sigal met Sherry Lansing, chairman of Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group. As a result, actors and motion picture executives have been making regular appearances on Capitol Hill, and following up by writing letters on appropriations for cancer research.
The working relationship between Sigal and Lansing ultimately led to creation of Stand Up To Cancer, SU2C, an organization that brought in new funding for cancer research.
A UCLA holiday party, (left to right): Bahar Navab, Patricia Ganz, Barbara Kahn, Helene Brown
Alas, my working relationship with Helene took a hit when I started reporting a story about the emergence of an ACS-led coalition called the National Dialogue on Cancer, which sought to unify all cancer groups and redraft the National Cancer Act.
The PR firm ACS had hired to put this coalition together also represented tobacco companies (The Cancer Letter, Jan. 21, 2000). And NCI viewed this effort as an attempt at usurpation of the cancer agenda by broadening it beyond research.
You can hear Helene’s anger in the quote she gave me when I reached out to her for my first story on the Dialogue:
“Any time you have an organization like General Motors, the small automobile maker is going to complain about them. Any time you have an organization that has the life-long series of accomplishments that the Cancer Society has had, you are going to hear people complaining.
“If there is somebody else out there that wants to take this on their shoulders, and wants to fund it, and wants to organize it, I am sure they are welcome to do it. But there isn’t anybody else that has that kind of freedom, because of the constituency and the size of the purse.”
I wrote the story, and I stand behind it. Helene dropped me a scathing personal note. My coverage was wrongheaded and unkind to her good friends, she wrote. There was more to it, but I seem to have blocked it out. It stung, but a journalist’s loyalty is to the reader.
Helene and I were not in touch as she deliberated within the Dialogue’s structures as the organization produced clouds of words. The National Cancer Act hasn’t been rewritten. Cancer groups haven’t been corralled into speaking with one voice, and the “dialogue” was ultimately renamed and continued to grind into irrelevance.
At roughly the same time, Helene was growing disenchanted with ACS. Though initially a good friend, Seffrin, who became the CEO in 1992, was making the place more efficient, true, but efficiency has a tendency to extinguish meaning and kill the soul.
First, under Seffrin’s leadership, the society stripped power from two grassroots levels of the divisions—“units” and “areas”— making them purely advisory. Then, over the years, the divisions were merged, shrinking from 57 to 12.
Next, Seffrin attempted to create “one organization,” but that effort was shot down by the assembly in mid-1990s.
The society entered a relentless decline after the recession of 2007, ultimately deciding to centralize control, giving greater authority to the CEO, stripping divisions of self-determination, and taking over their real estate holdings. That effort was called “transformation.”
I was told that Helene, then an 82-year-old nonvoting honorary life member of the National Assembly, was emerging as a strong critic of this transformation, which she saw as both anti-democratic and a suicidal business move. She was, after all, a grassroots activist. So, I decided to give her a call (The Cancer Letter, Nov. 18, 2011).
“If you have royalty and a castle in Atlanta, it can be totally efficient, but that is not the way we do things,” Helene said to me. “I don’t think that you can continue to raise funds if you have volunteers who cannot vote.”
Helene said she had spoken against the changes at the meeting of the ACS assembly, but her words of caution were ignored.
“I don’t believe there was anybody truly listening for new information,” Helene said. “There is no longer check or balance on that board. It would be a self-perpetuating board.”
I asked several of Helene’s friends and associates to share their Helene stories:
Patricia A. Ganz
Distinguished Professor Health Policy & Management and Medicine
UCLA Fielding School of Public Health
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Director, Cancer Prevention & Control Research
Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
For those in the cancer community who knew Helene Brown, her passing occasions much sadness, but her memory brings a smile to our faces.
When I think about cancer control, cancer advocacy, speaking truth to power—all done with incredible grace, no small amount of sass, and a bold sense of humor—I can think of no one other than Helene Brown.
As a young medical oncologist in the early 1980s, I was in awe of her knowledge of the cancer research environment and its associated politics, including her extensive engagement in the highest echelons of the oncology world—she was a presidential appointee to the National Cancer Advisory Board, a board member of the American Cancer Society, and national leader in the NCI cancer communications effort through the Cancer Information Service.
She had helped to implement community-based cancer control screening programs in Los Angeles in the earliest years after the signing of the National Cancer Act in 1971, and later focused on local and national efforts in tobacco control. She spent almost 50 years continuing to serve the cause in various ways, with the ultimate goal of reducing morbidity and mortality from cancer.
Helene was a gifted communicator, talented reader of human character, and a prodigious connector of people. In Los Angeles, she used her social skills to advance the cause of cancer control whenever possible, serving in leadership roles in many public and lay organizations.
She worked very hard at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center to raise funds for cancer research, and was instrumental in other Los Angeles charitable foundations with similar goals (Armand Hammer’s STOP Cancer).
Long before the advent of professional cancer center fundraisers, Helene and her army of friends (including a rabbi’s wife) single-handedly orchestrated the annual cancer center gala, stuffing envelopes, arranging for entertainment, and making everyone feel at home once they were settled in at the event.
She was glamorous, but down-to-earth, and she made everyone feel special, from stuffy academics to leaders of community-based organizations.
When Helene observed that cancer centers were insulated from the real-world experience of cancer patients and their families, she led the NCAB to require that to be designated “comprehensive,” cancer centers would have to demonstrate their reach into their communities.
The definition of “comprehensive” expanded over time, but initially it mandated that a cancer center be visible in the community through facilitation of cancer screening, enrollment in clinical trials and providing outreach and education.
Locally, our cancer prevention and control research group benefited from being surrounded by people like Helene, as well as other luminaries—Joe Cullen and Lester Breslow—who were the founding parents of cancer control at the Jonsson Cancer Center.
Ellen Gritz initially, and then I, were tasked to follow in their footsteps. Achieving “comprehensive status” at UCLA was a piece of cake because of the environment they had created for us. Helene capably supervised the NCI contract for the Cancer Information Service into the 1990s, and then assisted our former center director, Dr. Judith Gasson, in community and philanthropic engagement while serving on the cancer center board.
Personally, I am very grateful to have had Helene Brown as a role model, mentor, and friend. She was the most skillful and dedicated advocate and she taught us all how to do it.
Helene gave so much to us locally at UCLA, even as she was busy with leadership tasks at the national level. She was the consummate impromptu speaker and entertainer.
We always relied on her to emcee our many social gatherings in our research group, which she continued to attend up to this past year. Our holiday parties will never be quite the same.
The cancer control community has lost a pioneer and great leader.
Former ACS National Vice President for Research
Helene Brown was passionate about every effort she addressed. This included politics, cancer prevention, equal access to optimal therapy, her family, and piloting an aircraft.
She was equally comfortable when interacting with senior political office holders, respected and talented research scientists, California-based movie moguls and the officers and board members of the American Cancer Society. She brought insightful, intelligent understanding to those discussions, often with solutions to major problems, which usually required action and accountability for the other discussants.
I first met Helene in the early 80s, as a member of a contract review committee sent by the National Cancer Institute to either cut or eliminate the funding for a major cancer control effort at UCLA, which she led.
We met in offices located on the midlevel floor of a building in downtown Los Angeles. Early presentations were in progress when the building started to sway, and most of us, from other parts of the country, were visibly concerned about our safety.
Helene assured us it was only a “little earth-quake” and not to be alarmed. Because the committee started with an overt adversarial objective, there were jokes from committee members familiar with Helene, who said that she had probably arranged the tremor to show who was in control.
Over the years, I came to understand this was a jest which recognized her ability to make things happen. The committee shifted from being a threat to the project to recognizing the benefit and supporting Helene’s efforts.
Both Helene and I were long-term volunteer supporters of the American Cancer Society, often served on policy and review committees for the NCI, and shared a love of flying single-engine aircraft. Out of the initial adverse relationship grew a friendship and respect for honesty and enthusiasm, as we both sought ways to improve the leadership, operations and outcomes from major prevention and early detection cancer control endeavors.
Helene was instrumental in the success of early tobacco control efforts, programs for the early detection of both cervical and breast cancer, genetics as a tool for the individual risk of developing cancer, and the dissemination of credible, relevant health-related information to the public.
She would laugh when others, mostly men, would describe her as “formidable”, “pushy”, “difficult,” or “aggressive”. Some called her “that woman,” which she took as a symbol of respect. Among friends, she shared one personal incident that many would be reluctant to talk about.
One day, she decided to treat her husband Bob to a romantic surprise by greeting him at the door naked when he came home from work. When she thought he was to appear at the door, she flung it open and saw a very surprised United Parcel Service man delivering a package. It says a whole lot about Helene that she could tell this story without embarrassment.
Helene had no formal medical training, but she proved to be one of the most effective public health promoters in the past 50 years. She was not intimidated by famous celebrities, politicians or scientists as she applied pressure to increase funding for cancer control from both government and non-governmental agencies. She was an early believer in the adverse health effects imposed by both poverty and poor education.
Through most of her life, Helene was a staunch supporter of ACS. She became critical of the leadership when she saw changes buffering the delivery of local programs and the perceived diversion away from research support and local control over the dissemination of public cancer control information.
When I was the National Vice President for Research for the ACS, she goaded me to fight harder against the diversion of research funds to new “showcase” efforts, like renting headquarters space in downtown Atlanta or the centralization of the cancer information activity to Austin, Texas.
Her objective criticism of selected changes in the ACS in recent years caused her some personal pain, because of her love for the society for most of her life. That did not stop her from expressing her opinions directly to the top executive staff.
My life is richer for having known and worked with Helene in a variety of settings. I will miss the twinkle in her eye when she was pushing us to the edge of our comfort level for a cause she knew was right.
“That woman” Helene Brown made a difference in many lives. We will all miss her enthusiastic honesty that caused some discomfort while she was getting things done.
Founder of Dr. Susan Love Foundation for Breast Cancer Research
While many will relate stories describing Helene Brown’s influence which far surpassed her height, there was another aspect of her personality which was critical to her success—and that was her generous spirit.
When I was recruited to UCLA to head the Revlon UCLA Breast Center, there was a mixed reception. I was an out Lesbian surgeon with a wife and young daughter. I had written a popular book on breast cancer in 1990, and I spoke my mind.
Despite the controversy, or maybe because of it, Helene immediately reached out to me and invited us all to her Passover Seder. What I did not know at the time was that Helene invited everyone to her Seder.
She specialized in finding the residents, graduate students and visiting faculty who had never participated in this wonderful holiday. We all had copies of the Haggadah and left with new understanding of this wonderful tradition.
Our daughter was so well versed in the Passover story that when the teacher asked her grammar school class who could explain it, she was the first one to raise her hand. But the gatherings were more than just religious as the wine and stories flowed.
We reciprocated, by including Helene in our Christian tradition of Christmas morning breakfast of steak followed by opening of presents. She loved being part of the festivities.
Later, when I took over Otto Sartorius’s nonprofit to focus on determining the anatomy of the human breast and ways to access it, Helene cheered me on and became a member of our board of directors.
Her enthusiasm and support were unflagging!
The world is certainly a better place because of the life of Helene Brown.