Although survival rates for blood cancer have improved over the past decade, it remains the third deadliest type of cancer in the U.S. That’s why supporting blood cancer research is so crucial, according to Louis J. DeGennaro, Ph.D., president and CEO of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“About 25 years ago, a handful of Leukemia & Lymphoma Society volunteers in Minneapolis wanted to organize a family-friendly walk at dusk to celebrate cancer survivors and their supporters. That walk evolved into Light The Night, which now takes place in over 200 communities across the United States and Canada.
We also now recognize people we’ve lost to blood cancer, as well as survivors and supporters. At each walk, you’ll see red, white and gold lanterns. The red lanterns recognize supporters, the white lanterns are for survivors and the gold lanterns are to remember those we’ve lost.”
How is the money raised from an event like Light The Night spent?“These walks are a major fundraiser for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Last year, we raised $60 million to support our research, patient services and advocacy work.
Research has always been the bow of the ship for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. We were founded 70 years ago by a father and mother who lost their son to leukemia, and their mission was to raise funds to support research and find a cure. The investment is paying off: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 18 therapies for blood cancer last year. To put that into perspective, a good year would involve the FDA approving two new blood cancer therapies.”
With all these advances, why is fundraising still so important?
“For starters, some blood cancers are stubbornly resistant to treatment. For example, acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a commonly diagnosed cancer, but we hadn’t seen advancement in survival rates for 30 years, until four new approaches were approved by the FDA between 2017 and 2018. Without continued investment in research, those new treatments would not have been developed.
There’s also an even more important reason for continuing this support: when you make an advance in blood cancer research, it may benefit other cancers as well. About 40 percent of all cancer therapies approved by the FDA since 2000 were first approved to treat blood cancers.”
CAR T cell therapy has the potential to help people with certain types of blood cancer and is in early testing for other types of cancer.
What are some of the promising treatment approaches that The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is investing in?
“We’re very keen on immunotherapy. In fact, we’ve contributed $40 million to research since 1998 for an immunotherapy called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy, which reprograms immune cells so a person’s immune system can fight the blood cancer. CAR T cell therapy has the potential to help people with certain types of blood cancer and is in early testing for other types of cancer, including colon, ovarian and lung cancers. We’re also excited about targeted therapies, which are designed to go after specific, bad-acting genes.”
Why are Light The Night walks so meaningful to you?
“A few years ago, I attended a walk in Minneapolis at the major league baseball stadium. I was walking around that stadium at dusk, carrying my red lantern and walking beside folks carrying gold lanterns for loved ones that they have lost to blood cancer. Suddenly, the outfield gate opened and hundreds of survivors carrying white lanterns came walking onto the field.
Then, a child survivor broke out from the pack and started running around the stadium. I was in tears. That moment felt emblematic of the progress we’ve made – and how quickly we’ve made it. That child, and all the people at these walks who carry those white lanterns, are a symbol of the success of our work. There are a growing number of white lanterns every year. It’s truly moving.”
To find a Light The Night event near you, visit The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light The Night website.