Bonnie J. Addario, who broke down gender barriers in the 1990s to become one of the country’s highest-ranking female oil executives, is taking on a new challenge: lung cancer. Through her private foundation in Silicon Valley, Addario is trying to do for lung cancer what the Susan G. Komen foundation’s pink-ribbon campaign did for breast cancer.
Lung cancer, perhaps more than any other type of cancer, has been thought of as a disease caused by lifestyle choices — namely, smoking. That thinking is counterproductive, Addario says, and has led to little progress in treatments or a cure over the years. Instead, Addario says scientists should look more closely at genes and other factors and has funded an usual study promoted through social-media outlets to understand why healthy young nonsmokers in their 20s and 30s also get lung cancer. Over the years, she has raised more than $30 million for the foundation, which has been spent on several initiatives including mobile apps to facilitate patients’ searches for clinical trials and funding researchers who have what she calls “outside the box” ideas related to early diagnosis, personalized treatment and other cutting-edge projects.
Addario’s vision for disrupting medical research is similar to those articulated by other new philanthropists working on conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and allergies. But unlike her mostly young and privileged peers from the tech world who made their fortunes after going to brand-name colleges, Addario is a 60-year-old grandmother who worked her way up from company secretary to company president over more than 20 years.
A slim brunette with short, spiky hair, Addario’s commanding voice speaks to the years she served as the boss of South San Francisco’s Olympian Oil and the first female head of the trade group for the oil industry in California. Addario, herself a survivor of late-stage lung cancer, described her charitable work in a recent interview.
Tell me about your early career. Is it true the first jobs you had involved typing and administrative work during the day and then cleaning offices at night?
In the early 1980s, I was a single mom with three kids, and I wasn’t receiving any child support or any of those good things. I had a job during the day with Kelly Girl, a temp agency, and then at night I cleaned banks with my kids. At some point I went to work at an oil company for the chairman of the board and got promotion after promotion. I’m one of those people — if you put a barrier in front of me — I will find a way around it.
You had just negotiated a major coup for your company — a buyout by a big oil network that was planning on going public — when you were diagnosed with lung cancer.
I had this pain going across my chest for a year before. I had never been one to go a doctor a lot. I was kind of ignoring it and did go to the doctor, and he had me checked out, and he said, ‘I can’t find anything.’ Did not give me an X-ray or CT scan. It just didn’t feel right. I finally had a full-body scan and paid for it myself. The radiologist came out and said, ‘You see this?’ and pointed to a tumor that was coming out of my left lung and on my aorta. He said, ‘Take this to your doctor today.’
It was a typical lung cancer diagnosis. Most people are diagnosed late stage, and these tumors do a lot of damage before you become symptomatic. I had to have radiation five days a week and chemo every Friday. The good news is that they were able to shrink it enough that I could have surgery. That’s why I’m here today and I shouldn’t be.
During that time when I was getting all this therapy, I was on the Internet, and everything was so dire and so hopeless. It was then I made a decision that if I was going to make it, I was going to do something to change these horrible outcomes for lung cancer patients.
You’ve said you started your foundation in 2006 with your daughters Andrea and Danielle to try to “change people’s minds about this disease.” What do you mean by that?
Did you know that in the 1980s lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as a leading killer of women? There hasn’t been a lot of coverage of lung cancer in the media, and it’s about smoking. There are 31 diseases associated with smoking, but lung cancer just got stuck as the one everyone knows about so there are people who feel, ‘Well, you smoked and you brought this upon yourself and therefore you deserve that you get.’ That is why funding for lung cancer is so low.
My thought is, I’m a mom, I’m a wife, a sister, a daughter. Do I deserve to die because I smoked? I don’t think so.
What are the components of your lung cancer work?
One big focus is young lung cancer. Most of these people are in their 20s and 30s, and they are healthy, very fit, and most never smoked. The complete antithesis of who you think has lung cancer. They are like Jill Costello. She was 22 and the coxswain for the University of California-Berkeley’s crew team. She tried all of the standard chemotherapy, and she died two weeks before the team went to nationals. We lose 1.4 million people worldwide to lung cancer each year, and this should not be happening.
We have a genomic study, and we are also working on public awareness. We recently took out ads in Delta magazine featuring three amazing young women, and it asks, ‘What do you think these women have in common?’ Most people would never guess that they have lung cancer.
We also have a second foundation that is a biorepository, an honest broker for sharing and collecting specimens for researchers, and we created an international consortium of lung cancer researchers so they can collaborate more closely.
Most foundations in the United States, the money they make and what they accomplish is minor. We want to be one that makes a real difference. In breast cancer, if it’s caught early there’s a 99 percent survival rate. In colon cancer in the 80s, but for lung cancer is closer to 50 percent. Our goal is to get the survival rates for lung cancer up to those major cancers.