Schiller wants all to be Free to Breathe

By Debbie Bolles / April 21-30, 2011

When Dr. Joan Schiller began her medical career, she found herself specializing in lung cancer largely because nobody else wanted the job — outcomes were bad, and there was not enough research funding.

Now one of the nation’s foremost lung cancer experts, Dr. Schiller today is chief of hematology/oncology and deputy director of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.. Her passion that extends also to the National Lung Cancer Partnership, a group she founded 10 years ago.

Dr. Joan Schiller

As president of the Madison, Wis., nonprofit organization, Dr. Schiller works to raise funds for lung cancer research, to increase public awareness about the disease and to bring lung cancer survivors, doctors, researchers and patient advocates together. The group’s biggest fundraisers are nationwide Free to Breathe run/walks, including one on May 21 in Dallas.

“I founded the Lung Cancer Partnership because there was not a lot of advocacy for lung cancer patients. I think one major reason was that the disease has such a high mortality rate,” said Dr. Schiller, who plans to get out her own running shoes and walk the 5K route in Dallas this month.

Lung cancer kills nearly 160,000 people annually — more people than breast, prostate, colon, liver, kidney and melanoma cancers combined. Part of the problem is that patients don’t develop symptoms until the disease is advanced, Dr. Schiller said. With early detection, however, the five-year survival rate is 80 percent to 90 percent.

The partnership initially comprised a relatively small group of researchers that included Dr. Schiller. It has since grown to a lung cancer advocacy organization of about 200,000, which includes patients, survivors and family members.

Since the beginning of its research grants program in 2005, the National Lung Cancer Partnership has awarded more than $2.2 million to support lung cancer research. In its latest round of grants awarded to early-career researchers, Dr. Puneeth Iyengar, assistant professor of radiation oncology at UT Southwestern, received $100,000 over two years from the organization to further his research into blocking proteins involved in inflammation related to cancer growth. The goal of the research is to increase the effectiveness of radiation therapy and improve survival for lung cancer patients.

“There’s a lot of exciting research going on, including here at the Simmons Cancer Center,” said Dr. Schiller. “When you think about how far some cancers have come, like breast cancer, because of research that was funded, you have to wonder how far lung cancer would come if it was adequately funded.”

Statistics from the Lung Cancer Partnership point out the funding discrepancy: In 2009, research spending by the National Cancer Institute and Department of Defense per death was $1,675 for lung cancer (159,390 deaths); $5,292 for colorectal cancer (49,920 deaths); $13,666 for prostate cancer (27,360 deaths); and $18,658 for breast cancer (40,170 deaths).

Lung Cancer Statistics

  • Lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer of men and women in both Texas and the United States.
  • Lung cancer kills almost twice as many American women as breast cancer annually and three times as many men as prostate cancer.
  • The American Cancer Society estimates about 14,000 Texans will be diagnosed with lung cancer and 9,600 Texans will die of the disease this year.

“Lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer, and it needs more research dollars,” Dr. Schiller said. “We’ve been very fortunate in the past in terms of getting research funding from the federal government, but that money is drying up quickly. Someone’s got to step in to take its place.”

UT Southwestern recently received several grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to develop anti-cancer drugs for treatment of non-small cell lung cancer; to develop new technologies for radiation treatment of lung cancer; and to establish the Texas Cancer Cell Repository to develop and house cancer cell lines, with a focus on ovarian and lung cancers.

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in North Texas, the Simmons Cancer Center brings together pioneering treatments and breakthrough research for cancer patients under the care of disease-oriented teams. The NCI designation means access to new treatments and clinical trials unavailable anywhere else.

Through the National Lung Cancer Partnership’s efforts, Dr. Schiller said about $1 million should be raised through 30 nationwide Free to Breathe events on May 21. For more information on the organization, go to

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Dr. Schiller holds the Andrea L. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research.