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Women Warriors : After Decades of Poor Funding, Breast Cancer Research Has a New, Rich and Most Unlikely Patron--the Defense Department. And Fran Visco and Col. Irene Rich Paln to Keep It That Way

November 05, 1995| Karen Stabiner, a contributing editor to the magazine, is currently writing a book about UCLA's Dr. Susan Love and breast cancer.

They never should have met.

Fran Visco spent her life railing at injustice, both political and personal. The oldest of four children in an Italian Catholic family in Philadelphia, Visco always dreamed of being a lawyer--and if her parents didn't have the money to send her to law school, if most girls in the mid-'60s had more-traditional goals, too bad; she simply worked her way through. She protested the Vietnam War, using the free time she did not have, between work and classes, to march and stuff envelopes. When she became a lawyer, she got involved in the women's movement, demanding equal rights and equal pay.

She married twice before she found the right guy, and then, at 38, embarked on life as a working mother. As far as Fran Visco was concerned, the world order had a question mark at the end. Reality was there to be challenged.

Irene Rich led a more dutiful life. While Visco was marching against the war, Rich, then Irene Meyers, was sitting in her dad's car waiting for him to get off work at Elmendorf Air Force base in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was employed by the Federal Aviation Administration. She was a nursing student at the University of North Carolina, but summers she came home--and since the Meyers were a one-car family, she had to pick up her dad every afternoon.

She sat in the parking lot and watched the same ritual over and over again: A plane came in from Vietnam bearing wounded soldiers, and the ones who were too weak to make the next leg of the trip were taken off. Then a truck drove up, and men loaded onto the plane for the journey stateside the coffins of boys who had died in the hospital. Injured soldiers off, dead soldiers on, day after day.

Irene Rich had always planned to be a nurse. Watching that sorry parade, she decided to be an Army nurse. To the dismay of her parents, who feared for her safety, and the ridicule of her friends, who questioned her sanity, she enlisted in 1971. If there were any logic to life, they would have grown old without ever being aware of the other's existence. But in September, 1987, Fran Visco's life abruptly stopped making sense. On her way in to work, she had her first baseline mammogram--and that afternoon the doctor called to say that the mass the radiologist saw on the film was almost certainly malignant. Thirty-nine-year-old Fran Visco had breast cancer.

She had a lumpectomy and radiation, as well as chemotherapy. And she did what she always had done: she got angry, at how little was known about the disease that threatened her. She joined a local advocacy group, but it quickly became clear to her that the first generation of advocates spent most of their energy campaigning for improved methods of early detection. Visco was more ambitious. She wanted a cure, or at least some decent information about prevention strategies.

In 1991, she attended a meeting of like-minded women called by Dr. Susan Love, now director of the Revlon/UCLA Breast Center. In May of that year, Love and a core group founded the National Breast Cancer Coalition, with Visco as its first president. The NBCC held hearings to determine what the price tag was for enough research to break medicine out of its standard regimen of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Then Visco started knocking on Congressional doors and testifying in front of appropriations committees.

She was asking for a lot--$300 million added to an existing annual research budget of only $90 million--but as far as she was concerned, it was reparations for decades of neglect.

*

Almost six years later, Fran Visco and Irene Rich are unlikely allies. Together they have established a controversial new source of funding for national breast cancer research--the Department of Defense. In fiscal 1993, an election-year Congress, eager to prove its commitment to women's health, drafted the Army into the war on breast cancer, to the tune of $210 million. It was intended as a one-time expenditure, but Visco, a troop of lobbyists and a handful of sympathetic politicians have parlayed the original windfall into an ongoing program, with $25 million to sustain the two-year program in 1994, $150 million in fiscal 1995 and $75 million earmarked for fiscal 1996.

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