Brian Williams Champions Lung Cancer Research

by brian williams | November 1, 2012 | Home Page

While I was all too happy to get involved in a charity bearing the name of a friend, I’d do anything to change the reason why it bore her name. Uniting Against Lung Cancer started as Joan’s Legacy, and it truly remains her legacy to this day. Joan Scarangello McNeive was a news writer—a television newsroom veteran—whom I first met when she arrived at NBC News from ABC News. Joan was more Ben Bradlee than Mary Tyler Moore; she was bawdy, funny, direct, emotional, vulnerable—a great dame. She shopped at Zabar’s and the Gap, was proudly unfancy, and could write a lead in her sleep. She spoke in the shorthand cadence of the newsroom, the rapid-fire pseudo-language that makes us sound so strange when we are forced to mingle with civilians. She was one of us. Until lung cancer took her away from us in 2001.

Joan was not a smoker. And while she wasn’t part of what I affectionately call the “mashed yeast and potting soil” organic food movement, she took good care of herself. She did nothing to harm her lungs, and yet we watched as her lungs betrayed her. Cancer took over and got the best of this great woman with alarming speed. Just weeks after her laughter could be heard echoing from our old newsroom all the way out to the hallway by the elevators, our workplace went silent with the word that Joan had lost her brave fight.

The charity set up in her name was, in its own way, as loud and direct and aggressive as she was. After working through their own sadness, her family members formed a board and hatched a plan unique to charity and medical research at the time. They employed practices that might be frowned upon elsewhere in life. They unabashedly used friends in high places to get attention and then invested their research dollars on high-risk, high-reward projects by newcomers—the youngest, brightest lights working on the most innovative projects.

A number of us in the media made the annual fundraiser a permanent feature of our yearly calendar. Boldfaced names showed up. A lavish auction and concert raised a lot of money, as it does every year. The money—more than $10 million by the end of this fiscal year—is given in the form of grants to researchers at the nation’s top cancer institutes. Measuring success based on scientific progress, follow-on funding, and an increase in the number of promising investigators entering the field of lung cancer, Uniting Against Lung Cancer is making a huge difference.

My contribution to Uniting Against Lung Cancer has been miniscule when compared to those who’ve worked so hard to guide the organization and fight the disease over the past decade. But when we hear the researchers at an institution like MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston declare war on an entire list of cancer categories, as they did recently, I can’t help but think that’s Joan—her attitude, her fighting spirit, speaking out and living on—thanks to the good folks who have fought so hard to build and maintain an organization in her name.

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photography by Patrick macleod

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