One of the things we love most about heymama is having the opportunity to meet powerful women who are doing their part to change the world for the better. Stacy Valner, mama to four, is a perfect example. In 1998, Stacy’s husband Alberto was diagnosed with Stage 4 testicular cancer, and both he and Stacy immersed themselves in a world that they knew very little about. After receiving chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, Alberto luckily survived and he and Stacy went on to start the PHASE ONE Foundation. With its mission dedicated to supporting Phase 1 cancer research, clinical trials and treatment, their efforts are an important step in helping to deter the disease. We are so excited to announce that Stacy Valner and her work at the PHASE ONE Foundation has been recognized in Marc Fisher’s Make Your Marc campaign. This national campaign highlights women who are making their ‘marc’ by doing their part to change the world. As the first interview in our three-part series, we are thrilled to share more about Stacy’s story and how she truly embodies this campaign.
Profile on Stacy Valner: Co-Founder of the PHASE ONE Foundation
At the time, we knew nothing about running a non-profit and knew less about clinical trials.
The PHASE ONE Foundation started after your husband was diagnosed with stage 4 testicular cancer. What did you know about cancer research at the time?
In 1998, my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 testicular cancer. I was 30 years old and knew absolutely nothing about cancer or cancer research. What I did know was that I had to educate myself as quickly as possible to begin to understand all of the new language that was being thrown at us. The irony was that my mother-in-law had also been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer just nine days prior. In a matter of two weeks, I became an expert in a field I had no experience in. It was the most overwhelming and frightening time in my life.
You and your husband, Alberto, then went on to start the PHASE ONE Foundation. Did you know anything about non-profit work when you started?
I knew nothing and had to teach myself everything. Once we were able to come up for air, we decided it was time to give back. At the time, we knew nothing about running a non-profit and knew less about clinical trials. While we were extremely grateful for Alberto’s remission, his mom passed away at the very end of Alberto’s treatment. We were able to witness firsthand how one type of cancer can have a successful protocol that can lead to remission, whereas another cancer (such as in the case of his mother) provided no hope or options. We learned that all treatments begin in a lab with some of the most dedicated and passionate people I have ever met. From the lab, ideas move on to patients in what is known as a phase 1 clinical trial. These trials test the amount of drugs that are given as well as its safety and efficacy. Very sick and brave patients test these drugs with the hope that it will give them a chance.
Early diagnosis is still the best hope for beating this disease.
How has your mission evolved since you started in 1999?
The PHASE ONE Foundation’s mission has changed very little since 1999. We have stayed true to our mission statement of supporting innovative phase 1 and 2 clinical trials and treatment programs. What has changed a lot, is the progress made in research. Things were much slower when we began and breakthroughs were minimal. Truly, testicular cancer was one of the only cancers that could claim the word “cure.” Today, groundbreaking research has seen multiple cancers that have cures, or at least treatments that allow a patient to live a normal quality of life with cancer. One positive addition to PHASE ONE is the recent decision by the board to fund small community based grants and programs that help improve members of the community around us, ranging in everything from healthcare to education.
That is incredible and gives us hope. Tell us why the phase 1 clinical trial stage is so critical to someone who is diagnosed with cancer. What do we need to know?
All treatments begin with a phase 1 clinical trial. This critical testing provides doctors and scientists with valuable information that can be used to move on to phase 2 and 3 testing, and ultimately, FDA approval. In the phase 1 stage, it is determined what dosage is safe for the patient, whether there are side effects that need to be controlled and what happens to the disease when the drug takes effect. Without this information, you cannot expand the trial to more patients without risking their safety.
What advice did you receive when your husband was diagnosed?
The greatest piece of advice on a personal level was when my husband was initially diagnosed. Though I had three small children who needed me (ages one, four and five at the time), my husband was about to embark on a long and painful journey. His treatment would require extensive long and debilitating rounds of chemotherapy in the hospital and multiple surgeries. A wise woman, actually our surgeon’s wife, said to me, “Now you must be more of a wife than a mother. Your children will be fine, but your husband is fighting for his life.” That stayed with me. In that instance, I knew I had to become his best advocate and partner to ensure he beat this. Because really, without him, where would we be? We were so lucky that my parents were able to jump in and have the kids for lengthy sleepovers. We were also surrounded by family and friends who helped out.
On a business level, who helped mentor you and how did they help guide you to make the PHASE ONE Foundation what it is today?
On a professional level, within the Foundation, the chairman of my board insisted I finally hire an administrative coordinator. We were about 10 years into running the foundation with me at the helm. I had given birth to my fourth child and I was running on empty. I was so diligent with donor money, I never wanted to have any overhead within the foundation, every aspect was still being run out of my home or my husbands office. However, PHASE ONE had become so big that we were on the verge of losing me due to burn out, and cracks were beginning to show within our Foundation. Hiring an administrative coordinator saved both me, and PHASE ONE.
What have you learned about cancer testing since you co-founded the Foundation?
Early diagnosis is still the best hope for beating this disease. My husband was not so lucky. Ladies, listen up: I felt his tumor fooling around one night. I expressed concern and he denied there was a problem. Denial can be deadly in detecting cancer. It was another six weeks before my husband finally saw a doctor! He was already very advanced if I actually felt the tumor. I really believe in seeing your doctors regularly and doing any early screenings that are offered. Sadly, there are still a lot of false positives that result in great burden and worry but this hassle should not prevent you from getting a screening. There is great hope on the horizon that liquid biopsies can detect cancer cells in your blood work. I hope this proves to be true as it will be a game changer in detection.
What do you love about what you do? What do you find to be your greatest challenge?
My favorite part of PHASE ONE is always meeting with the doctors and researchers. I am so privileged that these brilliant doctors take the time out of their busy schedules to meet and present us with potential trials that we can fund. Learning about the trial, its potential and their team who make a trial possible is the most exciting part of the PHASE ONE Foundation. I LOVE when we make a call to a doctor and tell them they have been selected for a grant!
My greatest challenge has been longevity. Keeping a non-profit alive is a tough job. People move on to their own causes, major global disasters occur, your kids school needs a donation, and it is very difficult to keep your donors engaged. I recognize how many valuable causes are out there. I support many of them, too. But, board burnout is real. That being said, while it is a challenge, we are beating the odds. We constantly invite new people to our board and try to find new ways to engage our donors. Sadly, cancer continues to find new victims. However, there are many people who want to join us on our road to curing cancer.
‘Now you must be more of a wife than a mother. Your children will be fine, but your husband is fighting for his life.’ That stayed with me.
You are a leader to so many people in your organization and within the cancer research community. What have you learned about yourself in this role?
I am a great student! I cannot get enough information when it comes to cancer research. I used to be intimidated to ask questions when meeting with doctors and researchers. Now, I am very comfortable seeking out additional information. I did not go to medical school, so I’m not embarrassed that I don’t always understand everything they are talking about. Also, we surround ourselves with an excellent medical advisory board. When I need help, I ask for it.
As the PHASE ONE Foundation continues to grow, what are your hopes for the future?
My hope for the future would be shutting our doors! Because that would mean there is a cure. Now more than ever, I see this in the future.
Tell us more about the research that has been done since the start of the PHASE ONE Foundation.
You can read about every trial and program we have funded on our website. We have funded 27 clinical trials, endowed the Chair of Oncology at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and most recently at the University of Southern California where we partnered to create a new interdisciplinary undergraduate program to focus on health innovation and our seed funding will expand the experiential cancer module to a four-year undergraduate program, the first in the country. To highlight our most recent gifts, we are funding trials in some of the most challenging cancers: triple negative breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, glioblastoma brain cancer and ovarian cancer. We have never aligned ourselves with one specific cancer because we want to fund the most promising trials out there.
Your work with the Foundation and being a mother of four is certainly a huge undertaking! What do you do to decompress and take care of yourself?
Exercise! I love to spin at SoulCycle multiple times a week, it is a great way to unwind and spend uninterrupted time thinking, even with the loud music! I’m also a regular at Speir Pilates and I hike every Friday with a dear friend. I also love a great massage. Date nights and traveling with my darling husband are a must, and any chance I can get to be with my kids is a top priority. My girlfriends are everything to me and act like free therapy. Finally, I love to unwind with a great glass of red wine.
How do you think your work with the Foundation has shaped who your children are as people?
How lucky and blessed am I to have four fabulous children! My kids have only known life with the words “phase one” since they were so small when we started the foundation.
All four of them are kind and caring people. They are extremely compassionate to those around them and the world we live in. They were little crusaders in grade school and I can recall them leading the charge to host events at home around their passions. My oldest daughter majored in Global Health and Society and is currently in graduate school for both an MBA and a masters in Public Health. My second daughter has multiple friends that turn to me as a mentor to help them kick off organizations that pertain to their causes, and she has formed a junior committee for the PHASE ONE Foundation. My son is developing an app that revolves around hunger in the world, and my ninth grader recently hosted four kids to volunteer at the PHASE ONE Foundation for some fun holiday projects we need to complete. The PHASE ONE Foundation, for all its ups and downs, has definitely shaped my children to live their best lives. I am so proud of all of them.
Interested in donating? Visit the PHASE ONE donation page to learn more.
Nominate your real life role model for the #MAKEYOURMARC campaign here.
Stacy pictured wearing the Abela Ankle Boot from Marc Fisher.
Photo credit: Stevi Sesin
3 pearls of wisdom
What’s right for one kid may not be right for all. An example, when my son was in the ninth grade we realized that our longtime school that had been perfect for our older children was not right for our son. Switching schools in the tenth grade was the best thing we ever did for him.
Judge less, or at least keep your mouth shut.
Say sorry. We may be their mothers but we do make mistakes.