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Finding the key to surviving breast cancer

A woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer must run through a thicket of decisions. She can choose a variety of drug regimens, some more toxic than others. She can opt for mastectomy or breast-preserving surgery. She also may look to other means of support, such as yoga or group therapy. All these decisions, together with the woman's biology and genetics, can make a life-and-death difference.

Now two major medical centers in Palo Alto - Stanford's School of Medicine and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation - are working together to try and tease out these various factors to determine what really matters when it comes to survival for breast cancer patients. Though the centers are just a mile apart, it's the first time they've officially collaborated on a research project.

It would not have happened were it not for Richard Levy, PhD, a local businessman and philanthropist, who wanted to see the institutions share their expertise on cancer, which has been the focus of his 40-year career at Varian Medical Systems in Palo Alto. He retired as CEO of the company in 2006 but is still chairman of the board. He and his wife, Susan, are funding the joint, three-year study with a $2.1 million gift.

The study will involve hundreds of women at the two medical centers, who will be followed every step of the way. Every drug, pathology report and medical encounter will be logged into a new, secure database known as OncoShare. The women will be interviewed about their anxieties and concerns and reflect on the process through journals that will help the researchers assess their psychosocial health as well. When it's done, the researchers hope to have a better idea of what factors are most important when it comes to cancer outcomes. And it may just be a beginning.

"This project is called OncoShare," notes Ralph Horwitz, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine at Stanford. "Wouldn't it be great to have CardioShare and do something similar around cardiovascular disease or diabetes or obesity, for example? There are so many opportunities to apply this more broadly."

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