The Lazarex Cancer Foundation strives to give hope to patients at the end stage of the disease who haven't had success with conventional treatments. It helps them get access to alternative drugs and offers financial support when needed.
"They're helping people all over the world from the little Danville office," said spokeswoman Jennifer LeBlanc.
The volunteer-run foundation has been operating out of its Front Street office for about a year. So far it's given 18 patients access to clinical trial drugs.
Lazarex says these alternative drugs don't have the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy and therefore greatly improve patients' quality of life, while simultaneously treating the disease.
The secret ingredient? Hope.
"I think that one of the biggest elements to being successfully treated is your will to live," said Dana Dornsife, the foundation's president. "(Chemo) really erodes a patient's desire to continue. That's why we say Lazarex provides a lifeline and a bridge to life and dignity."
In fact, the foundation's name is derived from the biblical character Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.
"Positive outlook makes a world of difference. It truly does," said Lazarex patient Florence Ricciardi, who is being treated for recurring breast cancer.
After just one session of chemo Ricciardi lost most of her hair and her strength.
"To be able to live as close to normal life as possible and still be in treatment is amazing," said the Vallejo resident. "I can do whatever I would have normally done."
The idea for the foundation began after Dornsife's brother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Eager to prolong his life as much as possible, she researched alternative treatments online and discovered Rexin-G, a clinical trial drug.
The drug is a gene delivery vehicle that targets cancerous cells and shrinks them. Since it's designed to go only where it's needed, it doesn't cause harmful side effects to the body.
"The science behind it seemed really logical, so we pursued it," said Dornsife.
She met with the two doctors that were developing the drug. The pair had originally set up the Lazarex Foundation to raise money for research, but it had been essentially inactive.
They all decided to have Dornsife take over and revitalize the foundation, turning it into a nonprofit and expanding its mission to focus on treating patients.
"My husband and I just felt like we had the moral obligation to continue the development of the drug," she said.
Lazarex operates as a middle man, connecting patients to the trial drugs, and giving them the financial support they need to pursue treatment.
Though drugs still in test phase are free, many other factors aren't - such as scans and blood work that monitor progress. And since the only treatment facility is located in Santa Monica, travel and lodging expenses can be considerable.
Dealing with cancer can be a huge financial blow. By the time patients have reached the end stage of the disease they'll often be drained of all their personal finances.
"There's a gap between six feet under and where traditional medicine and insurance companies stop," Dornsife said. "We want to fill that gap."
LeBlanc said the foundation basically operates on an honor system - those that don't need the financial help don't ask for it. Still, money is going out the door more quickly than it's coming in, and they plan to step up fundraising efforts as the number of patients increases.
Dornsife hopes to be more involved in the community and raise awareness around town. She will march in Danville's Fourth of July parade, representing the foundation.
"I think it's wonderful that you can look at a map of the U.S. and put a little pin in Danville, California," she said. "And we're looking to serve cancer patients all over the country."
The foundation's long-term vision is to offer comprehensive cancer centers that provide not only treatment, but also extended support: recommending wig stores, holistic remedies, counseling for families, spiritual guidance and educating patients about nutrition.
Dornsife said the goal is for someone to be able to walk in to the office and be given all the resources they need to live a happy, healthy and well-balanced life.
"We know we're not going to save everyone," she said. "But for us to be able to give the dignity back ... it's huge."
Art sale to raise funds
Lazarex Cancer Foundation is hosting a fundraising event tomorrow evening, April 5, from 4-8 p.m. in Sonoma. It includes an original African art show and sale as well as samples from local wineries. The event will be at Spirits in Stone warehouse, 21889 Eighth St. East; suggested donation for the evening is $35. To register, visit www.lazarexfoundation.org or call 820-4517.