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Bay Area Forum Bridges Research and Community

By Ed Kang
December 2009

A panel of women sits in front of a crowd
Expert panelists engaged in open discussion on breast cancer at the Bay Area public forum - the latest in a series of community-based participatory events. Seated, left to right, are Birnbaum, Collman, Barlow, Reynolds, Rizzo and Das.
(Photo courtesy of Ed Kang)

An African-American woman speaks into a hand-held microphone as those in the crowd around her listen and look on
The public forum at the Cavallo Point Lodge, a former military base turned hotel, brought together scientists, sufferers and survivors to talk frankly about environmental connections to breast cancer and prevention strategies. (Photo courtesy of Ed Kang)

Five women in a line, smiling at the camera
One of Birnbaum's many activities included a stop at the Breast Cancer Fund, a group committed to identifying and eliminating environmental causes of breast cancer. (Photo courtesy of Ed Kang)

November 18-19, NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., participated in a series of events dedicated to discussing breast cancer and the environment, including the annual meeting of the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers (BCERC) and a public forum in Sausalito, Calif. These Bay Area events helped to amplify the voices of area women affected by breast cancer.

Highlighting her activities with partners and grantees, Birnbaum headlined a rousing, and at times, emotional public forum convened at the historic Cavallo Point Lodge. Attendees were mostly members of a concerned community struggling with a disease Birnbaum labeled in her opening remarks as "our common enemy - an equal opportunity killer." Introduced by Robert Hiatt, M.D., Ph.D., director of Population Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Comprehensive Cancer Center, Birnbaum spoke of the "state of the science" of breast cancer research, and also joined a distinguished panel in initiating a frank and open discussion about community needs in ongoing breast cancer research.

Moderated by noted television reporter, Ysabel Duron, a breast cancer survivor and inductee into the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Hall of Fame, the panel of speakers featured leaders in various disciplines. Joining Birnbaum and Hiatt on the dais were Gwen Collman, Ph.D., interim director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) ( at NIEHS; Janice Barlow, M.S.N., executive director of Zero Breast Cancer; Rupali Das, M.D., chief of the Exposure Assessment Section in the Environmental Health Investigations Branch of the California Department of Public Heath; Peggy Reynolds, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the Northern California Cancer Center; and Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund. The combined influence of these renowned experts shed light on different aspects of breast cancer from basic research to advocacy to education and prevention.

Public participation is always encouraged at these kinds of meetings and other forums. "It provides an opportunity for feedback," Barlow said. "It does change the direction of the research and the relevance to the community; plus, when [the community is] involved from the beginning, it has an influence on the questions that are being asked." Birnbaum added, "We need input from communities in setting science agenda and in fostering positive partnerships. Together with my Institute's partners and grantees, we will solidify our coalition in the national effort to keep the science moving forward."

Birnbaum's closing comments summarized the discussion with partners, grantees, community leaders and advocates. "I look forward to the day when I can stand here with all of our partners to say, 'We did it. We know how it happens, and we can stop it.' That day will come. Until then, we will continue the hard work." In borrowing a familiar concept, she added, "Knowledge is power," a simple but powerful adage that in the context of cancer and disease prevention takes on deliberate new meaning.

The next NIEHS community forum will be in West Harlem, N.Y. in April 2010.

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

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