Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) presents its Spirit of Empowerment awards to recognize the contributions of individuals and organizations that help us educate and support the hereditary cancer community. The awards ceremony typically takes place during a special luncheon at the Joining FORCEs Against Hereditary Cancer Conference. While the June 2020 conference has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we created this webpage to acknowledge the selfless efforts of our 2020 awardees. Please join us in showing appreciation for their ongoing commitment to bettering the lives of people affected by hereditary cancer.
Individual Commitment: Julie Klein
After losing her father to colon cancer when she was 12, Julie’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer five years later. She remembers telling her mother not to worry. They caught it early. Everything will be fine. Her mother survived breast cancer, as did her mother’s identical twin, and they both lived many more years. Yet, in the back of Julie’s mind, she feared that one day she, too, would be diagnosed with cancer.
In 2011, Julie’s radiologist recommended genetic testing. Wasting no time, she met with a genetic counselor and tested positive for a BRCA1 genetic mutation. Without the knowledge of her mutation, Julie’s life may have taken a different path.
And so began Julie’s BRCA journey and the start of a new meaning to her life. Knowing no one who had this genetic mutation, she was amazed to learn about FORCE and reached out to volunteer. She felt a passion to help others. For the past eight years, Julie has helped countless people as a Helpline volunteer, Peer Navigator, proofreader, and fundraiser for FORCE.
Individual Commitment: Maralee Schwartz
Maralee’s younger sister Elise was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40 and ovarian cancer at age 50, fighting a decade-long battle until she died in 2011. For years, Elise urged Maralee to be tested for the familial BRCA mutation—and for years, Maralee delayed. Finally agreeing to be tested, days before Elise died Maralee learned that she too was positive for a BRCA1 mutation.
Elise connected with FORCE after she was diagnosed and learned that she was BRCA1 positive. The inspiration and support that she received from FORCE was transformative for Elise and her family, who attended local Chicago meetings, as well as national conferences. Knowledge of her BRCA mutation was Elise’s final gift to Maralee. Maralee’s gift to her sister is the Elise Shapira Memorial Fund, a FORCE endowed fund that provides scholarship dollars to FORCE conference attendees and supports the FORCE mission.
Maralee Schwartz has been a FORCE donor since 2013. Her greatest desire for FORCE is for the organization to be better known for its role in educating the public about hereditary cancers and offering support.
Community Empowerment: Rebecca Sutphen, MD
Dr. Rebecca Sutphen is a Professor of Genetics, University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, Tampa, FL and Chief Medical Officer of InformedDNA. Dr. Sutphen received her medical degree from Temple University, where she was elected to the National Honor Medical Society Alpha Omega Alpha. She is board certified by the American Board of Medical Genetics as a Clinical Geneticist as well as a Molecular Geneticist.
Sutphen has been an NIH-funded researcher for more than a decade. Her research involves identification and management of hereditary cancer risk, strategies for early detection and prevention of cancer, and ways to increase consumer access to genetics experts as well as involve consumers in the entire research process. Dr. Sutphen serves as Co-Principal Investigator leading the ABOUT Network focused on hereditary cancer as part of the National Clinical Research Network PCORnet. A member of the FORCE Medical Advisory Board and Board of Directors, she is also co-author of the book, Confronting Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer along with Kathy Steligo and Dr. Sue Friedman. She is survivor of premenopausal breast cancer and melanoma.
Corporate Commitment: TELETIES
TELETIES are known as the strong-grip, no-rip hair tie that gives back. TELETIES are sleek, stylish, colorful and fun, but they are not your average hair tie. They double as a fashionable (and stackable) bracelet that is water-resistant, and stretches to fit your needs. TELETIES provide a strong hold, yet gentle grip that causes less hair damage and fewer headaches. With their unique spiral design, they leave less of a crease compared to traditional ties.
With every TELETIES purchase, a donation is made to FORCE to improve the lives of those facing hereditary cancer. It is important to TELETIES that those who need resources and education have what they need to make informed decisions about hereditary cancer. This is proof of their mission to uphold a resilient product while giving back to the community at the same time.
Research: Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, FACP
A medical oncologist and cancer genetics expert, Dr. Olopade’s pioneering work led to wide adoption of genetic testing for inherited cancers. She was involved in mapping, cloning and characterization of inherited cancer genes for breast and ovarian cancers, and melanoma. Her work has had direct impact on cancer risk stratification and prevention.
Based on findings from her Southside of Chicago practice, Olopade’s laboratory was the first to publish on African American families with BRCA1/2 mutations and extended testing to ethnically diverse populations. Her research has had a profound impact as she works to improve screening and treatment for breast cancer so that every woman has a chance to survive and thrive.
Dr. Olopade is Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Director, Center for Global Health. A Fellow of professional academies and societies, she has received many honors and awards. Her groundbreaking work in breast cancer among women of African ancestry earned her a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Want Medal, Gregory Mendel Medal, Order of Lincoln award and Officer of the Order of the Niger award.
The inaugural Spirit of Empowerment awards were presented at the 5th Annual Joining FORCEs Conference in Orlando, FL. Recipients for the inaugural award were:
In the days after Elise died one of my close friends said to me: "Everything you do should celebrate your sister, who wanted to live so much. It is imperative to carry her legacy forward." And that is what I have tried to do in the eight and half years since she died. Endowing The Elise Shapira Memorial Fund, and knowing all the good it does for so many women and their families who face what Elise did, has been deeply rewarding. I know it would make my sister happy.
I am a person of many words and I was speechless when told that I was nominated to be a recipient of a Spirit of Empowerment Award this year. When my words started to flow, I proudly accepted.
I always identified myself as “Julie.” In our hereditary cancer community, I identify myself as “Julie, a previvor with a BRCA1 genetic mutation.” This unexpected identity has given me the opportunity to learn and to share what I have learned about the hereditary cancer world with others seeking support and information.
As you honor me with this beautiful recognition for doing what enriches my life, I thank all of the wonderful people at FORCE. For eight years you have given me the privilege of representing FORCE as I devote myself to ensuring that others in our hereditary cancer community know that we are there for them with a shoulder for support, a wealth of information and resources and, most important, a caring heart.
I am honored to receive FORCE's Community Empowerment Award. As a medical geneticist starting my career in 1996 when the BRCA test first became available, I began seeing families with hereditary cancer. I felt happy to provide information that could clarify—who in the family has inherited the cancer risk and who has not—but it was so disheartening that we knew so little about what to do for those affected. I searched for some type of support to offer families that went beyond our scientific knowledge...and that's how I found FORCE. I'll never forget the feeling I had as I began reading the stories on the Message Boards...the desire for connection, the questions, fears, caring and support being offered so openly.
I began referring every family to FORCE, but I felt there must be a way to do more...to combine clinical care and research with advocacy, support and educational resources to better serve the community. My life changed forever in 2004 when I invited Sue Friedman to share the work we were each doing separately and the possibilities for collaboration. Maya Angelou said, "A friend stands beside you, and under you, and lifts you up." Sue is that person, and like so many successful organizations that mirror the values of their founder leader, that is FORCE.
I have witnessed FORCE's power to make a life-saving difference, to inspire and empower others. I've been driven to help discover answers to critical questions in the hearts and minds of so many families… Who else in my family is at risk? How can we prevent cancer in my kids and grandkids? When will better therapies be available? Like most challenging but worthwhile endeavors, it is the 'village' that contributes to empowering our community with data, education, caring and hope. Hope for a cancer-free future is the ultimate goal; until then, hope for better prevention options and effective treatments with minimal side effects. I am so very thankful for FORCE, and especially Sue as our leader, standing beside us and lifting us up, working tirelessly for a better future.
I was fortunate to grow up with the love and encouragement of 3 incredible grandparents. Although none lived closeby, they were always part of holiday and birthday celebrations. They lived long and full lives and eventually moved close to my parents providing me more opportunities to visit them, listen to their stories and introduce them to my young children. I never met my fourth grandparent, my father's mother who died of breast cancer before he was 10 years old. He has only faint memories of her and she will always remain a missing piece of my life. Her sister also succumbed to breast cancer at a young age in the days when hereditary cancers were not well known and the BRCA mutations had not been discovered.
After genetic testing became available, my father was found to carry a BRCA1 mutation and my parents recommended that I get tested when I was in my early twenties. I remember our discussion of this during a family vacation and my thoughts about how my life's trajectory could radically change. Recently married at the time, my husband supported my decision to be tested. I am a firm believer that knowledge is power. Thankfully, I did not inherit the gene mutation and have not had to live under a cloud of cancer concern. My heart goes out to those not as lucky, but I remain encouraged by the progress being made to help those with BRCA mutations. Early detection and risk reducing strategies are available, and medical research to prevent the clinical expression of BRCA mutations continues. As a member of a family affected by hereditary cancer, I am committed to helping others learn to gauge their risk and explore their options for clinical management.