Breast Cancer Breakthroughs

Breast Cancer, Featured Article, Healthy Living, Women's Health
on October 7, 2011

In 1980, at just 34 years old, Janelle Hail was facing breast cancer—a disease most women only whispered about. So when she beat it, she wanted to help change the status quo. In 1991, she founded the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), which counts as its main mission providing free mammograms and other screening exams for women who can’t afford them.

“While breast cancer research is vital, at that time nobody was doing anything with prevention,” Hail says. “We felt we had to meet those needs for women, right there where they live.”

On the occasion of the organization’s 20th anniversary, Hail chatted with about the past, present and future of the cause that she’s made her life’s work. What’s changed most in the 20 years you’ve been involved in breast cancer activism?

Janelle Hail: I think there are better attitudes about breast cancer because we’re talking about it. My doctor told me, “You can have chemotherapy, radiation or a mastectomy,” and I didn’t know what any of it was about. People didn’t talk about breast cancer back then. They were fearful they could lose their jobs if they mentioned it. Now people realize this is a disease, just like any other disease.

Women are getting more aggressive about their healthcare, too. I’m happy to see those changes. What recent developments in breast cancer detection and treatment are you most excited about?

JH: There are a few tremendous things. One is digital mammography, which can give a much clearer picture, and help with the reading of the mammogram. That’s exciting, because you’re going to get more information.

The other is personalized medicine, which I’m very involved with. That means the treatment is tailored to the patient and the type of breast cancer they have. We think of breast cancer as one lumped-in thing, but not every drug is going to help every cancer. So instead of a scatter-shot method, this targets the cancer according to the patient’s specific needs.

The NBCF is also involved in genetic testing research, which is making a lot of breakthroughs right now. That’s helping open up the information that we need for personalized medicine. All these things are connected. Clearly, these innovations are positive, but do you find that women sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the options?

JH: Yes, and we try to be a resource. On our website,, we have a section called “Beyond the Shock,” which helps women who’ve just been diagnosed to understand the disease, through videos and animation and other tools. We’re trying to change the fear that people have when they get breast cancer. Fear lurks around in the darkness, when you don’t know what’s going on. But education can put a big, bright spotlight on it. I just want women to understand there’s life beyond breast cancer. Why did you decide to focus your efforts primarily on prevention and screenings when you founded the NBCF?

JH: I think because I’ve always believed early detection was important in everything. In my life, I’m always thinking ahead—I don’t want to just wait until it happens to me. So when I got breast cancer, I think it was that attitude that spared my life.

We have an early detection plan on our website, where women can sign up to be reminded to schedule a mammogram however she wants [by email, text message or via a calendar program]. It’s simple to do, and that’s the only communication they get from us. The NBCF’s vice president of accounting signed up, and when she went to get a mammogram, she discovered she had breast cancer. You’ve partnered with Dannon for the Give Hope With Every Cup campaign. How will it benefit your organization?

JH: Customers who buy Dannon yogurt can go to and enter the code from the lid, and Dannon will donate 10 cents and, for some varieties 20 cents, per code. They are making a minimum donation of $500,000 and will donate up to $1.5 million. There’s a map on the site that shows how much money has been raised in each state, so you can watch the tally go up and see how many women it will serve [by providing mammograms and other methods of early detection].

The website is also a source of emotional support for women coping with breast cancer. There’s a video from me, and one from Jamie Lee Curtis, and other stories from survivors. There’s been some backlash lately about the rash of pink products in October, and whether they’re truly helping the cause. How do you think consumers should approach these products and campaigns?

JH: I’m very proud of all the pink that is presented in October. Sometimes we need to have it in our faces in order to think about it, and what we need to do.

I think probably most of those products are legitimate, but it is important to check the packaging and see who the funds are going to. If I go into a store and see a product with a pink ribbon on it, but it has very little information about that, I’ll ask the clerk or the store’s owner. You can also go to the website of the company or foundation and look for information. At, you can see exactly how much money is going to the cause.