After losing her dear friend and a rising golf star, Heather Farr, at age 28 to breast cancer, Val Skinner, a member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), embarked on a mission to increase breast cancer awareness among young women. The Val Skinner Foundation was soon born, which included the launch of the Young Women’s Initiative, providing outreach and education to women in their 20s and 30s. In 2002, the Val Skinner Foundation collaborated with The Cancer Institute of New Jersey to establish the LIFE Center, which is directed by Deborah Toppmeyer, MD, chief medical officer and director of the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center at Rutgers Cancer Institute and professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. To fuel support for the Young Women’s Initiative and the LIFE Center, Skinner created the LIFE Event (LGPA Pros In the Fight to Eradicate breast cancer), an annual charity golf event to raise awareness and funds to support research, education and clinical activity.
Val Skinner’s story was originally published in Rutgers Cancer Institute’s Cancer Connection Magazine in 2014. View the original article on page 7.
When you talk to Val Skinner, one thing is quite evident. She is a people person. Immediately engaging and with a radiant smile, she greets you like an old friend. Converse with her for a while and you’ll notice she exhibits a ‘drive’ of sorts – quiet and reserved at times, but at others it is a gentle force. Her initial passion on the golf course from a young age was always a drive to succeed – a drive to reach the next level. Now a veteran of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), this 53-year-old long-time sports commentator still exhibits this drive – but it’s more on a path to educate – a path to help – against the toughest of opponents – breast cancer.
Such determination started long ago, growing up as a child in the Midwest. “Where I grew up, it was about people living a good life and having a sense of doing whatever you could to help others,” says Skinner. It was an edict by which she chose to live, and by the time she was a young adult, she began using her sport as a means to help others. Early in her career, she was involved with an initiative that used golf as a way to help underserved children. “I remember working with one particular boy – connecting with him and watching him evolve through a sport that provides order, structure, integrity, and honesty,” she says. “I enjoyed what I was able to give to this young boy through golf; it really was a moment of pause for me.” While she didn’t know it at the time, it was a moment that would help set the stage for something much larger – an initiative that ultimately would help those with and without breast cancer at Rutgers Cancer institute of New Jersey and beyond.
Up Close and Personal
Everyone knows someone who has been touched by cancer, and for Skinner, her introduction to this sometimes deadly disease hit extremely close to home, as she watched her very close cousin and her best friend from high school engage in their own individual battles with breast cancer. But Skinner’s next experience with the disease was unexpected and raw.
As Skinner tells the story, in 1989 a dear friend of hers, fellow LPGA player heather Farr, discovered a lump in her breast. Thinking a diagnosis of breast cancer wasn’t even an option considering she was only 24 years old, Farr and her physician decided to wait on further exploring the lump until the current tour wrapped up a few months later. Unfortunately by that time, Farr had advanced-stage breast cancer. She fought a courageous battle and died in 1993. “Heather’s death changed the LPGA tour in ways I can’t even describe. What comes with playing is an unflappable attitude that you can do anything – then all of a sudden, you see your friend in a vulnerable state. The reality for all of us on the tour (a number of young women) was that what happened to Heather could happen to any one of us,” says Skinner. Before she passed away, Farr told Skinner “don’t ever forget this,” and charged her with what skinner says felt like a herculean task at the time of helping young women understand that they have the power to learn more about their breast health. Skinner couldn’t process at that moment what that meant or how she would accomplish that task, but she made it her personal mission to live up to that challenge.
A Mile in Her Shoes
A few short years later, Skinner had her own scare with breast cancer – having found a lump. A recent elbow surgery at Robert Wood Johnson University hospital led to a recommendation to visit the Cancer institute of New Jersey for a follow-up on her breast. “Just like many women, I sat there frightened, thinking of the ‘what ifs.’ but having been told of the comprehensive team approach there, seeing the compassionate way patients were being treated and feeling confident of my doctor’s presentation of my situation, I felt comfortable and felt the Cancer institute was a place that was making a difference in people’s lives,” she recalls. Fortunately for Skinner, she checked out fine, but she knows not everyone hears those words of relief. It was that day in the waiting room that an idea formed in her mind – an idea that would build upon Farr’s challenge to her in a big way. “Sometimes you get tapped on the shoulder, and you’re up next,” says Skinner. She knew then exactly what she needed to do. Skinner decided to use golf in sharing Farr’s message and set the bar high. having spearheaded fundraising events for numerous charities benefiting women and children since the late 1980s, Skinner had experience from which to draw, and in 2000 the LIFE (Ladies Professional golf association In the Fight to Eradicate breast cancer) Event charity golf outing was established. “Launching the LIFE Event was such a proud moment,” Skinner remembers. “I felt like the generation of LPGA pros so affected by Heather’s death could start healing thanks to what we were able to accomplish together with our sport. It changed our perspective forever.” For the past 14 years, this pro-am event has brought together the most elite golfers on the LPGA tour and other golfing enthusiasts to raise money and awareness for breast cancer and breast health initiatives. As one of the Val Skinner Foundation’s benefactors, the Cancer institute’s LIFE Center has received $4.5 million since the event’s inception to support education programs and initiatives. Based on her positive experience at the Cancer institute, Skinner knew the center needed to play a major role in translating the mission of her foundation to reality.
Young Women’s Initiative
Skinner called for meetings with the institute’s leadership and director of the breast program Deborah L. Toppmeyer, MD. Skinner asked Dr. Toppmeyer where the greatest need was for young women like Farr. “Educating young women about their breast cancer risk even in the absence of a family history and how they can modify this risk,” Skinner recalls Toppmeyer saying. It was at that point the two began to work closely on clinical and educational programs tailor made to young women.
Through the relationship with the Cancer institute of New Jersey, coupled with that of Susan G. Komen for the Cure (the national charity of the LPGA at the time), Skinner helped launch a national campaign in 2000 known as the “Young Women’s Initiative” that focused on educating women about their breast health. As a vehicle to reach this import demographic, ‘Komen on the go,’ an educational mobile unit focused on breast health, was conceived. This campaign kicked off on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University. “You gain momentum when you start to see young women come up to you and say ‘no one has been thinking of us,’” Skinner says. “We were changing the conversation. We wanted young women to understand more about their breast health and to be taken seriously if they expressed a concern.”
Looking for a brick-and-mortar vehicle to meet this need, Skinner partnered with the hereditary oncology Prevention and Evaluation (HOPE) Program at the Cancer Institute. As a component of the HOPE Program, the LIFE Center was established in 2002 to recognize the support and advocacy of the LPGA and the Val Skinner Foundation. Today the LIFE Center is dedicated to providing young women with information about breast cancer education, prevention and treatment. It features a multidisciplinary team of medical oncologists, surgeons, genetic counselors, nurse practitioners, social workers, and other healthcare professionals devoted to addressing the specific needs of young women with and without breast cancer through research, counseling, testing services and education programs. Through the continued support of the Val Skinner Foundation, LIFE Center satellites have been established across the state at affiliate hospitals within the Rutgers Cancer institute of New Jersey Network to expand the outreach of this program.
As part of the young Women’s initiative, the partnership of the Val Skinner Foundation with the LIFE Center and Rutgers School of Public health contributed to the development of an innovative educational program called BioCONECT. A science-based curriculum, BioCONECT has been offered to more than 200 high school teachers impacting thousands of students in New Jersey and South Carolina since 2008. The interactive program looks at the biology and genetics of breast cancer through the eyes of fictitious teenage twins, whose mother is diagnosed with the disease. Students learn about breast health, breast cancer, cancer genetics and prevention through the twin’s website and blog as well as interactive lessons lead by the teacher.
“Awareness is critical. While BioCONECT is designed to expand students’ knowledge of genetics and cancer development, the curriculum also focuses on risk reduction strategies that they can implement now that will have an impact in the future – lessons we hope they will share beyond the classroom with family and friends and future generations to come,” says Toppmeyer. Toppmeyer helped create the curriculum and is the director of both the LIFE Center and Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center at the Cancer Institute. “Thanks to the Val Skinner Foundation and because of Val’s dedication to this cause, the LIFE Center is able to deliver a multi-faceted educational, clinical and research program that can empower young people to be more pro-active about their health.”
Skinner’s continued drive to help isn’t limited to providing funding sources and attracting star athletes and corporations to lend their support to this cause. It goes much deeper. It is very personal. “Having watched what Heather went through – having had my own scare – I do whatever I can to help other women one-on-one,” she says.
A Storm of a Different Kind
Sandra McIntyre is someone who has experienced Skinner’s outstretched hand. Diagnosed in 2011 with stage II breast cancer, McIntyre was discussing her options with a friend – who happens to be a neighbor of Skinner’s. The friend told skinner of McIntyre’s plight and Skinner recommended McIntyre and her family meet with members of the breast center at the Cancer Institute for a second opinion. “When she’s dealing with you, nothing else is on her plate,” the 64-year-old McIntyre recalls of her first interaction with Skinner. “She told me about the team approach at the Cancer Institute and made me feel comfortable. And after meeting with Dr. (Laurie) Kirstein, who took her time and explained every aspect of the cancer and possible procedures, I felt very confident in the care I would receive there.” Laurie J. Kirstein, MD, FACS, breast surgical oncologist at the Cancer Institute and assistant professor of surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School performed a mastectomy on McIntyre in November 2011. Four months and six chemotherapy treatments later with follow-up visits to the Cancer institute, McIntyre has been cancer free since the spring of 2012.
A member of the fire police in her Jersey shore community of Mantoloking, McIntyre was able to continue with lifesaving first responder duties a few months later during a devastating storm with the same name – Sandy – thanks to positive treatment outcomes.
“To think that someone who was a stranger to me would take the time to help in this way is extraordinary,” says McIntyre, who adds “more good” has come out of the experience than expected including a new friendship with Skinner. Skinner couldn’t agree more. “You never know whose life you may touch or how that person may touch your life,” she says. In fact, during superstorm Sandy, McIntyre offered for Skinner to reach out to her for information related to the storm if she needed. Skinner evacuated her shore-area home and called McIntyre once the storm had moved through to see how she was and how the region was faring. When Skinner called, she had no idea that at that moment, McIntyre herself was waiting to be evacuated from her own flood-ravaged home while watching part of her neighbor’s house float by. But McIntyre calmly took the call. “What an amazing woman,” Skinner says of McIntyre. “She was my calm before the storm, my calm during the storm and my calm after the storm. Knowing the ‘personal storm’ she had just been through with her diagnosis and treatment and how she exhibited such grace and courage in ensuring the safety of others during this time was just incredible to me. I am honored to know her and to be her friend.”
“I feel very fortunate,” says McIntyre. “While I would hope no one finds themselves with a diagnosis of breast cancer, it is good to know there are people like Val out there willing to help.”
That personal concierge treatment isn’t reserved only for those faced with breast cancer. Skinner through the years also has referred patients with prostate, kidney and other cancers to the Cancer Institute. She says it comes with the extreme confidence that the Cancer Institute delivers world-class care and has the ability to advance cancer discoveries all under one roof. “I’ve seen firsthand what the doctors and researchers do here,” she says. Because of that strong belief, Skinner’s foundation has helped fund key aspects of some of the Cancer Institute’s scientific endeavors as well.
The treatment advances made in breast cancer since heather Farr waged her battle are substantial as a result of a better understanding of the complex biology of the disease. This has led to an enriched pool of clinical resources including unique targeted therapies. This ‘personalized’ approach to cancer treatment also known as ‘precision medicine’ is a major research focus of the Cancer Institute that Skinner also has generously supported. “When you give a talented physician-scientist a small grant for a pilot project, it can lead to larger funding opportunities for research that will advance the field. So, even if it’s the smallest of gifts, consistency in giving is incredibly important,” notes Skinner.
“The LIFE Center’s clinical, research and educational programs are enabling young women to be more proactive about cancer risk and breast health,” states Toppmeyer, who also is a professor of medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “Val’s philanthropic nature, dedication and extraordinary passion for this cause motivates clinicians, researchers, and educators to continue making strides that will impact the lives of young people. By transforming the Val Skinner Foundation’s mission statement into a reality, the next generation of young adults will be empowered to advocate for themselves and others. This ultimately is Heather Farr’s legacy, passionately crafted by Val Skinner with the help of LPGA friends and fellow professionals.”