SANTA ANA, Calif. — Jane Pang has given her time, money and abounding energy to the fight against breast cancer. She’s also shared the most personal and precious gift of all, a piece of herself.
Pang flew from Orange County, Calif., to Indianapolis in February so researchers could extract and freeze a sample of her healthy breast tissue for the Susan G. Komen Tissue Bank at Indiana University. The bank, supported by roughly $1 million a year in Komen funds, provides researchers from around the world with samples of normal tissue that can be compared with cancerous tissue to better understand and treat the disease.
“The older we get, the greater your risk,” Pang said. “At 70, I haven’t gotten it. Are we who are elderly, without breast cancer, do we hold the cure?”
Pang, of Huntington Beach, Calif., was joined by Garden Grove, Calif., resident Charlene Kazner and Angela Acevedo-Malouf of Mission Viejo, Calif. The women underwent biopsies to help increase the bank’s ethnic diversity — and to serve as ambassadors as recruitment begins for a first-ever West Coast tissue collection Nov. 2 in Orange County, Calif.
“It’s just such an unusual, really connected opportunity to be part of research,” said Lisa Wolter, executive director of Komen’s Orange County branch. “I’m not a scientist, I’m not a doctor, but I can do this.”
Since the tissue bank started in 2007, most of the 3,000-plus samples have come from white donors. But researchers need to study women of all backgrounds and stages of life — they need samples from a variety of ethnicities, ages and hormonal states, such as those brought on by pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause.
Dr. Anna Maria Storniolo, director of the Komen Tissue Bank, said researchers can request extremely specific tissue samples based, for instance, on a donor’s age, her number of children or her history of tobacco use. Donor identities are kept confidential.
She said researchers have published seven studies with data derived from the tissue bank, including one by Thea Tlsty, a University of California-San Francisco pathologist. Tlsty used tissue to study the cause of dense breasts, which are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. The findings were published in the journal Cancer Discovery.
“Without access to that tissue, we couldn’t have asked this question, we couldn’t have found these results,” Tlsty said. “You can’t get this from mice tissue. That’s why this bank is an incredible resource.”
Wolter said ideally 70 percent of the Orange County donors will be non-white, although no one who signs up will be turned away. Women 65 and older are also needed.
“Our goal is to make sure the word gets out to everyone, but to carry a message of the importance of involving the entire ethnic populations,” she said. “There is nothing better than a personal testimonial from someone who has gone through the process.”
To that end, the three women are speaking at public events, hanging signs where they shop and attending the Sept. 22 Race for the Cure at Fashion Island.
Jane Pang, a retired nurse, has cared for her husband, Victor, through three bouts of cancer, most recently of the breast. Breast cancer is about 100 times less common in men than women, according to the American Cancer Society.
Jane Pang, who is of Chinese and Japanese descent, grew up in Hawaii; her husband is native Hawaiian.
Victor Pang, 75, first underwent chemotherapy and radiation in 1983 for an eye tumor stemming from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Twenty years later, surgeons removed a golf-ball-sized brain tumor and he went through chemo again. In 2009, a small mass was detected during a routine chest X-ray. His left breast was removed and he again underwent chemo.
Long before, the Pangs were active in promoting breast health among Pacific Islanders after close friends developed breast cancer. But still, they were shocked by the diagnosis.
“We were rather overwhelmed despite the fact he’s had all this background information,” Jane Pang said. “I discovered (men) go through the same trauma and the same emotional adjustment to the surgery itself.”
For Pang, donating her tissue was never in question. The tissue bank hopes to eventually collect from men, Storniolo said.
“Going to Indiana, I really understood the plight they have,” Pang said. “They are predominantly white. I said, ‘We’ve got to make a difference in Orange County. We’ve got the diversity. Let’s step up.’”
DOING THE MOST GOOD
Charlene Kazner, 63, of Garden Grove, Calif., is a 5-year uterine cancer survivor who has made breast cancer her cause.
In 2008, Kazner went to a new gynecologist for her annual pap smear. After the exam the doctor asked her, as a new patient, if there was anything he should know.
“I just happened to mention that I was spotting, but it wasn’t very much,” she recalled. “He said to be safe, let’s do a biopsy. He called back the following week to say I had uterine cancer.”
Kazner underwent a hysterectomy but didn’t need chemo or radiation because the cancer was caught early. During that time, Kazner decided to talk to Jane and Victor Pang, who were also members of the Hawaiian Civic Club.
“They were very much into promoting early detection in the Pacific Islander community,” she said. “I was aware of what they were doing but didn’t really know them. After I was diagnosed with cancer, I approached them and asked if they needed help with anything they were doing. I wanted to give back to the community because I was so thankful to have found it early and not have to go through treatment.”
Kazner began volunteering with Komen and other groups.
“I started to learn more about breast cancer and I saw that breast cancer affects more families than uterine cancer, even though I myself am a uterine cancer survivor,” she said. “I thought my impact in the community would be far broader and wider for breast cancer.”
Kazner grew up in Oahu and moved to California in her early 20s. She said Indiana University researchers told her she was the first native Hawaiian to donate breast tissue.
“You just feel so good because they cheer you on,” she said. “They explain everything, nothing is a surprise. You just feel so great because you’ve been able to give something to a wonderful cause.”