When he was diagnosed with an aggressive leukemia four decades ago, the odds were stacked against Bruce Douglass, then just 16 years old. Yet on Saturday night, he stood hand in hand with his wife and three adult children onstage at the Hutch Holiday Gala, a testament to the research that gave him back the years of life that his cancer threatened to take away.
The signature annual fundraising event for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the 2017 Hutch Holiday Gala raised more than $8.3 million for research at Fred Hutch. Over its 42-year history, the black-tie event has garnered a total of $126 million to advance Hutch science.
Douglass’ tale was one of several survivor stories featured at the event, which was held exactly 40 years to the day from his lifesaving bone marrow transplant at Fred Hutch. The then-experimental procedure has since been used over a million times worldwide and is the foundation for emerging breakthroughs in immunotherapy. “We were right on the forefront” of the science, Douglass said in a feature video (below).
“You in this room are the hope,” Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland said to the 800 guests gathered in the Sheraton Seattle Hotel. “You have the opportunity to give the gift of time.”
And give they did. A $3 million challenge gift from an anonymous family started off the night’s total, and well over 200 donors raised their paddles to make gifts ranging from $1,000 to $250,000 during the event’s “Help the Hutch” segment. Hutch leadership will use the funds raised through their generosity to accelerate the pace of research aimed at saving lives from cancer and related diseases around the world.
In addition to direct giving, Gala guests bid enthusiastically on donated luxury vacations, theater experiences, autographed celebrity memorabilia — and tickets to a VIP after-party featuring live music by actor Kevin Bacon and his brother, musician and composer Michael Bacon. First Michael’s, then Kevin’s, surprise appearance onstage during the live auction drove guests to their feet in astonishment, smartphone videos rolling.
The opportunity to reduce their Bacon number was just one of the thrills guests enjoyed. Gala attendees feasted on gourmet food and drink, and they danced to live music throughout the evening, which culminated in a headline performance by Grammy-winning songwriter and musician Rick Springfield. Springfield packed the dance floor in the sparkling, red-draped ballroom, playing hits like his “I’ve Done Everything For You,” “Jessie’s Girl” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
In the midst of the fun, Gala guests were focused on the purpose of the evening: giving generously to advance discoveries that save the lives of people like Douglass.
Those gathered at the Gala “have come to recognize that few issues are more important than cancer research, because the statistics are terrifying. But the science is tremendously promising,” said Christine Gregoire, former Washington state governor and current Fred Hutch board chair, in her opening remarks. “That’s why we are here tonight: to collectively and generously fuel the acceleration of research.”
Fred Hutch scientist Dr. Barry Stoddard, who attended with his wife, Amy, said, “Every year, it’s such a gamut of emotions. It’s just emotional, when you see that video, and people’s stories.” Stoddard added that he admired the Fred Hutch physician-scientists who pioneered the transplant procedure that saved the lives of Douglass and many others. “It’s very humbling to listen to their stories of what they’ve done over the years.”
Jenny Brooks, who came with her husband and several friends, said that, as a mother, being able to advance research that helps other mothers means a lot to her.
“Seeing other mothers up on the screen — we don’t have to fight that battle currently,” Brooks said. “So we’re here supporting other mothers.”
Hutch leader Gilliland talked about one particular mother in the Gala video, a woman named Pat who did not survive her cancer. The story is deeply meaningful to Gilliland.
“That’s why I do what I do,” he said onscreen. “We can’t let that happen. And we have the tools now to ensure that it doesn’t happen to other people like Pat.”
Researchers at the Hutch continue to advance the forefront of cancer care, Gilliland said, just as they did in Douglass’ case — the first successful tissue-mismatched bone marrow transplant, which opened the door for Hutch teams to develop the approach for more patients in the future. Now, he said, researchers are harnessing the power of patients’ immune systems to fight their cancers, building on insights from the Hutch’s transplantation research. Advances in prevention, detection and treatment are coming out of new leaps forward in cancer biology and technology, and each new discovery is the launchpad for many more. In short, said Gilliland, incredible changes in cancer care are rapidly approaching.
“I know we can cure cancer. It’s no longer a question of whether,” Gilliland said from the Gala stage. “It’s a question of when. And that’s where you come in tonight.”
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Susan Keown was a staff editor and writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from 2014-2022 who has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions. Find her on Twitter @sejkeown.