Watch out breast cancer… Here comes Uschi Keszler.
There are a couple of things that are immediately evident about former Olympic competitor and current Olympic coach Keszler: First, her whole outlook has been shaped by athletics, figure skating in particular; and, second, she is determined to change the world.
A West German skater who won the novice, junior and senior ladies gold medals in the 1960s and competed in the 1964 Olympics, Keszler was forced to retire from amateur competition when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis at 17. She battled back to come to the United States and continue as a show skater in the Ice Follies and, later, an elite coach.
But, even as she racked up coaching at 21 World Championships and six Winter Olympics for skaters such as Elvis Stojko and Brian Orser, there were more hurdles: In 2005, she learned she had breast cancer followed by a diagnosis of uterine cancer the next year.
Cancer-free herself, now she’s waging war on the entire disease of breast cancer - and she’s determined to beat it.
“Two years after my diagnosis with tuberculosis, they were treating that disease entirely different,” said Keszler, who was hospitalized for eight months at the time. “I think it will be the same thing with cancer. I predict the current treatments will change entirely.”
And in 2007, she founded Pennies in Action with the hopes of proving it - one penny at a time.
When Keszler discovered that her surgeon, Brian Czerniecki MD, PhD of the University of Pennsylvania, was already in clinical trials for a vaccine that fights breast cancer using the patient’s own immune system, she was amazed… and motivated.
“I told him I wouldn’t do anything that would destroy the body in the hopes of making it better,” said Keszler, who points to her history as an athlete as the foundation of her beliefs in the strength and resiliency of the human body. “When a patient has had all of the treatments, the immune system gets depressed and often doesn’t come back, so the body is wide open to be attacked again. This vaccine brings back the immune response. It’s less of a vaccine in the traditional sense of the word and more of an immune conditioning.”
The truly unique thing about the vaccine, which is activated in sugar water and administered in saline solution, is that it is totally non-toxic.
“The toxins in the current cancer treatments cause such severe side effects,” Keszler said. “This is basically the only thing with cancer that’s non-toxic.”
Czerniecki, who had positive results in the vaccine’s first phase trial that was funded by the National Institutes of Health, was in need of funding for more research and he came to Keszler.
“The government will give help at the beginning stages, but then researchers have to rely on organizations to continue their research and testing,” said Keszler, who does not fit the trial criteria and is not a vaccine candidate. “Of course this makes no sense. It’s like helping skaters at the preliminary level and then abandoning them when they get to the higher levels.”
So Keszler got moving. She knew she wanted to help Czerniecki but had never done any type of large-scale fundraising. She did her own research into some of the bigger breast cancer organizations but didn’t like that she had no say over where the money went once it was handed over.
Ever the competitor, she decided to do it on her own. Thus began Pennies in Action.
“We have a saying in Germany: ‘He who doesn’t honor the penny is not worthy of a dollar,’” Keszler said. “I was riding my bike with a friend one day and I stopped my bike to pick up a penny. She couldn’t believe I had done that. I said, ‘I always do,’ and she said, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ It made me think.”
That’s when she started doing more focused research and came to some dramatic conclusions. If 15 million people gave one penny a day for a year - just $3.65 per person, per year - it would raise almost 55 million dollars!
“The economy is bad and everyone thinks it’s up to the top two percent to solve all of our problems,” Keszler said. “It can’t work that way. It’s all of our problems and when you think in these terms, a penny can go a long way.”
Having already collected over 200 million pennies - that’s two million dollars - Pennies in Action is operating through a multitude of channels, forming alliances with the Henle Fund, the Answer to Cancer Army and Devine Debutantes; numerous sports tournaments using Pennies in Action trademarked motto of “Take your shot at cancer;” even a Kenyan who is climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and donating all of his collected pledges; and many other efforts, both big and small.
But there are a lot more pennies needed, as Pennies in Action has guaranteed Czerniecki $450,000 over the course of the next four years for the upcoming stages of his testing - which only happens, according to Keszler, with proven results.
“You don’t win the Stanley Cup unless you score. It doesn’t matter how many shots on goal you have,” she said. “We don’t focus on the problem, we focus on the solution. Dr. Czerniecki gets money when he shows me success, which is a great motivator. This is a totally different approach.”
This results-driven barometer is one that Keszler is familiar with, of course.
“I was always taught to focus on the landing, that’s what skating is ultimately all about. If you’re not focused on that, you’re going to go all over the place,” Keszler said. “Now, skaters get credit for an attempt, which I do not understand at all. Elvis Stojko and Brian Orser didn’t get credit for trying; they got credit for completing it, for success. In a race, you must cross the finish line and that’s a fact.”
With this race, however, there are multiple finish lines, as this treatment has the possibility of eventually being used on all solid tumors. The research being done now could make the vaccine available not just for breast cancer but for melanoma, ovarian, lung, colon, uterine, pancreatic, prostate and others.
Admittedly, a big goal. But with all help donated to Pennies in Action, every cent raised goes toward the organization’s statement of purpose: a shared vision of a life without cancer; a shared mission to remove the threat of cancer one vaccine at a time; and shared values that each case of cancer is not a number, it is a person, and a diagnosis affects a whole family.
When Keszler talks about it, however, it sounds more like a battle cry.
“To get rid of cancer is quite simple, but it’s not easy. Cancer is very smart. It runs away and camouflages itself. This vaccine is the best kept secret and we have to get the information out to stop this horrific suffering,” Keszler said. “Fifteen-hundred people die of cancer every day. That’s three-thousand every weekend. While I have been talking, people have died. Cancer doesn’t take vacation.”
Despite being grateful for every penny that is donated, Keszler can’t help but think of what could happen if there were unlimited funds and unlimited resources available. She dreams of what she calls a “global cancer action tank.”
“Too often there’s too much thinking and too little action,” she said. “Skaters have a stick-to-itiveness or they don’t stay skating for long. That same stick-to-itiveness is what is needed to fight cancer.”
For more information regarding Pennies in Action go to www.penniesinaction.org.