Interview with Mindy Gray by Inspirational Women Series
Mindy Gray is the Co-Founder of the Gray Foundation, a private foundation committed to maximizing access to education, healthcare and opportunity for low-income children in New York. The Gray Foundation also funds initiatives to advance the care of individuals living with BRCA mutations. In 2012, Mindy and her husband Jon Gray co-founded the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center and to date have given over $55 million towards its mission. Mindy is a former member of the Executive Board of Directors of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance (OCRFA) and is also actively involved at the Harlem Village Academies charter schools. She sits on the Leadership Council of Peer Health Exchange, an organization dedicated to giving teens a comprehensive health education. Previously, Mindy worked as an editor at Ziff Davis Publishing and then as a marketing executive at Edwin Schlossberg, Inc., an exhibit design firm. She and her husband Jon reside in NYC where they are raising their four daughters. Mindy holds a B.A. in English with a minor in History from the University of Pennsylvania.
You are the Co-Founder of the Gray Foundation. Can you tell us about your experiences co-founding the Gray Foundation?
One of the greatest privileges of my life has been the ability to create the Gray Foundation. We started the Foundation almost 3 years ago and are already thrilled with how much progress we have made. Our Foundation has two distinct missions. The first is to support scientific research and raise awareness for individuals who have inherited BRCA mutations. We are also committed to maximizing access to education, healthcare, and opportunity for low income children in NYC.
My sister Faith passed away from ovarian cancer. We knew nothing of BRCA gene mutations at the time, and learned then, that this was a mutation that is not only hereditary but could be passed down for generations. After losing Faith, my family and I became passionate about educating others about their potential risk, as well as finding better treatment and prevention options.
Regarding the second part of our mission, raising our children in New York City, we were acutely aware of the inequity across access to good health options, a strong education, and extracurricular and cultural activities for kids in this City. We know that less than a mile from our home, children are attending schools with little resources or avoiding doctors and hospitals due to the lack of health coverage.
We became involved in Harlem Village Academies in 2007 and were immediately inspired by the opportunity to make a difference in ensuring that children received an excellent education. I have worked with students at HVA for the past 10 years and now believe more deeply than ever in the potential of education to transform lives – both for students and their families.
Not long after, I also became involved in Peer Health Exchange, an organization that is committed to giving teenagers the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions. I have been involved on the Leadership Council for the past 5 years and love when I get the chance to sit in on a workshop and witness teenagers engaging with college mentors in conversations about mental health, substance abuse and pregnancy prevention that I know will impact their decision making for years to come.
What are some of the Gray Foundation’s programs?
Today, we are partnering with leaders in the fields of health and education, all of whom are doing exciting work. Our partnership with Montefiore Medical Center is a perfect example: We provided the startup funding for five School Based Health Clinics (SBHC) in the South Bronx. SBHCs provide comprehensive medical, dental, mental health, and pregnancy prevention care to students and their families and communities, as well. By partnering with the schools, Montefiore is guaranteeing supportive healthcare to families who might not otherwise have access.
Another project we are excited about is the College Savings Account program in partnership with the nonprofit NYC Kids RISE and in partnership with the New York City’s Department of Education. In addition to providing all kindergartners with a $100 scholarship account, the program aims to make attending college a realistic and achievable expectation for all, regardless of where they come from or how much money their families have in the bank. NYCKR will host workshops for parents, guardians and the community to educate them about college savings options and financial empowerment. Additionally, kindergartners will learn basic financial concepts, in the classroom.
On the BRCA-side, we are supplementing our mission at the Basser Center for BRCA, by partnering with top cancer institutions to advance the research on hereditary cancers. We are proud of the cross-institutional collaboration we foster at the Foundation. For example, we are supporting an ongoing project between the Basser Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering to conduct generational cascade testing.
How did you first become passionate about cancer research and advocacy?
My passion for cancer research and advocacy stems from the loss of my sister Faith Basser at the hands of BRCA-related ovarian cancer. Faith was only 44 years old when she died, leaving behind a four-year-old son and devoted husband. Our family was devastated. We were also shocked to discover this deadly mutation lurked beneath the surface. As with many families, our discovery came too late and my sister made the ultimate sacrifice. The insidious nature of BRCA mutations is that they are passed on from generation to generation. Women with a BRCA mutation have up to a 75% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and up to a 50% lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. But with knowledge, comes the ability to have life-saving prophylactic surgeries. These surgeries can dramatically reduce one’s risk. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing fun or easy for a woman to surgically remove her breasts and go into premature menopause, but it is dramatically better than the alternative. BRCA-mutations are also linked to pancreatic and prostate cancers, as well as melanoma. This is why we are working hard every day to raise critical funding for research and also raise awareness so that other families are spared the unthinkable loss of a loved one.
Can you tell us about how you came to Co-Found the Basser Center and about the Center’s emphasis on BRCA-related cancers?
Believe it or not, our introduction to Dr. Susan Domchek, the Executive Director of the Basser Center, began with a simple Google search. Her name simply kept popping up when we looked for the most compelling BRCA research. So we took a leap of faith (so to speak) and cold-called her. She not only took our call, but was compassionate, measured, thoughtful, and kind, and spent over an hour walking us through facts and statistics. It is an amazing coincidence that she also happened to be at Penn where my husband Jon and I met as undergrads. When we ultimately decided to create the Center, we reached out to the Abramson Cancer Center and shared our vision and that we knew the perfect person to bring it to life.
Five years ago when the Basser Center was founded, there was no global hub for BRCA-related research, counseling and care. There was no centralized place for patients and affected families to go for beaker-to-bedside expertise. There was no symposium for global leaders in the field of BRCA to come to share their latest findings in research and clinical care. Basser is all of this. It is a place for high-impact science, but also hand-holding and counseling.
What are your goals for the Basser Center’s future reach and expansion?
The Basser Center has awarded grants to 26 investigators at Penn, as well as 12 institutions worldwide. We are truly committed to breaking down barriers, enhancing collaborations, and ultimately providing a world that gives better options to the generations of families who face the decisions that come with having a BRCA mutation. With ovarian cancer, there are no early detection tests. Presently, prophylactic surgery is the only proven-to-be-effective prevention, which is both physically and mentally taxing on the individual. We are dedicated to the creation of a tool used for early detection of ovarian cancer, in addition to the obvious desire to find a cure for all BRCA related cancers.
In your opinion, where will cancer treatment be in 10 years’ time?
In the five years since its establishment, the Basser Center, partnered with other leading research institutions, has made extraordinary, measurable progress. In 2012, we had no targeted therapies for BRCA-related cancers—now we have 3, one of which has been approved for all ovarian cancer. Ongoing research is creating a paradigm shift in how we think about ovarian cancer’s site of origin, leading to potential new prevention and treatment plans. Today, we also have the promise of both a preventative vaccine and a blood test for the early detection of pancreatic cancer. These advances offer genuine hope for our patients and those around the world. We are excited about the progress and momentum and are incredibly hopeful for the future. I deeply believe that in 10 years’ time we will have made a profound impact on the road to a cure.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
I would have to say my sister Faith. She was 12 years older than me, so always a strong and doting maternal figure. She taught me how to blow bubbles, how to whistle, how to give a proper foot massage, to make macaroni and cheese as a late night snack, took me to Woody Allen movies (beginning at age 7), and taught me to appreciate the beauty of a long walk. She helped me with homework, impressed me with her ability to do a 1,000 piece puzzle in record time, amazed me with her artistic ability and entertained me with her self-taught piano prowess. That, of course, was all during her lifetime. And now, through her, I have learned that from a place of deep pain and suffering, hope and promise can take root. The Basser Center is a living, breathing, inspiring tribute to Faith–both big “F” Faith and little “f” faith.
What advice do you have for individuals who are affected by cancer and for individuals with friends who are affected by cancer?
I would say that we are at the precipice of extraordinary progress. Our understanding of cancer is rapidly accelerating, and as the FDA approval of Olaparib proves, new treatments are being discovered and new options are opening, even for patients facing the bleakest prognoses. One day, I think we will talk about cancer as a breakdown in specific parts of DNA strands rather than specific parts of the body. And this will allow for personalized treatment, rather than one-size-fits all, “let’s blast it all to smithereens” approaches. Already we know that a breast and ovarian cancer may have more in common than two different breast cancers. As doctors better understand the specific makeup of tumors, they can prescribe treatments that are proven to be most effective. This is all a long way of saying, patients and loved ones must not give up hope. Technology, in combination with research, is propelling progress to new and promising places. Keep the faith and also keep the funding. Research is only possible with support.
I would urge them to educate themselves, but be wary of what they read on the internet. Ask their doctors questions – there are no stupid questions. Meet with a genetic counselor to find out if they are at risk for other cancers. And if they do test positive for a BRCA mutation, there are life-saving options available.
If you are a friend to someone who has learned of a cancer diagnosis, reach out to let them know you are there to be supportive in any way that they need. Often times, we think we know what the right thing to say or do is but every person is different. Just letting them know you are there to support them is hugely helpful.