Politics, stars and breast cancer

Renée Zellweger was able to promote a noble cause and pay tribute to a friend with her new film.

The movie, about the creation of one of the most significant drugs in the battle to cure breast cancer, allowed her to thank the man who saved her best friend’s life with his work.

“It’s the story of the man who saved my friend’s life,” she said late last week at its premiere, at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

“Living Proof” airs Oct. 18 at 9 p.m. on Lifetime. It is based on Robert Bazell’s book: Her-2: The Making of Herceptin, a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer.

“I am forever indebted to the man and want to show my gratitude for what he’s done for myself and so many families,” said Zellweger, who produced the film.

The actress, wearing a steel blue dress embedded with gems glinting off the red carpet floodlights, was joined by some of the movie’s stars: Harry Connick Jr., who plays the scientist who invented the drug, and Angie Harmon.

“Living Proof” details the life of Dr. Dennis Slamon, the UCLA scientist who never stopped fighting for the development of Herceptin 2, the drug responsible for helping thousands of women with breast cancer.

Nanci Ryder, who is Zellweger’s best friend and publicist, was one of those women.

And the disease hit home for many lawmakers last year when Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) died after two years of battling breast cancer. She had sponsored a landmark bill to help other women fight the disease.

The Breast Cancer Patient Protection Act, which Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) sponsored this year, requires health plans to provide coverage for hospital stays that result in mastectomies, lumpectomies and lymph node dissection, as well as coverage for secondary consultations.

Though DeLauro championed the measure for a dozen years, it did not pass the Senate this Congress. But another measure, sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), has been cleared for the president’s signature.

Lowey’s measure authorizes $40 million every year for the next four years to the National Institutes of Health for research-related activities such as the clinical trials Slamon pioneered.

News of Slamon’s drug spread with the aid of Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. Visco was diagnosed with cancer in 1987 and says she has committed her life to the eradication of breast cancer.

“My diagnosis came as an incredible shock to me, but I didn’t take it,” she said. “I decided to fight back, to get angry, and to do something.”

Visco educated herself and those around her about the science behind Herceptin 2, working beside Slamon and keeping tabs on his progress. Then, combining her expertise and her conviction to make a difference, she took her fight to Capitol Hill, where she continues to push for more federal funding for breast cancer research.

When Zellweger imagined the on-screen version of Slamon, her mind registered only one name: Southern musician and actor Harry Connick Jr.

“Renée told me about [the film] and I read the script and I just thought it was a great story and something that I wanted to be a part of,” said Connick in his Louisiana drawl.

“As a musician and an entertainer, it’s not often that I get to be a part of something so socially significant as telling the story of Dr. Dennis Slamon. It was something I had never done before and something that I can only dream about aspiring to again in my lifetime. Dennis Slamon is a real hero.”

Slamon’s story is one of beating seemingly insurmountable odds. He defied powerful naysayers, who said his attempts throughout the 1980s and ’90s to discover a drug that shrinks cancers were in vein.

The drug company sponsoring his research became convinced that Slamon’s drug wouldn’t work and eventually cut off money for clinical trials on women with advanced stages of breast cancer. But philanthropists took up the cause, raising millions. And as the drug began to reap results, Slamon gained national notoriety.

Zellweger said the minute she read the script, she had to do the movie. It came with an added bonus: The script was sent to her by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whom she had gotten close to while working on the film “Chicago.” Since then, she had been looking for another opportunity to work with them.

They knew the actress was a crusader for breast cancer awareness. Once she signed on, Zadan and Meron began sending out e-mails to everyone they thought might be interested in working on the film. But the requests came with a caveat: The producers had no money.

To their surprise, they received many responses asking: “When do we start?”

Visco is amazed to see how far the movement has advanced.

“It was years ago, when we first started fighting to get the money to make this happen, to make the treatment happen, and working with the scientists, pushing the company and getting the word out to women and men that there was such an incredible success in the treatment of breast cancer,” she said. “And now here we are, standing on a red carpet with celebrities.”

She mingled throughout the night with star-struck women at the D.C. premiere who stood with cameras at the ready, inching ever closer to Connick.

Visco is grateful to the famous people on the project in that they help to motivate women throughout the world.

“It should inspire women who care about breast cancer to get involved in the movement and to not just raise awareness and not just wear a pink ribbon but really get involved and start advocating for more clinical trials, more research, more funding and to change things,” she said.