Searching for a Cure, Honoring a Loved One
Foundation Supports Work of Jefferson Physician-Researcher
The website of the Lisa Oakley Memorial Foundation lists many goals, including: raise $10 million for cancer research over the next decade; become a national leading contributor to cancer research; and remember those lost to cancer. But the exclamation point on that list is simply “beat cancer.”
“Beat cancer. It’s extremely ambitious. But if you set the bar high, even if you fall short, you could still make a great impact,” says Ryan Oakley, Lisa’s son and one of the founders of the foundation.
Lisa Oakley passed away in 2020 from Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma after a 15-month battle with the blood cancer. Within a month, her husband, Paul, and sons, Ryan, Christopher, and Matthew, established the foundation, determined to honor her memory by helping to find a cure.
The Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, family is doing that by supporting the Philadelphia T-cell Lymphoma/Leukemia (TCLL) Initiative, led by Pierluigi Porcu, MD, director of the division of hematologic malignancies and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health. The initiative seeks to research the rare, diverse, hard to diagnose, and difficult to treat group of cancers to discover new ways to prevent, detect, and cure them.
Lisa became Porcu’s patient when she was diagnosed with the disease on July 3, 2019—her birthday. She began chemotherapy a week later. After early progress throughout six rounds of treatment, the disease returned full-force, bringing with it a lesion in her head. By the beginning of summer, the lesion was under control, and the goal was to get her healthy enough for a CAR T-cell transplant.
After a few ups and downs and hospital stays, radiation, and weekly blood transfusions, Lisa was finally strong enough to have her cells harvested in September for a planned transplant in October.
Unfortunately, shortly before the transplant, she developed an infection and became septic. Lisa lost her fight on October 18, 2020; she was 57 years old.
“We wanted to create a foundation that forever serves as a memorial for my mother,” Ryan says. “But the ultimate goal is to help find a cure by raising funds for this initiative.”
Their goals are bold. In the first three years, they hope to start an annual fundraising golf tournament and a gala; establish a presence in the New Jersey community where they live by partnering with local clubs and businesses for fundraising events; and affiliate with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event. Long term goals are to raise millions for cancer education and research focused on blood cancers; honor the memory of those lost to cancer; support those fighting cancer; and celebrate survivors.
In a way, throughout her life, Lisa groomed her husband and sons for this endeavor without even realizing it. A stay-at-home mom, she was constantly leading volunteer efforts at her boys’ schools, as well as giving her time and energy to other philanthropic activities in the community whenever and wherever possible.
Even in her illness, Lisa’s thoughts turned to others. When Porcu asked for permission to take extra vials of blood, spinal fluid, and bone marrow for research purposes, she was thrilled because it was a chance to help find a cure so others wouldn’t have to go through what she did, Paul says.
Porcu remembers Lisa Oakley as “one of those women leaders that have the innate ability to serve as an anchor and guiding star for all those around them: family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.”
“In this way, the foundation continues and advances Lisa’s mission and, what’s more, it links up with Jefferson’s own mission, which is to improve people’s lives,” he says.
Porcu explains that philanthropic support from grateful patients and families—either from non-profit organizations such as the Lisa Oakley Memorial Foundation, or contributions from individual donors—is vital to research.
“Philanthropy serves as an enhancer and catalyst of discovery,” he says. “It allows us to pursue and keep working on high-risk, high-reward research projects, which would have been difficult or impossible to fund in any other way. Besides being inspirational, the Lisa Oakley Memorial Foundation is now providing much needed ‘oxygen’ to keep us going in these very difficult times. I know that the research it supports will lead to discoveries and additional grants from the National Cancer Institute and other funding organizations.”
In this way, the foundation continues and advances Lisa’s mission and, what’s more, it links up with Jefferson’s own mission, which is to improve people’s lives.
The Oakleys have already been successful fundraisers, and in April of 2021 made a $100,000 commitment to Porcu’s TCLL Initiative. In February, the family partnered with a local fitness studio and restaurant to raise funds and awareness, and they are looking to extend those partnerships throughout the area. They have already planned the October golf outing at Atlantic City Country Club, and begun making arrangements for the gala in May of 2022.
“Dr. Porcu is a leader in the study of T-cell lymphoma and leukemia. With support from the Oakley family advancing Dr. Porcu’s vision, combined with the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center’s translational research infrastructure, I am confident that we will finally move the needle on better understanding and treating these notoriously complex cancers,” adds Andrew Chapman, DO, FACP, interim executive vice president, oncology services at Jefferson Health, and interim enterprise director and chief of cancer services at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.
Paul says the foundation not only gives the family purpose, but it also helps them heal from the loss of their beloved wife and mother.
“But she’s not really gone,” Paul adds quickly. “She’s here. She’s here in the subtleties of my children, in their actions and their words, and in her spiritual presence. She’s here guiding us, carrying the ball from above. And there is no doubt in my mind that she’s here whispering to us and saying, ‘Hey, well done. Well done!’”