In historic visit to Hollings, US first lady Jill Biden promotes health equity, breast cancer awareness

October 27, 2021
Dr. Raymond N. DuBois leads first lady Dr. Jill Biden on a tour of Hollings research labs
Dr. Raymond N. DuBois leads first lady Dr. Jill Biden on a tour of Hollings research labs during her visit to promote breast cancer awareness. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

In one of the most touching moments during a visit to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center on Monday, U.S. first lady Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in education, knelt beside a breast cancer survivor and thanked her for her heartfelt plea to urge women, particularly minorities, to get their mammograms.

“We have to continue getting the word out and creating awareness,” Biden said. “If they catch breast cancer early, in stage one or maybe stage two, they have a good chance of survival, and that is what we are aiming for.”

The plea came after LaToya Wilson told Biden how she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer at age 37, just 11 months after having her youngest son. Wilson, who now battles stage four metastatic breast cancer, said she remains optimistic and thankful for the ongoing care she receives at Hollings and the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial.

First lady Dr. Jill Biden shakes hands with breast cancer survivor LaToya Wilson while several others look on 
First lady Dr. Jill Biden greets LaToya Wilson, a breast cancer survivor, after Wilson shared details about her battle with cancer. Photo provided

“My driving force in beating this disease is my sons and my faith,” Wilson said. “Battling cancer is hard, but I’m still here. As long as I have breath in my lungs, I’ll keep fighting.”

During her cancer journey, Wilson, now 46, has used her Facebook page to share updates with hundreds of followers. Wilson wants to raise awareness about breast cancer in Black women, as they are more likely to die from the disease than are white women.

Biden was moved by Wilson’s optimism and desire to persevere and help others during difficult times. “LaToya, you and I have something in common. I want to use my platform, too, and that’s why I’m here today,” Biden said.

Biden’s tour marked a historic moment in Hollings’ history, as it was the first White House visit to the center. Also in attendance were MUSC President David J. Cole, M.D., FACS; Hollings director Raymond N. DuBois, M.D., Ph.D.; Marvella E. Ford, Ph.D., Hollings Associate Director of Population Sciences and Cancer Disparities; and Ned Sharpless, M.D., director of the National Cancer Institute.

Afterward, DuBois said the visit was an honor. “This visit has meant so much to us here at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center,” he said. “We were very proud to showcase the innovative community outreach and engagement programs that we offer and our translational research efforts that are advancing cancer care.”

“This visit has meant so much to us here at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. We were very proud to showcase the innovative community outreach and engagement programs that we offer and our translational research efforts that are advancing cancer care.”
— Dr. Raymond N. DuBois

Cole, who also is a surgical oncologist, told Biden that Hollings Cancer Center is the crown jewel for MUSC and the state. “Hollings is able to address cancer disparities as one of 71 NCI-designated cancer centers in the nation, provide excellent quality of care and conduct cancer research that can be translated into better treatment for our patients. As a cancer provider, you can see what a difference that makes in your patients’ eyes.”

He said the visit showed just how far MUSC and Hollings have come since the cancer center was formally established in 1993.

“I believe that the first lady’s visit is a visual and physical statement of what we have become — an institution of impact and purpose,” Cole said. “For her to come here and be a part of that and share a moment is incredibly significant.”

During the tour, Biden also met with Ford to learn about Hollings’ initiatives to reach underserved and rural areas in South Carolina. The mission is personal for Ford.

Dr. Marvella Ford gives a presentation to first lady Dr. Jill Biden about Hollings' community outreach efforts while others look on 
Dr. Marvella Ford (second from right) gives a presentation to the first lady about Hollings' community outreach and engagement initiatives, while Dr. Ned Sharpless, Dr. Raymond N. DuBois and Bria Sanders look on (left to right). Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

Ford, a two-time survivor of breast cancer, said the opportunity to share her work and experience with the first lady was an honor. “Our motto is ‘Early detection saves lives.’ The first lady reiterated that by stressing how important it is to diagnose cancer early on,” Ford said. “Her visit really helped to reinforce our message and encouraged us to broaden our statewide efforts to help to reduce cancer disparities and improve health equity outcomes.”

As South Carolina’s only NCI-designated cancer center, Hollings’ mission is to reduce the burden of cancer for all South Carolinians. That includes bringing lifesaving education, research and screenings to rural areas.

Biden heard about Hollings’ MOVENUP cancer education program, which delivers information through a train the trainer approach to community partners, who in turn deliver the information to people in their communities.

Darlene Gaffney, a cancer survivor and participant in the MOVENUP program, told Biden how impactful the initiative has been for the Black community. “I can take my story as a cancer survivor and share it with the community,” Gaffney explained. “This program saves lives by improving education, awareness and screenings, but it also shows communities of color and other minorities that we care, that we see them and that we value their lives.”

Dr. Nancy Klauber-DeMore and Ingrid Bonilla give a presentation about breast cancer research while first lady Dr. Jill Biden looks on 
Dr. Nancy Klauber-DeMore (left) and Ingrid Bonilla (second from left) show highlights of their innovative breast cancer research to the first lady. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

As part of the tour, Biden met with Nancy Klauber-DeMore, M.D., a breast cancer oncologist and Hollings researcher, and Ingrid Bonilla, a fourth-year MUSC medical student and breast cancer researcher. Klauber-DeMore’s research identified a protein, SFRP2, that aids in cancer cells hijacking the development of new blood vessels, known as angiogenesis, to fuel their own growth. Klauber-DeMore explained to Biden how this research could lead to a means of cutting off fuel to cancer cells, which in turn would stunt the tumor’s growth.

“I was so honored to have the opportunity to explain the research that we are doing at Hollings Cancer Center to develop a new therapy for breast cancer with our drug IVT-8086. I found Dr. Biden to be caring, compassionate and very knowledgeable,” Klauber-DeMore said. “Her passion for promoting cancer awareness and research was evident as a result of the personal losses that she has experienced, and I applaud her for her efforts.”

At the last stop, Biden toured the new Hollings mobile health unit, which will officially launch soon and offer mammograms and pap smears to women in 31 South Carolina counties. The new mobile health unit carries on the longstanding tradition of the Hollings mobile health program, which first launched 23 years ago. The new unit features mammograms performed with 3D tomosynthesis technology that will offer added benefits and more detailed imaging, especially for women with dense breast tissue and those at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.

First lady Dr. Jill Biden stands in front of the Hollings mobile health unit with a group of administrators, doctors, researchers and community partners 
After wrapping up her visit with a tour of the new Hollings mobile health unit, the first lady stopped for a photo with (left to right) Dr. David J. Cole, Dr. Ned Sharpless, Dr. Rebecca Leddy, Dr. Craig Lockhart, Dr. Raymond N. DuBois, Dr. Marvella Ford, Bria Sanders, Darlene Gaffney and Alicia Commodore. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

NCI’s Sharpless said the new mobile health unit will serve a critical role in reaching underserved communities that had cancer screenings disrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharpless applauded Hollings’ efforts to combat health disparities and push what is possible with cancer care.

“I’m so excited that we got to show the first lady all the wonderful things we are doing here at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center,” Sharpless said. “It is exciting to see Hollings’ community outreach and its ways of taking the care in the cancer center and disseminating it throughout the state to reach the pockets of underserved communities.”

Video Recap

Watch NCI director Dr. Ned Sharpless, Hollings director Dr. Raymond N. DuBois and MUSC President Dr. David J. Cole give their impressions of the first lady's visit to Hollings.

Media Coverage

Read more from national and local media outlets about the first lady's visit to Hollings.