Moving scientific research forward is not a linear process. Part of the nature of funding these studies is to make sure we are asking the right questions in problem-solving cancer. New answers regularly emerge alongside new questions out of these research findings. Ultimately, this drives us to better, more comprehensive therapies — but it takes patience and awareness of the evolving nature of research, and this is a challenge to communicate.
Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Fernanda L. Whitworth, Co-Founder and President of the public non-profit, Immunotherapy Foundation (IF). Fernanda co-founded IF in 2015 after her husband, activist investor Ralph V. Whitworth received a metastatic diagnosis of HPV+ Head and Neck Cancer. Witnessing the promise of novel immunotherapy treatments first-hand, Fernanda and Ralph catalyzed philanthropic resources to support the advancement of immunotherapy research and educational programming to eliminate HPV-related cancers. Though Ralph passed in September 2016, Fernanda passionately continues the transformative work they initiated together.
Fernanda has long been regarded as a philanthropic leader in San Diego, serving on the board of the New Children’s Museum and the Executive Committee of the Ronald McDonald House’s ROMP Gala.
A native of Brazil, Fernanda studied International Business at San Diego State University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Igrew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and I came to the US when I was 23 to work and study. I lived first in New York and then moved to San Diego to study international business. It was there that I met Ralph at George’s in La Jolla. Ralph and I were kindred spirits that recognized each other right away, it was love at first sight for us. The two of us went on an incredible journey together as a couple, welcoming our two children, Douglass and Ava along the way. I am grateful that we were able to enjoy life to the fullest in the time that we had together as a couple and as a young family.
Like so many of us, cancer has taken a significant toll on my life. I lost my mother to breast cancer when she was only 26, and also my aunt. When Ralph received a metastatic diagnosis of HPV+ squamous cell carcinoma at the base of his tongue, we felt empowered and determined to do whatever we could to tackle this terrible disease. We co-founded Immunotherapy Foundation (IF) in 2015 to try and help other families be spared the pain we were experiencing, navigating an advanced cancer diagnosis. Our belief in the promise of cancer immunotherapy, and our vision to bring this to our home community of San Diego, set us on a completely new journey in life together.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
Life’s biggest lesson, for me, is never to take anything for granted.
An incredibly powerful moment in my life was when my husband Ralph fell 30 feet off a boat when we were traveling abroad with our small children. Ralph was somebody who was powerful, self-sufficient, and up to that point, had never broken a bone in his life. He was severely injured and had to be flown home to the US for medical care. This brush with death, and the three-month road to recovery from such extreme injuries, including both arms broken, were enormous lessons for both of us. Ralph’s self-sufficiency had been compromised, and he had to be more dependent and patient. A major takeaway for both of us was that you can never, ever take your life and health for granted. Our lives are a cumulative test.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I wouldn’t consider a mistake, but it’s certainly a lesson. Ralph and I were so passionate about the prospects of immunotherapy and its promise for cancer patients everywhere — we thought everyone shared that same passion. In hindsight, perhaps it was a naive assumption that people would be as moved and as passionate about this work as Ralph and I were. We were “all-in” and essentially dedicated our last years together to investing in immunotherapy research. I have learned that philanthropy and giving back is a very personal journey. Because our lives were so dramatically changed due to Ralph’s HPV cancer diagnosis — we were moved to ensure that future generations would be cancer free and established Immunotherapy Foundation. We decided to be the catalyst for prevention measures and cancer cures through the foundation’s work. I am learning that not everyone shares my same passion — some have been touched by Type1 Diabetes, others by a terminally ill child and others support more civic oriented causes like homelessness and the environment. What I have come to realize is that all philanthropy is good and that by simply by engaging in the art of giving back, our world is a better place. My team at Immunotherapy Foundation is dedicated to preventing HPV-related cancers in all future generations by creating a general awareness program about the importance of getting children their HPV-vaccinations and in working with the world’s pre-eminent physicians and scientists in immunotherapy cancer research to ensure we uncover the best. I have learned that some will support our cause and others will give their support causes near and dear to their heart. I celebrate the generosity of everyone and just encourage people to participate, at any level, in creating a better world.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Ralph was one-of-a-kind, what he set out to do, he achieved. One of my most favorite quotes from Ralph is: “Think about the compounding effect over decades…one drop in the pond sends ripples to all shores.” He lived by this notion of inspiring great action — his success in business was testament to this notion. Ralph was a great listener and was always curious, he expected results and collaboration above all. He was incredibly savvy in strategic planning and in his approach to problem solving, so when it came to tackling cancer research, he applied his skills to ensure a future free of HPV-related cancers — and most importantly, when he didn’t have an answer, he sought out the experts to help him. Ralph was my greatest teacher and helped shape the business leader I am today — I have surrounded myself with other great leaders and experts to ensure we achieve our goals as an organization. He is dearly missed but his inspiration lives on in the hearts of so many, especially in me and his children.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
We founded IF with a pure desire to help other families avoid the same grief that our family endured, and the struggles we faced trying to find the right path to treat Ralph’s metastatic cancer.
Our journey was that of finding a lack of options for advanced cancer patients but along the way learned about the promise of cancer immunotherapy research. Ralph and I knew we had to do something to change the status quo for present and future cancer patients. We made a decision to personally fund the basic science research happening in partnership between UC San Diego Moores Cancer and the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, and founded IF to amplify these efforts and pool support from a broader community. By funding promising research, we are allowing transformational science to be proven in studies, which allow these researchers to receive larger and larger grants that allow them to take this research forward into human trials, presenting wholly new options for advanced cancer patients, and gathering data to take this into expanded human trials with hopes for commercial approval and broad access to more patients. We can see our near-term impact clearly in the studies that have been funded, how they have informed or enabled broader studies and progress in the field, but we also understand that investment in science can make new therapies a reality for patients in a shorter time span. We are seeing this impact with advances like a personalized cancer vaccine trial that was initiated last fall, made possible by our basic science investment. We know future trials will also be made possible through this or made better through the learnings from these early studies, and that this can result in wholly new therapies for patients, sooner. It takes time to test and develop, but the impact on human health is incredible.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
I believe having a routine of good healthy habits is essential to your well being, like meditation, exercise, sleep and practicing gratitude. I recommend finding time to meditate and quiet your mind; working out to keep yourself healthy; making sure to sleep and rejuvenate when you have been running at max capacity, which we so often do; enjoy the simple things in life, and be fully present with your loved ones — don’t take that time together for granted. Ultimately, I believe gratitude is the key to happiness. If you focus on finding just one thing every day to be grateful for, even when you are having your worst day, you can always bring yourself back to a place of gratitude.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If we could raise our HPV vaccination rates in the US above 80% in our adolescents, we could see an effectively HPV cancer free generation here in the US and abroad.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Manage your expectations of others, and what they are capable of delivering. Especially with work like this, people are moved and want to find a way to help at the moment, but the problem of cancer is complex and can feel overwhelming to many. The funding of research can be difficult to explain easily or show how each step contributes to the field as a whole, and understand that several conversations may be needed before action is taken.
- Moving scientific research forward is not a linear process. Part of the nature of funding these studies is to make sure we are asking the right questions in problem-solving cancer. New answers regularly emerge alongside new questions out of these research findings. Ultimately, this drives us to better, more comprehensive therapies — but it takes patience and awareness of the evolving nature of research, and this is a challenge to communicate.
- Non-profit fundraising has been a learning curve — establishing ourselves and integrating best practices takes time when moving from a family-driven cause to an institution driven by a mission.
- The lead time of delivering a message and invitation to take on a mission like this can be quite long, and requires cultivation and nurturing over time.
- The challenge of communicating from a place of passion, and learning how to pour our passion as a family for this issue into an institutional mission.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
I think supporting your own mental health and wellness is essential, and the world we live in makes it incredibly challenging to find these quiet spaces to hear your own thoughts and stay in tune with yourself. I make time for meditation practices and podcasts in the car so that I can stay centered.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Immunotherapy Foundation is active on Facebook (@ImmunotherapyFoundation), Twitter (@ImmunotherapyFd) and Instagram (@immunotherapyfoundation) with team news and educational updates about progress in cancer research and HPV-related cancer prevention.