Beating Cancer by Partying Like a Rockstar for Rockefeller Cancer Institute

Cancer is something that no one ever wants to face, yet with one in two of us now being diagnosed with it at some point in life, it is more a matter of when, rather than if, we will.

There is no general consensus on why cancer has become so prevalent, but it appears that the modern high-stress lifestyle, the ubiquitous presence of sugar in almost all American food today and the increase in environmental pollutants certainly correlate with the rise.

While we must all try to minimize our risk by keeping as healthy as possible, educating ourselves and applying pressure to government to clean up food processing and polluting industries, we will all need the help of cancer research at some point. And be it for ourselves, our families or our friends we all want the very best care available.

Fortunately there are tireless people out there dedicated to helping us when we, or our loved ones, do get sick. By dedicating their careers, spare time or spare cash to research, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are making possible newer, better treatments and, potentially one day, even cures and vaccines. One shining example is Little Rock’s own UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, one of the nation’s leading cancer centers.

On April 21, the institute will hold its now legendary Rockstar Lounge – a crucial fundraiser for research – and for this year’s event chair, Allyson Pittman Gattin, the institute holds particular importance. She credits the institute for allowing her to host this year’s event with her mother still by her side.

Gattin, joined by her mother, cancer-survivor Stacy Sells, and the institute’s clinical director, Dr. Peter Emanuel, explain the institute’s remarkable work, and why Arkansans should support its efforts. After all, we may need them someday.

Allyson’s Story

Credit: Jason Masters

Allyson Pittman Gattin is director of marketing and communications at The Rep Theatre, but in every spare minute outside work she is an Ambassador Envoy for the Rockefeller Cancer Institute. Six years ago, Gattin’s world was shaken when her mother, Stacy, was diagnosed with aggressive Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer.

“I was in my final year of college, out of state, when we found out,” recalls Gattin. “It was February and I was supposed to be graduating in May, but I automatically said I wanted to move back home. I didn’t want to be away from her knowing that she’d just been diagnosed with cancer. But my mom said, ‘you’ve worked so hard, you have to graduate and see it through.’ So I stayed and tried to support her as best I could long-distance.

“She wrote a blog – which has now been turned into a program by the cancer institute, which I read every day, and we had Skype dates all the time so I saw the process when her hair fell out and I saw when she had her double mastectomy. But I missed seeing her after her chemo treatments because if she was too ill she would say ‘no Skype today,’ and I missed going to the hospital appointments with her.

“When I moved back home in 2012, my mom had one of her follow-up visits and said, ‘Do you want to come with me and see the institute?’ She took me into where she’d had all of her chemo, and it just hit me in that moment that I’d missed seeing that whole process happen. I’d been home for visits, but being able to see the places and the people – outside of our family – that did so much to help her, that was very impactful and I truly want to be able to give back to them as much as I can. They are the reason my mom is still here,” Gattin says, noting that the return rate and death rate on her mother’s form of cancer are both high. “The fact that she is still here and we still have her means I just want to do anything I can for them.”

So Gattin pitched the idea of a benefit fashion show. “While I had lived in St. Louis I had organized fashion shows to support a cancer research center there, so we did this for two years, and then they invited me to participate in their Envoy Ambassador Program.”

The institute has three main fundraising groups: a board of trustees, an envoy board made up of young professionals who are in charge of Rockstar Lounge – the institute’s main fundraiser, and a feeder program into the Envoy Board called the Envoy Ambassadors.

“As an Envoy Ambassador,” Gattin explains, “You hear from doctors from all different specialties to learn about the work they do at the institute. So you’ve got the lung team coming in, the breast team, radiology, and they tell you everything about their specialty, the research that they’re doing and the grants that they’re receiving.”

After completing the program, Envoy Ambassadors are given the option of graduating to the Envoys board where they are “in charge of doctor retention – keeping doctors here and keeping doctors wanting to come,” Gattin says. “One of the ways we do this is by funding research. Before a doctor is able to apply for the big grants – the national grants that go to big health centers – it’s imperative that they have research and data to prove their ideas. But it’s so hard to produce those preliminary studies without funding.”

So the Envoy Ambassadors present grants of $10,000 each that the doctors use to produce their initial research. “We also do other things to support the doctors and their spouses. We have events where we welcome all of the new doctors to Little Rock, and the idea is that we are giving them opportunities to get involved in the community and feel supported while they’re here, as well as have their research funded. This attracts talent and encourages that talent to stay in Little Rock.”

The ‘Seeds of Science’ grants, as they are called, are funded entirely by proceeds from Rockstar Lounge. “We’ve given 13 grants for a total of $130,000 in the last seven years,” says Gattin, noting that the process of selecting which doctors get the grants is fascinating. “The selection committee is not just scientists and doctors but board members as well, and there are so many of us on the Envoy Board. There are survivors, spouses of survivors, doctors’ spouses, kids of survivors, all different people who have connections with the cancer institute or cancer as a whole.”

The doctors make pitches for the grants by presenting their research, and the selection committee, in tandem with Dr. Emanuel, decides who gets the grants. “Being able to be part of reading those pitches and seeing what type of research is happening is awe-inspiring,” says Gattin.

Gattin had been attending the Rockstar Lounge event with her mother since moving back to Little Rock in 2012 and was thrilled, if a little taken aback, when upon joining the Envoy Board she was told, ‘Welcome! You’re going to be chairing Rockstar Lounge!’

“The event is so unique,” she says. “It’s through it that I really got to know my mom’s care team because the doctors all work the event serving drinks. It’s so much fun!

“It attracts everyone, from people whose lives have somehow been touched by the institute to people who have never even heard of the institute but just want to see a good show.” Gattin also praises its affordability. “For the price of a $50 ticket, you’re seeing an award-winning artist with an entourage of backing dancers, and your food and drink are included too. It’s a great deal!

This year’s event features Christine America, the only Madonna-endorsed Madonna impersonator. “She even goes on tour with Madonna,” says Gattin. “When Madonna does a surprise meet-and-greet, for example, Chris America goes out first and hypes up the crowd – and then they surprise everybody with the real Madonna.”

The cause has become like a second vocation for Gattin. “I always say that I’ve got my job – The Rep – and I’ve got the cancer institute. I look at that as just as much of a job because I want to help further their mission,” she says, “but I also want to be an ambassador for this great resource. Our city and our state are so lucky to have them because they continue to grow amazing teams, and I’m just forever grateful to them and I hope people come and support them through the Rockstar Lounge.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Stacy’s Story

Having survived cancer with help from the institute, Stacy Sells left the high-stress world of agency PR work two years ago and now manages hand-picked clients from her “cozy den at home.”

“Clients don’t care if I’m at a desk, on the beach or in the solace of my home, as long as I deliver their work. I also have more time for community causes I care about – groups that help those in poverty, dog rescue and supporting the UAMS Rockefeller Cancer Institute. It’s a very balanced lifestyle that serves me well as a cancer survivor.”

SO: You were diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer that usually doesn’t have a good prognosis, yet with the help of the cancer institute you managed to make a full recovery. What does the cancer institute mean to you?

SS: You know the rate of recurrence and the number of women who die within two to five years of breast cancer is quite high, and six years later I’m still here, so I am a very grateful patient of the cancer institute. I had one of the most brilliant medical teams on my case, and I’m convinced that they saved my life.

A lot of people have to travel from other states to come here to get their treatment. What did it mean to you to be able to receive your care so close to home?

It meant a lot because I didn’t have to give up my family and friends as my support team. And UAMS is a very special place. I know one day that I had an appointment with my surgeon, and they had to reschedule my appointment because a medical team from Indiana was coming to town to observe him operate. Indiana has a very well known cancer institution and yet they came here to observe my surgeon. I knew then that I had a great surgeon.

What would you say that you value or appreciate most about your care?

I really appreciated the partnership that I had with my physicians. My team told me that they were going to give me 110 percent to cure me of this cancer, but they needed me to give 110 percent for my care at home. They had their list of things to do and I had my list of things to do, and I think that very open and honest partnership had much to do with my final outcome.

I get the feeling that once you’ve been through treatment at the institute it’s almost like you become part of a family there.

You really do. I mean all cancer is terrible; there is not a nice cancer out there, but when you’ve been faced with a not-so-great diagnosis or a very aggressive cancer or a cancer that spreads to other places in your body, you know what you’re facing and I think that when you come out on the other side want to give back to help others get through that journey. That is why a lot of people volunteer. They volunteer their time to something that means a lot to them.

What would you say to donors to encourage them to donate to the institute?

I think that UAMS is a unique place in Arkansas that treats cancer because they are upstairs doing research every day while we’re being treated downstairs. And that research turns into clinical trials for cancer patients that are not always available at other cancer treatment centers. So you’re not just giving to a facility that treats cancer, but you’re giving to an institution that is finding new ways to cure certain cancers, understand cancers better, to have more understanding about side effects and treatments and on and on. All of those things are very valuable to the cancer patient.

Dr. Emanuel’s Story

Dr. Peter Emanuel is a hematologist/oncologist who specializes in blood cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia. He is director of the Rockefeller Cancer Institute and a professor in the UAMS College of Medicine.

SO: What is unique about the cancer institute that is not found in other states?

PE: I guess to start with, we are the only place in the state that does cancer research. Our cancer studies have some unique features or areas that really set us apart. One area is that we are developing vaccines for particular cancers, one for the prevention of cancer in those already infected with HPV but where cancer is not yet present, and one for breast cancer that has started to spread.

We have two vaccines that have come out of our research laboratory that are now in clinical trials, and we are very hopeful about these. But vaccines are just one area of the testing part; we have so many areas of research. For example, we also have a whole team of scientists working on radiation injury.

How much has funding for research increased since the envoy program was established?

The envoy program is huge help with small “Seeds of Science” grants. That’s not big enough for our huge research programs like the vaccine, but these small grants are designed for a young researcher just getting started or an established researcher who is switching areas. A lot of times in order to compete on a master level for big grants they need to get some preliminary data to make their ideas credible. It generates seed data that they can identify for bigger grants from the federal government.

Have any of your Seeds for Science programs gone on to have promising developments?

Yes, several. We’ve been doing this since 2009, and at least 30 to 40 percent so far have been very successful. They have gone on to get larger grants, and that is actually a pretty good success rate. Of all the grants submitted on the national level only 7 percent get funded, and 93 percent of them get declined because of the federal lack of funding. The “Cancer Moon Shots” program being pushed through by Joe Biden that’s in the news currently is designed to increase the funds going into cancer research. You wouldn’t be able to fund 100 percent, but it’s much healthier if we’re able to fund at least 20 percent or so.

What are the biggest challenges you face as director?

I think the biggest challenge is making sure that the worthy research projects that we have going here are able to obtain further funding, because funding is so tight right now. That is the biggest challenge. Our other biggest challenge is to make sure that every Arkansan gets the best and most appropriate cancer therapy available and keep them in state so that they don’t have to travel elsewhere.

What are you most proud of at the institute?

I think I’m most proud of the fact that the scientists and the doctors work very closely together and that we are able to form teams of both doctors and scientists – which doesn’t always happen. We do this very naturally and very collaboratively. Because of the collaborative spirit here in Arkansas, we are able to form the teams where everyone is working toward a common goal.

Hair & styling Angela Alexander
Make-up Antonio Figueroa at B. Barnett
Clothing and accessories Dillard’s

Rockstar Lounge: April 21, 7pm. For tickets and more information visit

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