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Fiery leader of breast cancer group puts chemical exposures in spotlight

Jeanne Rizzo forgot to leave the Breast Cancer Fund.

When she stepped in as president and CEO of the national organization that targets breast cancer prevention, Rizzo, 67, intended to hold the position for only a short time.

The group at the time was reeling from the imminent loss of its founder, Andrea Martin, who was dying of brain cancer.

"They all knew me and trusted me, and I forgot to leave," Rizzo said.

Since then, the former music, film and theater producer has steered the organization with a highly tuned focus, delicately balancing science and advocacy to ensure the organization can never be marginalized or dismissed.

And the group played a critical role in ensuring that breast cancer prevention and the role of chemical exposure were highlighted in a landmark report released earlier this year by a congressionally commissioned panel charged with probing research and making recommendations on environmental contributors to the disease (Greenwire, Feb. 12).

"If I hadn't come to the table, I honestly believe prevention would not have been a priority in the report," she said. "We're gonna carry that report on our back."

Rizzo's current role is the culmination of years of vastly different experiences: nurse, advocate, marriage-equality plaintiff, producer and music hall owner.

"It's never surprised me that she has evolved professionally into this level of leadership and activism," said Peggy Lynch, who met Rizzo in the 1960s when they were nursing students working to secure a base wage of $6,000 a year for nurses through New York state's chapter of the National Student Nurses Association.

"Jeanne has the passion for doing the right thing," Lynch said.

Rizzo observed inequities early. She grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., in a Catholic Italian family of modest means, where she was troubled that girls couldn't play on the Little League team and that being poor meant you had to go to the public clinic rather than your own doctor.

Her father, who never finished the fourth grade, delivered papers as one of his three jobs and would hand her The New York Times saying, "You read the Times because you have to get somewhere in your life."

People's stories, whether in the paper or witnessed firsthand, "inspired an inquiry, a drive or an interest to make things better than they were," Rizzo said. "I felt like I could do better."

She went on to earn degrees from New York's Westchester School of Nursing and the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology.

A pivotal moment for Rizzo came in 1987 when a drunken driver slammed head-on into her car on the Golden Gate Bridge. Rizzo suffered significant physical and cognitive injuries that took years to heal.

"I reset," Rizzo said. "I was off on a real high-powered music and producing career and had lot going on, and I had to reset again. I had a kid and I was a single mom, and I had to come through that. I thought, well I can, I can do that."

From then on, she swore to do work only that had real meaning to her.

Shortly afterward, she met Martin, the founder of the Breast Cancer Fund, while working on "Climb Against the Odds: Mt McKinley," a documentary detailing the group's 1998 expedition up the mountain. The film met Rizzo's new project criteria and sparked her curiosity.

"I saw the absolute art of doing this kind of nonprofit work," Rizzo said.

Rizzo's interest in art also has sparked other projects, including LUNAFEST, a lasting partnership between Clif Bar & Co.'s Luna brand and the Breast Cancer Fund. Every year, the company subsidizes the film festival by, for and about women, and donates the proceeds to the Breast Cancer Fund and other charities that host the event.

"It's probably the thing that closest aligns my interest in art, storytelling and reaching the public in a meaningful way," Rizzo said.

Rizzo's music career also has aided her in her current position by helping her connect with younger audiences.

"My son would not friend me on Facebook," said Ellen Kahn, a Breast Cancer Fund board member since 2003. "But he friended Jeanne because she could speak his language."

Rizzo's own son, Christopher Bradshaw, said his mom is willing to fight the good fight. "She's very earnest, honest and enthusiastic about what she does, and she really believes and means what she says," he said.

Charlotte Brody, vice president of health initiatives at the BlueGreen Alliance who collaborated with Rizzo and an assortment of other nonprofits to form the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said, "Jeanne loves a good sound bite but not if it moves us from truth to truthiness."

Founded in 2004 over a concern for phthalates -- a group of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects and reproductive problems -- in personal care products, the cosmetics program run out of the Breast Cancer Fund aims to remove toxic chemicals from personal care products.

The program has expanded from phthalates to include many other chemicals of concern, such as the highly scrutinized plastics hardener bisphenol A, or BPA, which Rizzo refers to as "the poster child for ridiculous."

Rizzo has led the charge for chemical reform in California and across the country, including a monumental 2011 dietary study on BPA, and in 2010, U.S. EPA awarded her the Green Chemistry Environmental Leader Award for her region.

'No sacred cows'

Rizzo has criticized major breast cancer fundraising organizations like Susan G. Komen and the American Cancer Society for not responding to new evidence that points to environmental factors playing a role in the disease.

"There are no sacred cows to Rizzo," Brody said. "She doesn't suffer fools easily; she asks hard questions."

Rizzo said other groups should be more flexible and consider new research.

"I think the cancer establishment is aligned in a way where what guides them and drives them and controls them are principles that don't allow for flexibility or new knowledge and they're afraid of it," Rizzo said. "When new knowledge comes in, you are obligated to look at that."

She also has taken on corporate giants such as Campbell Soup Co., which last year relented to public pressure and pledged to remove BPA from its can linings. Rizzo played a key role also in persuading Johnson & Johnson, one of the largest cosmetics companies in the world, to promise to remove the carcinogenic chemicals formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane from its products.

"She brings a producer's style so things are done the way you do a Broadway production," Brody said. "Things start and end on time. It's all done elegantly and well."

For her latest role, Rizzo said she took the production framework from music and film and just swapped actors for "policy wonks" and musicians for scientists, but she said the core role is same: gathering a talented team.

Gwen Collman, director of the extramural research and training division at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, developed a close friendship with Rizzo during a work sabbatical spent at the Breast Cancer Fund in 2008 and 2009.

During her sabbatical at the group's San Francisco headquarters, Collman witnessed the organization gear up for the release of the sixth edition of its biennial review of the literature on environmental ties to breast cancer and science-based policy recommendations.

"It was just eye-opening and mind-boggling," Collman said. Rizzo "really commanded this team."

"Her leadership of the [Breast Cancer Fund] probably brought the organization to the next level because she is such a people person," Collman added. "She really engages with people, and people leave thinking, 'My God, I just met someone truly extraordinary.'"

For her part, Rizzo now has no plans to leave.

"I'm not going anywhere, but I'm not predicting anything. The key is being present. If you're present, you'll know whatever you'll need to know," Rizzo said. "I would never bail. It's just too precious to me."

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