Stirring Tales from a Health Care Hero

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Dr. Ernie Bodai didn’t set out to change the world, but countries around the globe are following his lead along a path that may someday produce a cure for a disease that currently takes one life every 12 minutes.

Dr. Bodai’s one-man, self-funded lobbying campaign led to the creation in 1997 of the Breast Cancer Research Stamp, now available in 17 countries and under consideration in 60 more. During his March 22 keynote address at the California Association for Nurse Practitioners’ 35th Annual Educational Conference, he told a captivated crowd of the struggle to get the effort off the ground, political hurdles overcome along the way to adoption, and some of the breakthroughs achieved with the help of the more the $83 million raised via sales of the stamp to date.

Chief of Surgery at Kaiser Permanente, Sacramento for 15 years and today the director of the organization’s Breast Health Center, Dr. Bodai noted that 250,000 breast cancer diagnoses and 50,000 deaths from the disease are expected in 2012. He told how the vast expense of research and the dwindling percentage of such projects that ultimately receive funding motivated his cause.

“In the 1970s, almost 60 percent of projects were funded. Now, that’s only about 15 percent,” he explained. “The question is, what if one of those not funded has that little piece of information that is so crucial that it kicks the stone that would find the cure for cancer?”

Figuring that one extra penny generated by just a fraction of the 180 billion pieces of mail handled each year by the U.S. Postal Service could raise $300 million annually, he wrote to the USPS about the idea in 1996. The agency rejected the proposal. A subsequent letter-writing campaign to each of the 50 female members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives produced not a single response.

That’s when he decided to step up the effort, traveling to Washington D.C. to knock on the door of every legislator he had written. “Every staff member I spoke with had my letter,” he recounted. “When they realized I wasn’t there trying to get something for myself, they started to take it seriously because I actually appeared in person.”

Later in 1996, a bill was introduced that enticed 89 lawmakers to sign on as co-sponsors. With the legislative calendar shortened that year due to focus on the coming election, the attempt had to be revived in 1997. Though the proposal garnered strong bipartisan support, there was opposition, including from some unlikely sources.

“The philatelists – stamp collectors – were against it. They saw the extra cent the stamp would cost as a tax on their hobby,” Dr. Bodai recalled smiling. “A lot of them would now like to get their hands on the first-day issue. They can’t, because I have it.”

Dr. Bodai credited the personal involvement of California Senator Dianne Feinstein in walking the bill around the Senate floor to enlist supporters, and the backing of then-Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) as instrumental to the passage of the bill, which established a price of 40 cents for the stamp, six cents above the first-class postage rate at the time. The stamp was issued in 1998 following a formal unveiling at the White House.

The law established that 70 percent of the net amount raised through sales of the stamp is given to the National Institutes of Health and 30 percent is given to the Medical Research Program at the Department of Defense. Many of the research projects supported by funds study the changes in breast cells that result in the development of breast cancer from normal breast cells, focusing on understanding how and why breast cancer cells continue to grow and divide. Understanding these changes offers the opportunity to develop new drugs to prevent or treat breast cancer.

Dr. Bodai listed several significant achievements the stamp has helped to facilitate. One study analyzing circulating tumor cells has enabled researchers to identify five such cells among blood samples of more than five billion cells. He also praised developing nanotechnology that has succeeded in killing cancer cells while minimizing the systemic side effects of acutely targeted therapy, and noted that many findings have included the ancillary benefit of combatting not only other types of cancer, but also other non-cancerous diseases.

He also singled out research involving genomic profiling that has resulted in the ability to determine if a patient will benefit from chemotherapy. “One-third to one-half of women will show no benefit from chemotherapy, so this technology can spare them the devastating side effects associated with that treatment,” he reported.

“The worst day in a woman’s life with breast cancer, and I’ve heard this from thousands of my patients, is not really the surgery; it’s when they start the chemotherapy and within a week or two they lose their hair, and they stand in front of a mirror and just cry and cry, because they’ve suffered the ultimate insult,” he told the audience. “They’ve had their breast operated on, they lose their hair, they lose their sexuality. Through this technology, we can now spare chemotherapy in half the patients that we are now poisoning for absolutely no reason.”

Originally set for a limited run, the stamp’s release has been extended numerous times, with the most recent reauthorization due to run through December, 2015. Each stamp sold now generates 11 cents for research.

Since its adoption, sales of the stamp have been boosted through extensive marketing that has involved a host of corporate partners, including American Express, Chevron, Kellogg’s, MasterCard and AT&T. Once cool to the idea of the stamp, the Post Office aided the effort with the purchase of electronic billboard space in Times Square.

“The Post Office initially saw no market for the stamp,” said Dr. Bodai. “Now it’s the highest-selling stamp ever at more than 960 million. We’re on a crusade to reach one billion.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Bodai was nominated in 2010 by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco) for the Congressional Gold Medal, among the highest honors that can be bestowed on a civilian in the United States. The decoration is awarded to an individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States. George Washington was the first recipient of the honor in 1776. Past honorees include Dr. Jonas Salk, Jackie Robinson and the crew of Apollo 11 moon landing mission.

The learn more about Dr. Ernie Bodai and his crusade to fight breast cancer, go to