Carolyn R. ‘Bo’ Aldigé Reflects on 30 Years of Cancer Prevention

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Carolyn R. “Bo” Aldigé

Every grant [the Prevent Cancer Foundation makes] is a high point because I know we are potentially helping a young scientist establish a career and make an advance in the science of cancer prevention and early detection.

— Carolyn R. ‘Bo’ Aldigé

In 1985, Carolyn R. “Bo” Aldigé founded the Prevent Cancer Foundation in honor of her father, who had died the previous year of head and neck cancer. She started the Foundation in her kitchen with a typewriter, a sheath of carbon copy paper, and a telephone. “I quickly rented an office because a charitable foundation with a PO box address sounds kind of squirrely,” said Ms. Aldigé.

Ms. Aldigé remembers her father, Captain Edward Perry Richardson, as a larger-than-life World War II hero—and her hero, too. “He was a pilot who led missions over England and France in a B-26 bomber he named after my mother. I doubt she knew its nickname was the Widow-Maker,” said Ms. Aldigé, adding, “Daddy was a member of the first squadron of bombers to cross the English Channel on D-Day.”

Her father’s heroic career in the Army Air Corps, as it was then called, ended on a dramatic note. “Daddy badly injured his back jumping off the burning wing of a plane that had crashed in France,” explained Ms. Aldigé.

Ironically, the founder of one of the country’s most noted cancer prevention foundations grew up in Reidsville, North Carolina, home of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Ms. Aldigé commented, “When you drove into town, a big billboard cautioned: ‘Quiet please! Tobacco asleep.’”

It was a time of prolific smoking by a population unaware of the health dangers posed by tobacco consumption. “My father was born in 1918 and started smoking regularly when he was 13. He used to tell stories about going down to the cigarette factory and disabling the gizmos that cut the cigarettes into lengths, so that he and his buddy came out with yard-long smokes.”

Family History and Wanderlust

Ms. Aldigé’s family history reaches back to our nation’s tumultuous formative years. She was named for her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Caroline Perry, who was the granddaughter of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the commander of a fleet of “Black Ships” that sailed into what is now Tokyo Bay in 1853, forcing Japan to open its doors to the rest of the world and ending the country’s centuries of isolationism.

“He’s a footnote in the history of this country, but the Japanese revere his memory. My family history is a great icebreaker in a country that places incredible value on ancestry,” said Ms. Aldigé.

Ms. Aldigé described her childhood as typical for the time she grew up in. But although she enjoyed her hometown, friends, and family, she was gripped by an urge to see the far-flung places of the world.

“I learned about the world through playing board games and poring over history books, encyclopedias, and atlases. I remember a book I received when I was in fifth grade, the Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton. From then on, I wanted to see Machu Picchu, the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal,” said Ms. Aldigé.

At 10, she even sent handwritten letters to the state tourist bureaus of all 50 states, requesting tourist information. “I loved getting all the brochures and publications,” noted Ms. Aldigé.

She continued, “Despite my wanderlust, I never even got off the East Coast until I was in college. I didn’t have my first plane ride until I was 12, and I didn’t fly again until I was 17. Now I can’t seem to get off them!”

Early Love of Science

Education was the centerpiece of Ms. Aldigé’s family life; in fact, her paternal grandmother, born in 1885, graduated from college, a rarity for women in that period. Ms. Aldigé described herself as a conscientious student with an insatiable appetite for books. After completing high school, she entered an all women’s college in Virginia, Randolph–Macon Woman’s College, renowned for its high academic and liberal arts standards. “I majored in biology and chemistry, with a minor in art history. But the first subject that ever stymied me was calculus. I took it in my freshman year, getting the first B of my life.”

Despite her frustrating run-in with calculus, Ms. Aldigé excelled in college and enjoyed the rigors and challenges of academic life. Although she was pulled toward science, she didn’t have a solid notion about her career path. She recalled a conversation with the chairman of the biology department, who was also the advisor for her senior thesis. “The chairman asked me what I wanted to do eventually, and I just blurted out: ‘Cure cancer.’ I had no idea why I said that. Nor did I have any idea at that point that I would wind up dedicating my professional life to preventing cancer. I was always interested in medicine but didn’t have the stomach for medical school,” said Ms. Aldigé.

After finishing undergraduate school, Ms. Aldigé spent the next 8 years working in research labs, which she found exceedingly tedious. Plus, there was no travel involved. “It was before we had kids, so my husband and I would save up all our vacation time and take trips to Europe. When the children started coming along, we traded Europe for vacation jaunts around the States,” said Ms. Aldigé.

Cancer Hits Home

In 1984, Ms. Aldigé’s father was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. “My two young children and I moved in with my father to take care of him. I drove him to his radiation treatments and cared for him up until he died, which was on my mother’s birthday, August 1, 1984,” said Ms. Aldigé.

Ms. Aldigé took her father’s death hard. She spent a year in anger-lock, but then she resolved to learn more about cancer prevention, a field that was sorely neglected at the time. “The more I studied, the more I realized that much of cancer was lifestyle-driven, so it was largely a preventable disease. I was sitting at my kitchen table when I had my ah-ha moment. No other organization had a singular focus on cancer prevention and early detection; everyone at the time seemed to be looking for the magic bullet to cure cancer.

“I’d never worked in an office and didn’t know how to use a computer. But I knew there was a huge unmet need in cancer prevention and wanted to make a difference. That’s when the Foundation was born. I incorporated Prevent Cancer Foundation on December 3, 1985, about a year after my father died of cancer,” said Ms. Aldigé.

From the Ground Up

The first thing a fledgling foundation needs is a board of directors. “I called everyone I knew who would be a good fit for the Foundation’s board. All I asked was that they believe in me, and they did. At our first meeting, we began listing potential doctors to create a medical advisory board. That’s how it started,” said Ms. Aldigé.

She stressed that their priority was to fund research and support the careers of promising young investigators who were working in cancer prevention and early detection. “Our first grant was within our first year (1986), which was supplemental funding to a fourth-year National Cancer Institute (NCI) fellow. It was a big deal for him. He had a family and couldn’t survive on the government stipend. He later went on to have an illustrious career at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.”

From that first fellow, the Prevent Cancer Foundation has continued to fund the careers of young cancer investigators, realizing that it is money well spent, with huge downstream dividends. “Every grant we make is a high point because I know we are potentially helping a young scientist establish a career and make an advance in the science of cancer prevention and early detection,” said Ms. Aldigé.

Despite Progress, Much Work Ahead

Asked for a reflection on her life’s work, Ms. Aldigé responded, “On one hand, I see a bright future, but on the other, I’m discouraged. The future is bright because of the progress that it is being made every day on so many levels, including the access that more people now have to quality health care. The number of cancer survivors is increasing every year. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) covers recommended preventive services without co-pays.  That’s all good. But I’m discouraged by the shrinking oncology workforce and certain unhelpful changes brought about through the ACA, such as the reduction of community-based physician practices. I’m also discouraged that the budgets for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NCI are declining—and that so little of the nation’s total outlay on health care is spent on prevention.”

Ms. Aldigé added, “What discourages me most is that we have the ability to reduce cancer incidence and death by 50% with what we know right now—but too many people are being diagnosed with cancer and dying of the disease.”

Global Perspective on Cancer

Despite the demands of her career, her wanderlust is in full bloom. Over the past 15 years, Ms. Aldigé has made a point of visiting at least one new country every year and has so far ventured to more than 50 different nations around the globe, showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, at the time of this interview, she was preparing to leave for Belize and Guatemala and plans to travel to Spain, Croatia, and Istanbul, all before the end of the year.

“Traveling around the world has given me a global perspective on cancer, making me more sensitive to the issues of disparity of care and the value of our precious resources. Addressing global health inequity has become a passion of mine,” said Ms. Aldigé.

A last thought—one that puts the big picture into perspective—from a dedicated globe-trotting humanitarian who has been battling at the frontlines of cancer prevention for more than three decades: “We have two little grandsons, and not a month has gone by that I have not spent time with them. Those visits keep any daily frustrations in perspective; we have to make the world they grow up in a better place, and that includes keeping people from getting cancer or helping them detect it early, when it can be successfully treated.” ■