newsmaker: Betty Gallo
The Star-Ledger, Good Houskeeping, CBS TV
Mrs. Gallo Goes to Washington
by Mary Ann Littell
When her husband, Dean, died of prostate cancer in 1994, Gallo wanted to do "something, anything" to help others with the disease. So she carved out a new, and very rewarding, role for herself as prostate cancer advocate.
Public service is something that the Gallo family easily embraces. Dean Gallo was a Congressman in the 11th Congressional district of New Jersey, which is primarily Morris County. "He was very committed to serving the people of New Jersey," she says. "I'm just following in his footsteps."
Gallo is Director of Public Health Outreach and Government Affairs at the Dean and Betty Gallo Prostate Cancer Center. The 150,000 square foot Center, which specializes in state-of-the-art treatment and research, is part of The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) at UMDNJ, located in downtown New Brunswick.
Her office is on the 2nd floor of the new CINJ wing, which opened in 2004. Decidedly un-corporate, it's filled with mementoes of her life as the wife of a prominent New Jersey politician. Next to photos of her late husband, her son, and her grandson is a small rubber model of the prostate. "Most people have no idea what it looks like," she comments. There are framed photos of the Gallos with numerous political figures, including President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary at a 1993 White House Christmas party. On a shelf is a framed personal letter of condolence from former President George W. Bush. A shovel from the groundbreaking ceremony for the CINJ wing that houses the Gallo Center hangs on one wall.
Behind Gallo's desk, a large, frosted-glass window looks out into the Gallo Center. Shadowy figures are visible through the window, but faces are camouflaged by the frosted glass. It's something you see all over CINJ - a sensitivity that above all else, protects the privacy of patients and families who are there for treatment.
The story of why the Center is named for the Gallos is an interesting one, and she tells it well. "If this Center existed 12 years ago, my husband would very likely be alive today," she states.
Dean Gallo was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February 1992, when diagnosis and treatment for the disease was in its infancy. The PSA test so widely used today for diagnosing prostate cancer was not utilized back then as a screening tool. "Dean went to the doctor for back pain," she said. "But by then it was too late. The cancer had already spread to his bones."
Given only a few months to live, he enrolled in several experimental therapies, including some at the NIH. A few of them helped, but only for a short period of time. "One drug, Suramin, reduced his PSA to 3.5, from a high of 882. Normal is 1 to 4," she says.
"Unfortunately, it went right back up again."
Despite his illness, Dean Gallo ran for the primary in June 1994 - and won handily. In August, however, he knew he was not well enough to run for Congress again. Three months later, he died.
"The spirituality of our relationship helped us through the difficult times, and we both received a lot of support from our pastor," she says. "After Dean passed away, I wanted to help other people with prostate cancer, but I didn't know what to do," she continues. "So I called the American Cancer Society, and we organized a sports tournament in Dean's name. That was a good start, but it was not enough."
Eventually, she wrote an editorial for the Daily Record on her experiences with prostate cancer. Shortly afterward she received a call from Brooke Moran, Director of Patient Advocacy and Government Affairs at the American Foundation for Urologic Disease. "Brooke became my mentor," says Gallo. "She showed me how lobbying is done. We were the first two women to walk the halls of Congress looking for money for prostate cancer!"
On Gallo's lapel is a large gold pin, an American eagle surrounded by stars. "It's the Congressional Wives' pin," she says. "But it's not just a piece of jewelry. It's really a badge that gives you an entrée all over Washington, D.C."
Unbeknownst to Gallo, her husband had a history with CINJ. Though he died before it opened its doors, he had been instrumental in securing $10 million in federal funding for the original facility.
In 1997, Betty Gallo came to New Brunswick for the opening of CINJ, and met with director William N. Hait, MD, PhD. She says she wanted to be part of a medical institution that would give her more credibility. "I asked him: 'What can I do?' He suggested that we start the Dean and Betty Gallo Prostate Cancer Center."
She immediately went to work, inviting the New Jersey congressional delegation to come to New Brunswick to see the CINJ physicians and scientists at work. She also reached out to an old family friend, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, also of the 11th district and her husband's successor. "Rodney was my hero, and a true friend," she says. "He watched my mission for prostate cancer unfold, and told me he would always be there for me." She adds that most of her husband's staff had stayed with Congressman Frelinghuysen when he came into Congress, and their work behind the scenes also helped to create the Gallo Center.
In 1998, accompanied by Frelinghuysen, she went back to Washington, DC, this time to testify before the VA HUD Subcommittee. "I was so nervous," she recalls. "I started to talk, and then I started to sob. Rodney tried to help. He patted my shoulder, stepped up to the podium, and said, 'Look, Betty's done all this stuff. We really should support this.'"
She continues, "I guess I was effective. Later that day a Congresswoman from Florida told me, 'You're not leaving without money in your hand!'"
Since then, Gallo has returned to Washington, DC many times, always wearing her pin, talking about prostate cancer to anyone who will listen. "Now I just get up and talk, without a written speech, no notes, nothing. It's straight from the heart." She's an old hand at testifying, but after she speaks, the tears still flow at times.
Thus far, a total of $14.2 million has been earmarked by Congress to support the Gallo Center. Its remarkable growth is good news for the Garden State, which has the highest cancer rate of any state in the country. One of only two centers in the U.S. exclusively dedicated to prostate cancer treatment and research, the Center had approximately 6,000 patient visits last year. Among its current initiatives are increasing enrollment in clinical trials and continuing outreach and education programs, particularly among underserved communities.
Gallo has received many honors for her work as an advocate, including the Martin Luther King "Fulfilling the Dream Award" presented in 2002 by CBS. She also received an award from the American Foundation of Urologic Diseases, as well as the American Cancer Society's "Award of Hope." As a "newsmaker," she's been the subject of newspaper and magazine articles in Good Housekeeping, The Star-Ledger, and numerous others.
"I know my husband would be very proud of the Center, and of what I'm doing," she says, "but I'm not finished yet. There's a lot more work to do."