A Latina in the middle of the battle against cancer
The Chinese proverb that inspires the name of one of the principles of Chaos Theory, known as the butterfly effect, states that “the flapping of butterfly wings can change the world” or “can be felt on the other side of the world.” A beautiful metaphor turned into an endless “resource” from which areas of study such as physics, mathematics, meteorology and even cinematography have pulled ideas.
Sometimes this flapping that changes everything is produced only a few miles away. Though the silence with which it is performed and the desire for anonymity of he who starts the movement, as the proverb states, make it seem so far away. This turns its maker into an anonymous hero. And fortunately, the world is full of them.
This is also the case in our region, where Dr. Irma H. Russo lived and flapped her “wings” for many years. She was one of the anonymous heroes of this city whose name, though well known in the scientific and medical fields thanks to her untiring research in the fight against breast cancer, went quite unnoticed in the heart of the local community.
However, the result of her actions and innovative way of thinking that, according to her widower and inseparable professional companion, Dr. José Russo –currently the director of the Irma H. Russo Breast Cancer Research Laboratory, at the Fox Chase Cancer Center— who accompanied her throughout her personal and professional lifetime, did not go unnoticed.
To understand Dr. Russo’s more public side, we must travel back to the Buenos Aires of the 1960s. It was there that she traveled to, at age 18, from San Rafael (in the Argentinean province of Mendoza), her native city, with her fiancé at the time, to take a vocational test that revealed her strong capabilities to study biology.
“That was crucial for Irma who said ‘well, I’m going to study medicine.’ She then broke off her engagement and enrolled in medical school,” Dr. Russo affirms.
One could say that it was at that time and at that place, the School of Medicine in Mendoza, where her promising career began to take shape. Not only because of her arrival in the field of medicine, but also because it was there where she met the second half of the future research team that she would later form with the man that would also become her husband.
“The first time I saw her was when we crossed paths in the hallway; We ran into one another, and she caught my eye as a person and woman. But I didn’t see her again until five years later,” Dr. Russo said.
It was in a general pathology class in which he, who was one year ahead of her, served as her professor. At that time he was an assistant professor. However, their friendship did not begin until sometime time later, when they both met up again in the same laboratory.
“I invited her to go out in February, 1967 and from that moment on, we were always together,” said Dr. Russo.
They were married two years later and in 1971, they moved to the United States to develop their career as cancer researchers. They came to work for the Rockefeller Foundation and in 1973 moved to the Michigan Cancer Foundation, currently the Karmanos Cancer Institute.
It was there where they developed the breast cancer research center that now bears her name and it was also there, during long walks on the shores of Lake Michigan (“Talking and talking because conversations with Irma were very deep, we continually spoke about research.”) that they came up with the approach for what has been one of the greatest projects in their field of work.
Her contribution to the fight against cancer
“One of the objectives was to start the breast cancer study in a new, original way. […] So we said ‘why don’t we study those cases in which women do not develop breast cancer,” said Dr. Russo.
The Russos observed that “women who are pregnant at a young age, between 18 and 24 years old, do not develop breast cancer.” Their line of research therefore focused on studying and demonstrating that “the reason why animals developed breast cancer was because when they became pregnant the mammary gland developed completely and we saw that this development was apparently very important in preventing cancer.”
The first studies in this line of work were published in 1975. It was then that they began to consider the possibility of applying the same concept to humans, something which to this day continues and focuses on the genes that control the protection of the mammary gland.
“There is a series of genes that are activated during pregnancy and that remain permanently activated in the human mammary gland which helps in the mammary gland’s auto-vaccination against breast cancer,” said Dr. Russo. “We cannot however, make all women become pregnant in order to create protection. So, we found a way to simulate pregnancy by injecting a hormone into animals, a pregnancy hormone, and we saw that animals receiving this hormone are protected against breast cancer for life”.
Their search for a method to prevent this type of cancer is currently the focus of a clinical trial being developed in Europe with women that have BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation.
“This hormone is injected introduced into their bodies and we look to see if the same genes, that we have observed that become activated in women who have had an early pregnancy, are activated with this hormone. If this is achieved, we could apply this hormone to women of all ages as a preventive element,” Dr. Russo explained.
Her actions in Philadelphia
After 19 years in Detroit, of which they made good use, at Irma’s request and to validate the degree in medicine they had obtained in Argentina, the Russos moved to the Philadelphia area.
“Irma had an enormous intuitive capacity when it came time to consider what was important and in a certain way that was quite interesting in our marriage,” said Dr. Russo.
Their new destination was the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where she arrived to serve as the Director of Surgical Pathology, and he as the Chairman of the Pathology Department , in 1991.
At Fox Chase, they continued with the research that to this day, and after the death of Dr. Irma Russo on June 25, 2013 due to ovarian cancer, her husband continues to carry out at the newly baptized Irma H. Russo Cancer Laboratory.
“Working together was part of our success. I don’t believe we would have achieved what we achieved had we not worked together,” said Dr. Russo.
His wife, as he explains, provided the ideas.
“She was what we refer to as a thinker, she liked to shuffle through ideas,” he said. “She was a very logical, very philosophical person and always liked to try out new ideas. She was always searching for something else she could do. And some of her ideas were very original.”
While he, on the other hand, was in charge of development.
“In a certain way, I am a very organized person,” said Dr. Russo. “I have placed the ideas in brackets, in other words, ‘this is what is to be done.’”
On the one hand, two different views on life and, on the other, on medicine. This made the Russo matrimony one of the most prolific duos.
“I believe there are two great adventures in life,” said Dr. Russo. “One of them is to find someone that you love and the second is to find what you want to do in life; what you want to develop in. I think that she achieved both.”
Her work in the community
When one asks about the “lesser known” side of Dr. Irma Russo –her personal side—her husband doesn’t skip a beat: “She was unique.”
“She had a huge heart,” said Dr. Russo. After her death I became aware of the things she had done, how she had helped so many people. She was a person with a great willingness to help.”
A great example is her work for the parish of Our Lady Help of Christians in Abington, where for years she provided financial help to families in need with her own savings. Something her family never knew about until the day of her funeral, when a score of people shared with them all that they had lived through with Irma.
The fight against breast cancer was her main goal and not only inside the lab. In 1994, she founded the League of Women Against Cancer (LOWAC), with the objective of educating and assisting minority women with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of this illness.
Her husband says that she dedicated every hour during which she was not working by his side in the lab to LOWAC. The Journal of Women’s Cancer, which she served on as editor until 2008, was born under the umbrella of this organization.
In addition to educating, both the public and the medical community, another one of her tasks at LOWAC was using her personal funds and donations to help women with all kinds of needs, from paying for mammograms to helping those with family emergencies or who had lost their jobs.
Her assistance also extended to the Latino community in Philadelphia. Dr. Irma Russo began to work together with Congreso de Latinos Unidos in the 1990s, offering consultations to women with breast cancer and giving advice with regard to treatment.
“Nothing she did had to do with her; she was always searching for ways to help others,” her daughter, Patricia Russo, said. “And she helped because she really wanted to, not because she wanted to take credit for anything. She didn’t like to be in the limelight; she preferred doing things behind closed doors.”
In addition to her willingness to help, she had a great capacity to connect different people. This was another one of the outstanding characteristics that she was best known for by others.
In this sense, Dr. Irma Russo worked on establishing programs, such as one executed in 2012 between the Breast Cancer Research Laboratory and Drexel University’s Co-Op program. Thanks to this program, between seven and eight students had the opportunity to rotate through the lab for six months and learn about her work in the field of breast cancer. Since then, some 60 students have benefited from this initiative.
She began a similar project in 1995 at DeSales University. 20 years later it is still operating.
At the national level, Irma also helped create the Breast Cancer Coalition, at the end of the 70s. This was part of the Breast Cancer Task Force of the National Cancer Institute, in the yearly 90s. She also worked with the American Cancer Society and created its Philly branch to help create awareness about cancer in the Latino community.
And all this, in silence.
“She was one of those silent souls who did good but never wanted to attract attention,” said her husband. “In fact, the institute named her a tenured professor only after she passed away because she was never interested in titles or public tributes or being part of the noise. Her entire work was putting people in contact with others. She was immensely humble.”