Doctor works for breast cancer research stamp worldwide

A surgeon hopes the rest of the world will give its stamp of approval to his method of raising funds.

By Damon Adams — Posted June 13, 2005

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The idea was no bigger than a postage stamp, but it was worth millions.

California surgeon Ernie Bodai, MD, who had operated on scores of women with breast cancer, wanted to raise awareness and funds to battle the disease. He thought he could use the corner of an envelope to send a message of hope.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Bodai lobbied congressional leaders and the U.S. Postal Service to create a breast cancer stamp. It took the doctor about 18 months to win over his doubters, but thanks to his lobbying efforts, the Breast Cancer Research stamp became the first "semipostal," or fund-raising, stamp issued in U. S. history. Since it came out in July 1998, the stamp has raised nearly $45 million for research.

Never one to be content, Dr. Bodai is now making an international push to get countries around the world to put similar stamps on their envelopes to raise money for breast cancer research in their nations.

"There is one thing that makes it easier. I've got a model that works. That opens their ears quite easily," said Dr. Bodai, 54, director of Breast Surgical Services for Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento, Calif. "It's a philanthropic project for the whole world."

Dr. Bodai would like to use the same image from the U.S. stamp: an image of the mythical "goddess of the hunt" with the words "Fund the Fight" and "Find a Cure."

He has spoken to or plans to speak to postal officials in countries large and small: Australia, Austria, Canada, Hungary, Norway, Portugal and Sweden.

"I've got almost 80 countries lined up right now," said Dr. Bodai, who started his international lobbying about six months ago.

He was scheduled to spend time in Hungary in late May, and he already has visited Australia, where he has a powerful friend: singer and breast cancer survivor Olivia Newton-John.

"She's really cool. She and I are harassing the postal service. I've got allies all over the world," he said.

Delivering research funding

Dr. Bodai expects to be successful because he won his battle for a stamp in the United States. He started pushing for the U.S. stamp after treating patient after patient with breast cancer. A stamp seemed like a logical way to raise funds for research.

He lobbied the U. S. Postal Service with no luck. He wrote to female legislators, but not one responded. He flew to Washington, D.C., to make his pitch, cold-calling legislators and lobbying them face-to-face. It worked.

"They thought I was wacko till I showed up in person," he said.

He traveled about a dozen times to see congressional leaders, spending his own money and having fellow physicians cover his patients. On July 29, 1998, the postal service issued the stamp.

Through this April, 614.7 million of the stamps had been sold, translating to $44.7 million for research, postal officials said. "We beat Elvis," said Dr. Bodai, joking about selling more than the limited-edition stamp of the rock legend.

The Breast Cancer Research stamp sells for 45 cents, with the 8 cents over the regular price going to breast cancer research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (which gets 70% of the total) and by the Dept. of Defense, postal officials said.

Dr. Bodai knows well the tough road in the battle against cancer. He has done about 4,000 breast cancer surgeries and averages about 500 a year. He is a cancer survivor himself, having successfully been treated for prostate cancer diagnosed in 2000.

He wants to have a prostate cancer stamp to raise research funds and awareness, as the breast cancer stamp does now. But he has put that plan on hold in order to focus on his international drive for a breast cancer stamp.

Ideally, Dr. Bodai said, letters around the world someday will fight the cause by having a breast cancer research stamp to raise funds in countries from Canada to Australia.

"This is a good project that everybody can get behind," he said. "It would be good if everybody could unify against breast cancer."

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