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The Lifeline

A philanthropist fights to get cutting-edge treatment for cancer patients.


Published:

Photography by Jeffery Cross

(page 1 of 3)

Dana Dornsife graduated from high school at age 16, built and sold some of the early IBM computers, started her own company at 21, and even taught herself to upholster a ’55 Chevy. Sometimes, the doctors she meets in the course of her charitable work ask her where she went to medical school—ALTHOUGH she didn’t.

“I’ve never thought about anything, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’” says the 47-year-old, whose pluck and intelligence have led her to what appears to be a charmed life. She’s one of Danville’s leading philanthropists, lives in a stunning home with Mount Diablo views, and is married to Dave Dornsife, chairman of the board of Herrick Corporation, the largest structural steel fabricator and contractor on the West Coast.

Actually, Dana Dornsife’s belief that she could handle any challenge took a blow in 2003. Her 42-year-old brother-in-law, Mike Miller, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Miller was married to Dornsife’s younger sister, Erin, and they had three young kids. The dire prognosis hit Dornsife hard, too, leaving her feeling shaken and powerless. “I thought, ‘My God, it’s a death sentence.’ ”

Dornsife had just stopped working full-time, having sold her stake in a successful lighting-design business she built and co-owned. Her brother-in-law’s news stanched any plans for easing into a more leisurely life. Miller and Dornsife’s sister were racked by the day-to-day physical and emotional toll of his pancreatic cancer, a fast-moving and unforgiving disease. Dornsife saw they needed help looking for the best possible doctors and treatments. In her typical fashion, she plunged into a confusing and frustrating world, where she would again become an expert in something she knew nothing about: cancer and the labyrinth of treatment.

For both Dornsife and her husband, this was the start of a five-year odyssey that culminated in their Danville-based Lazarex Cancer Foundation.

Built on Dornsife’s experience assisting her brother-in-law, the foundation helps people with end-stage cancer learn about and get access to clinical trials when conventional treatments fail. In its three years, the foundation has served hundreds of people, ages seven to 82. One of the main ways the foundation helps patients is by paying for the costs of traveling across the country or around the world for a chance to beat back the cancer or even be cured. Photo by Jeffery Cross

It’s not a cliché to say that Lazarex is a lifeline, a last hope for those who may have heard their doctors say, “There’s nothing more we can do.”

Scott Zenaro heard words to that effect nearly two years ago. The 36-year-old from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, was suffering from a rare sarcoma called Ewing’s that had ravaged his body.

He hooked up with Lazarex in early 2008, after his doctor in recommended he fly to Los Angeles to try an experimental drug called R1507. Zenaro had enough in the bank for a plane flight, a rental car, and an apartment for about a month. As Zenaro tells it, Lazarex immediately put him up in an eighth-floor apartment in Marina del Rey, where he stayed until a month ago, enjoying the Jacuzzi on the roof and a gorgeous view. “I go from cancer to the Taj Mahal,” says Zenaro, who is funny and warm, in the face of his ordeal. “Lazarex created a bridge back to a second life.”

Growing up, Dornsife never imagined herself becoming a philanthropist. She and her three sisters were raised by a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked at IBM. Although Dornsife graduated from college with a degree in marketing—her father had pressed her to get a business degree—her heart was always in design. She later pursued a second undergraduate degree at Western Design Institute in San Francisco, when she had two small children with her first husband. Dornsife says she always thought she wanted to be in retail. “I love clothes. I love shopping. I’m a girl!” she says. But ultimately, she became drawn to interior and lighting design.

During design school, Dornsife divorced her first husband and cofounded Pleasanton-based Axiom Design, which grew to 24 employees. She was hired to do the lighting for the estate Dave Dornsife was building in Danville 11 years ago—a home she figured was also occupied by a wife and scores of children. It was that big.

In fact, Dornsife was divorced, and his four grown daughters were already out of the house. In the course of collaborating on the lighting one day, Dave Dornsife said that he wanted to make sure he could turn on the music and lights without a hitch, in case he ever had a date. When he asked his designer if she wanted to go out, she told him she’d love to, but that since he was her client, it would be a conflict of interest. The next day, by 8:30 a.m., even though the work wouldn’t be done for another year or two, Dave Dornsife paid off his entire lighting design bill.

These days, the couple’s dining room table can accommodate 22 (without leaves), and their Danville home sometimes bustles with eight grandchildren.

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