Norm Slonaker has three criteria for selecting a philanthropic cause to champion.

“It needs to be relevant, sustainable and have a measurable impact,” he says. “If there is a personal connection, that makes it all the more meaningful.”

Norm Slonaker and Dr. Tim Dellit

Norm Slonaker, left, with Dr. Tim Dellit, Interim CEO, UW Medicine, at Spring Soiree 2023.

For Norm, cancer vaccine research checks every box.

Norm earned a psychology degree from the University of Washington and a law degree from Harvard Law School. He married his wife, Helen, in 1964. She initially aspired to attend medical school before pivoting to computer programming for IBM and then Chase Bank.

“Helen was into computers long before most people,” Norm says.

Living in New Jersey and working in New York, they enjoyed a full, active life together until 1996, when Helen was diagnosed with simultaneous bilateral breast cancer. Because the cancer was stage II and node-negative (the cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes), the Slonakers were hopeful they had seen the last of it after she went through chemotherapy.

Helen’s experience with computers and online research would prove valuable when her cancer returned in 1999. From her breast tissue, the cancer had metastasized into her cortical bone. As she underwent traditional oncology treatments, she began scouring medical journals and internet forums for alternative treatment options.

That’s how Helen learned about cancer vaccines, a then-emerging form of immunotherapy that harnesses the body’s own immune cells to recognize and attack cancer cells. The Slonakers reached out to UW Medicine to find out if there was any value in participating in a cancer vaccine trial.

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“Helen was looking for a cure but would have settled happily for maintenance of a chronic disease,” says Norm.

As they quickly discovered, UW Medicine’s Nora Disis, MD, and Lupe Salazar, MD, were at the forefront of cancer vaccine research. Their team had validated the science of many of the journal articles that Helen had read, and they encouraged her to pursue cancer vaccine trials as a viable avenue of treatment.

Helen didn’t qualify for any preliminary U.S. trials, so she began visiting Germany for dendritic cell vaccine treatments to supplement the traditional treatments she was undergoing in New York.

After a long, courageous fight, Helen passed away in 2011. Norm credits her vaccine treatments with giving them both the priceless gift of more time together.

Before Helen’s death, the Slonakers had already begun contributing to cancer vaccine research at UW Medicine. They made a foundational gift to support the creation of the Cancer Vaccine Institute (CVI), a team of multidisciplinary scientists, healthcare providers and patients who are focused on translating leading-edge cancer immunology research into effective treatments for common types of cancer. In a testament to the power of philanthropy, the CVI has grown into the largest academic organization of its kind in the U.S.

In 2013, Norm redoubled his efforts to help the CVI expand its footprint. In honor of his wife, he established the Helen B. Slonaker Endowed Professorship for Cancer Research, which provides a reliable source of funding for Dr. Disis, the director of the CVI.

“I wanted to help ensure that creative, brilliant people like Nora have the funding they need to follow their intuition and their imagination,” says Norm.

Norm also chaired the Cancer Vaccine Institute Development Council and served on the UW Medicine Campaign Initiatives Committee during the Accelerate Campaign, which raised over $2 billion in support of research, education and patient care. Throughout the years, he has facilitated countless connections between UW alumni, foundations and other stakeholders on the East Coast.

In one way or another, cancer touches nearly every family. The more we can raise awareness of cancer vaccines and direct resources in the right direction, the more people we will be able to help.

From inviting Dr. Disis to speak at the Harvard Club of New York City to hosting and participating in fundraising efforts, he is dedicated to helping her broadcast her message far and wide and increasing awareness about the life-changing potential of cancer vaccines.

“My objective is to broaden public knowledge of what Nora and her team are trying to accomplish to persuade more people to invest their own time and money in the cause,” Norm says.

In recognition of his volunteer work over the past 15 years, Norm was presented with UW Medicine’s prestigious Ragen Volunteer Service Award, which honors a volunteer, faculty member or staff member who has made an extraordinary effort to advance the mission of UW Medicine.

Norm, who was “humbled and honored” to be selected, has no plans to scale back his support for cancer vaccine research any time soon.

“In one way or another, cancer touches nearly every family,” he says. “The more we can raise awareness of cancer vaccines and direct resources in the right direction, the more people we will be able to help.”

Written by Ashley Rabinovitch