Former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing, who established a namesake foundation dedicated to cancer research and awareness, was working with television networks to put on a cancer-awareness TV special. So was Katie Couric, who has been an advocate for early cancer screenings - and even televised her own colonoscopy - since losing her husband to colon cancer 10 years ago.
So the women got together - along with other entertainment-industry execs and more than 60 of their famous friends - to create Stand Up to Cancer, a fund- and awareness-raising organization set to hold an unprecedented, star-studded live telethon airing simultaneously on ABC, NBC and CBS on Friday night.
"I jokingly say I have to make cancer awareness entertaining," said Ziskin, who is producing the show at Hollywood's Kodak Theater. "The good news is that the entertainment community gets it. We're touched. Look at Patrick Swayze. Look at Christina Applegate. Look at Robin Roberts.
"Cancer is not in the closet anymore, and now that it's out of the closet we have to motivate the public to demand that as a country we do better," she continued. "And if the country won't do it, we'll do it. We'll raise money ourselves and try to spend that money in a way that will lead to better, less toxic treatments that we can get to patients more quickly."
Applegate, who recently underwent a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer, is among those set to help deliver the message Friday. She'll be joined by scores of other stars from TV, music and film, including Halle Berry, Forest Whitaker, America Ferrera, Jack Black, Salma Hayek, James Taylor, Carrie Underwood and Rob Lowe.
Celebrities will share their personal experiences with the disease and will help answer phone calls from donors, Ziskin said.
The hourlong show also will include a performance of "Just Stand Up," a charity song featuring Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Rihanna, Fergie, Miley Cyrus, Underwood and others.
Couric and her fellow network news anchors, Charles Gibson and Brian Williams, are set to host the show.
The aim of Stand Up to Cancer is to raise funds for "translational research," Ziskin said, which encourages scientists to collaborate rather than compete, translating basic science into applicable therapies for patients. She compared the approach to the Manhattan project.
"We took the best and brightest and locked them up in Los Alamos and said you can't leave until you split the atom and create, unfortunately, a bomb," Ziskin said. "This is no less a problem, with half a million Americans a year dying from this disease. If we take best and brightest, encourage them and reward them for working together, the answers will come much more quickly."