The Ocala Royal Dames for Cancer Research nonprofit is on a mission to help cure the disease.
In 1986, Theresa Castro, the wife of Bernard Castro, the inventor of the Castro Convertible sofa and founder of the Golden Hills Country Club in Ocala, brought together a group of local women with the dream of finding a cure for cancer. A year later, in February of 1987, she founded the Ocala Royal Dames for Cancer Research.
The 501(c)(3) nonprofit raises funds that are donated to cancer research through the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and the UF Health Cancer Center in Gainesville.
“Our mission is by raising money to fund research in our two institutions here in Florida, that we can get closer to a cure for cancer,” says President Patricia Sokol. “There are so many cancers. So, we have a lot of work to do. And we’ve done very well so far.”
Since its founding, the Ocala Royal Dames organization has donated more than $4 million to cancer research. Currently, the program model is that every two years, five successful research applicants split $140,000.
One of the success stories is the breakthrough drug Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug used to combat various types of cancers, the two most common being melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer. It is not chemotherapy or radiation therapy but, when paired with typical cancer treatments, is proven to lower the risk of disease progression by almost 50 percent with certain cancers.
“We helped do the initial bench work, the study to get to the immunotherapy to get to Keytruda,” Sokol, herself a cancer survivor, explains. “Now, the success rate, especially when they can get it early, is amazing.”
The group seeks to fund projects that produce tangible results and generally avoids funding clinical trials as they take longer and are more expensive. The group receives many proposals, like the one for Keytruda, each year.
In 2022, they had 15 entities asking for funding. The proposals were reviewed by a “committee of lay people and also a medical advisory committee of physicians and one Ph.D. researcher,” Sokol shares. After the proposals are reviewed, the board of trustees votes on the recipients.
“We want to make sure that it is something that can be replicated and continue on,” Sokol outlines.
Sokol says a goal for 2023 is to secure enough money to start selecting six recipients in each funding cycle.
Sokol says that spreading the word about the progress in developing a cure for cancer is not just crucial to their mission but is a joy to share.
“I just think the Ocala Royal Dames is the best kept secret in Ocala and Marion County,” she offers.
Bernadette Castro, the daughter of Theresa and Bernard, is a successful businesswoman who has long had a presence in Ocala and New York City. She shares her mother and Sokol’s passion for defeating cancer.
“From my teenage years, I always heard my mother saying, ‘We have to find a cure for cancer,’” she notes.
She says she watched her mother found the Royal Dames of Cancer Research in Fort Lauderdale, raising money for Rumbaugh-Goodwin Institute at Nova Southeastern University, and then found the Ocala Royal Dames for Cancer Research upon their family’s move to Marion County.
“I observed firsthand Mom’s passion for the cause,” Castro continues. “It was contagious. She ignited the energy of wonderful women to pick up the torch and light the way on the critical journey to find a cure for cancer.”
The Ocala Royal Dames group also partners with the College of Central Florida through endowments, scholarships, seminars and library resources.
The nonprofit, which is overseen by a volunteer board, currently has around 200 members, who pledge $2,500 for a life membership, payable over a period of 10 years.
Memberships and sponsorships are the key ways the Ocala Royal Dames raise money, but the bulk of the funding they donate to cancer research is raised through a signature annual black tie event. This year’s event is the Fire & Ice Casino Night Gala at the Circle Square Cultural Center on March 25th. OS
To learn more about the Ocala Royal Dames for Cancer Research, visit ocalaroyaldames.org