updated 11/3/2005 5:51:18 PM ET 2005-11-03T22:51:18

Adding breast cancer to the list of health causes he champions, former President Bill Clinton is establishing a fund in honor of his mother, who died of the disease in 1994.

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"She had a very upbeat attitude and never thought of herself as dying from the disease but living with it," Clinton said in a telephone interview Thursday with The Associated Press.

"She was totally at ease with her own mortality and yet ferocious in fighting against the disease."

The Virginia Clinton Kelley Fund will be part of the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund. Clinton and leaders of the advocacy group were announcing it Thursday in New York City. The new effort will educate and train breast cancer survivors to influence research and expand access to care, Clinton said.

"Basically, we're going to train people to do what she did by second nature. We're doing better with breast cancer but we've still got a long way to go."

The former president said his own health problems — quadruple heart bypass surgery last year and a procedure in March to remove scar tissue and fluid around a lung — made him want to work even harder on health issues.

"The fact that I survived made me feel an even deeper sense of obligation to spend whatever time I've got left on earth doing what I can for other people to make sure they have a chance to live a full and rich life," Clinton said.

"Every day is a gift," he added. "I guess I'm more conscious of that than some people are because I came so close to having a serious heart attack."

Fran Visco, an 18-year breast cancer survivor and president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, said she sought Clinton's involvement.

"He had a vision that we shared for what needed to get done," she said.

In 1993, Clinton made Visco one of three members of the President's Cancer Panel and worked with the coalition on establishing a massive research program at the Department of Defense and passing the Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act, which funded a program to get low-income women tested for cancer.

The fund named for Kelley will encourage "high-risk" research like the early studies that resulted in Herceptin, the first targeted breast cancer drug. The scientist who led its development had trouble getting funding, but now that the drug's value has been established, "it's like Woodstock — everybody was there," Visco said.

Kelley underwent standard treatment in 1990 — mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation — but still died four years later, at age 70.

Part of the proceeds of the benefit dinner, sponsored by Revlon, will go to the new fund. Singer/actress Barbra Streisand will be an honorary co-chair and will make a gift to the fund. She and Kelley were longtime mutual admirers.

Visco said she approached Clinton for help in launching the fund and planning strategy.

With this project, the former president adds breast cancer to a host of health-related issues he has supported.

Shortly after leaving office in 2001, he got the William J. Clinton Foundation involved in fighting AIDS. He brokered agreements that led to cheaper drugs for Africa and other poor nations, and his foundation has set a goal to supply AIDS drugs to 10,000 children in at least 10 countries by the end of the year, and to provide reduced-cost HIV drugs to 2 million people by 2008.

Clinton said Thursday that the 10,000-child goal would be met "and I think we'll add 50,000 more next year" and expand efforts in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Last month, Clinton joined Nickelodeon television executives, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and American Heart Association President Robert Eckel in a campaign featuring SpongeBob SquarePants to fight childhood obesity.

Clinton also traveled to Indonesia earlier this year as the special U.N. envoy for tsunami recovery.

___

On the Net:

Breast cancer coalition: http://www.stopbreastcancer.org

Clinton: http://www.clintonfoundation.org

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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