Personal Stories, Leadership
By: Paula Schneider
Susan G. Komen President and CEO
A decade ago, I heard the words that no one wants to hear – that I had breast cancer. Three years later, my mother (who had been diagnosed with breast cancer many years before) died when the cancer returned and metastasized. By that point, I had spent most of my career either running companies or working as a strategic advisor to major companies, which I would do until 2017, when I was named president and CEO of Susan G. Komen. It was a move that allowed me to do what many people only dream of doing: pursue a personal calling, while doing some good in the world.
I’ve now led Komen for three months and although I believed I understood more about breast cancer than most, I realize now that what I knew was a scintilla of a shred of the tip of the iceberg about the disease, the people living with it, and the people seeking to end it. This knowledge has opened my eyes to the almost endless potential of this organization – with our community behind us – to help find the cures and perhaps prevent breast cancer one day. Until we achieve those goals, we’re determined to ease the suffering of women, men and families who live every day with the aftermath of a breast cancer diagnosis.
There has been tremendous progress against this disease. There is more to do. We are fighting with new vigor.
The stories that inform our work are great and small. Each motivates us to do better. Stories of young women hoping to live long enough to see their children enter kindergarten (yes, kindergarten). Of mothers writing letters to their children in case they don’t live to see first boyfriends and girlfriends, graduations or weddings. Families picking up the pieces after mom, dad, grandma or a sister have died. Women and men determined to live full lives, even hoping to make a mark by volunteering for clinical trials testing treatments that may, ultimately, only benefit others.
We are moved to action by the women and men for whom breast cancer is not just a medical crisis, but an economic catastrophe – those without insurance, without enough insurance, or without the financial resources or social support to withstand the economic and personal costs of cancer care. We are horrified by the reality that for far too many women, mortality may be a matter of their skin color, credit score, or even where they live. Diverse women, low-income women, and people who just happen to live two zip codes away from affluent areas of town – all are prone to higher mortality.
We are fixing this, too, because we believe that no person should ever have to choose between putting food on the table or paying for their medicine. All people should be able to receive high-quality breast cancer care. All people should be supported through their breast cancer journey. These are the issues Komen meets head on, with some success: tens of thousands of people are helped each year through the programs we fund. But we can and must stretch further and accomplish more, because we also save lives when people have access to high-quality care and a community that has their back.
Komen’s work began – and one day will end – in the laboratories where the cures will be found. Here, too, are the stories that motivate us – of fighters working in labs and clinics every day to solve a disease that has plagued humankind at least since we started writing things down. First mentioned in Egyptian papyri, scientists recently discovered actual evidence of breast cancer in a woman 2,000 years ago. An ancient scourge, still with us.
The good news: the men and women – many funded by Komen – are gaining on it.
I saw this just a few weeks ago, at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, where thousands of researchers and clinicians converge annually in almost half a million square feet of exhibit space, each of them eager to share their contributions to the understanding and eventual victory over an extremely complicated disease. These scientists are especially optimistic about the potential for cures, thanks to advances in genetics, medical technology, detection methods, immunity and targeted therapies.
These women and men don’t, however, talk only about the science. Many are motivated to cure breast cancer because it has affected them personally. They are impatient for answers. I know that motivation, and I understand the impatience.
I also met the people they are racing to help – women and men with metastatic breast cancer, the kind that killed my mother and will kill 40,000 women and men in the U.S. this coming year alone. The women who came to this conference are not going gentle into that good night. They were there to tell their stories. To let the researchers see the people behind the chemistry. To remind all of us – the funders and the fundees – that lives depend on us, and that despite all the progress that the pink movement has made possible, there are many lives left to save.
So Susan G. Komen, and I, enter 2018 with renewed energy to conquer this disease, through funding of research into the deadliest forms of breast cancer; through programs that address the disparities that make breast cancer a deadlier disease for women of color and the vulnerable, and mostly, to help people understand that breast cancer is still prevalent, still life-changing, and still deadly.
A quarter million women and men in the U.S. will be diagnosed this year alone. Their lives will be forever changed.
An estimated 150,000 women and men will live with breast cancer that has metastasized, that is, spread to their bones, liver, lungs or brain. Some of these women and men will live for many years, always with the knowledge that their lives are now a matter of going from one treatment to another – and the fear that the next treatment won’t work.
And of course, there are the 40,000 women and men who will die of breast cancer in the next 12 months alone.
These are the numbers that keep me up at night. That’s why we’re here. To end this. We’ve been fighting for 35 years at Komen to overcome this most common of cancers in women. As we start 2018, I pledge that Susan G. Komen will lead the fight for as long as it takes.
Thank you to those of us who have been on the journey with us. And welcome to those who will join the fight with us in 2018. Have a safe and happy New Year.
Return to Blog Home