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The following is a conversation between Gary Reedy, President and CEO of American Cancer Society, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: Nearly 40% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetimes, and I dare say that not a single person listening has not been personally impacted by this disease. Leading the fight against cancer in the United States for over a century now has been the American Cancer Society, but it is also an organization that has reinvented and reimagined itself for the modern era. And with us this evening is a key architect of that transformation. He is Gary Reedy, the President and CEO of the American Cancer Society. Good evening, Gary, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Gary: Good evening! Thank you.
Denver: Let me start with a question I think is probably on most everyone’s mind, and that is: Where are we in the fight to end cancer?
Gary: We’re making great progress, and I think that’s something that everyone needs to know. Since 1991, the mortality rate for cancer has dropped 25%. As a result of that, there’s about 2.1 million lives that had been saved during that time. Today, there’s about 15.5 million survivors that have actually beat the disease. So the good news is, today, there’s more people actually surviving the disease than are dying from it.
Today, there’s about 15.5 million survivors that have actually beat the disease. So the good news is, today, there’s more people actually surviving the disease than are dying from it.
Denver: Let me ask you a little bit about the American Cancer Society. As I’ve said, it’s over a hundred years old, founded in 1913 right here in New York City. Tell us a little bit about its history and some of the major milestones along the way.
Gary: Well, the first thing you said which is really important, it was founded here in New York in 1913, and I think it’s important to understand how it was founded. It was a group of physicians and a group of lay people that got together because they wanted to do something about raising the awareness of this disease that was just then really being recognized as cancer. So that was the foundation of the Society as far as volunteers working with medical physicians to do something about this disease.
So we started out in 1913 trying to go around educating about cancer and raising the awareness of it. A couple of big milestones: In 1930s, the Women’s Field Army was formed. At that point in time, we had about 15,000 volunteers. This was actually a group of women that got together, actually had them put on uniforms, and they decided to band together and go door-to-door to educate about cancer and to help raise money to fight cancer. During that time, we went from about 15,000 volunteers to over 700,000 volunteers through the efforts of the Women’s Field Army.
In 1946, at that time, Mary Lasker got involved with the American Cancer Society.
Denver: Great woman.
Gary: A phenomenal woman, phenomenal leader, phenomenal volunteer. Another important thing to remember: when we were founded, we were not the American Cancer Society; we were the American Society for the Control of Cancer. And when Mary got involved in 1946, she did a few things that really changed the course for the rest of the century with the Society. “First of all,” she said, “we need to change the name. We really need to make it something that’s easier to say and easier to remember.” So the name was changed to the American Cancer Society. She also said, “Look,” at that point in time, we were only spending about a million dollars a year for research, she said, “We really need to be putting more money into research and doing more, too. If you really wanted to cure this disease, it’s going to be through research.”
So, as a result of Mary’s efforts since the late ‘40s, we have funded over $4.6 billion worth of research. We have been involved in just about every major breakthrough that’s occurred in cancer. We fund mainly basic research, which is on the front end of the research. Of the researchers that we funded, 47 of them have gone on to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine. So Mary had a huge impact on the society.
And then another significant thing that occurred in the late ‘50s, based upon work that the American Cancer Society had done, is we shared the definitive link between smoking and lung cancer. And up to that point in time, people didn’t really know. If you remember back then…
Denver: I do remember! Four out of five doctors recommend Viceroy cigarettes.
Gary: Oh, there you go! It’s funny. We have pictures in the archives of even our board of directors sitting around, smoking. But we published a paper that the Surgeon General used in 1964 when we came out with the warning that’s on cigarette packages today… about the link between smoking and lung cancer and other health issues. So that was huge.
And then we also have done a lot of studies, mega studies, of just enrolling people that want to participate… average citizens that want to have their health tracked. The first couple of studies, the first one had over a million patients enrolled. The next one, about a million. The one we just completed is around 300,000 patients. But out of tracking those patients over a period of 20-25 years, we’ve also found that we discovered the link between obesity and different types of cancer – a definitive link. We discovered that aspirin can actually help reduce your risk of colon cancer. So there’s a lot of research that’s been done along the way by the Society that has really led to some major breakthroughs– as far as the things that we do, the things that we eat, the things we shouldn’t eat.
Denver: That’s right! Let me ask you one other thing about your history. You know, I think most of our listeners are well aware of that now iconic sword on the left-hand side of your logo. What is its significance?
Gary: Great question. Once again, the society has a terrific history with New York. In 1928, we had a poster contest to come up with what should be the logo for the American Cancer Society or at that time, the American Society for the Control of Cancer. The poster contest was actually won by a gentleman here in Brooklyn. He came up with a sword, and the sword is to represent the crusading spirit of the cancer control movement. And then you’ll notice at the bottom of the sword, there are two serpents that were to represent both the medical and scientific work of the Society. So since 1928, that’s been our logo.
Denver: I have always wondered about that.
Gary: Well, there you go!
Denver: Thank you for the answer. Well, as I mentioned in the opening, you have recently emerged from a transformation process. First of all, I want to congratulate you, Gary, for undertaking it because there are so many legacy organizations that really need to do so, but just don’t have the fortitude to face it. One of the things you did was reorganize American Cancer Society, which had been very decentralized, into a single corporate entity, which is quite an engineering feat, I might say. Why did you do this? And what were the keys that actually made it happen?
Gary: Well, I’ll tell you, this actually started back when I was a volunteer with the Society. I was a volunteer with the Society for 15 years and became CEO two years ago. So my predecessor, Dr. John Seffrin, he and I were like partners in crime from the staff and volunteer standpoint, because we saw a need to really bring the society together. At that time, we had a federated model. So we had 13 different groups around the country that had their own board of directors, their own governing structure. And if you’re looking at it holistically, you’re saying, “Okay. If we really want to have the greatest impact possible of fighting cancer, then we all need to be working together and going in the same direction.”
We were making progress back then, but we were also somewhat constrained. I’ll give you a great example. If we wanted to do a partnership with a major corporation on a nationwide basis, at that point in time, we could only do that if each individual governing board agreed to do it. By the time you went through that process—
Denver: The company had moved on to some other effort!
Gary: The company had moved on, and they’d gone out of business! So we needed to take all the resources and all the efforts and bring them together and say, “Okay. We can have greater impact. We can have greater relevance. We can be more nimble as a Society. We can make decisions quicker—
Denver: The world’s getting faster; you better keep up.
Gary:–if we’re a single enterprise.” And we went through—it was a very deliberate process because we’re a volunteer-led organization, so all the volunteers had to agree that this was the best way to move forward with the society. We cannot make that decision as staff and say: “This is what we’re going to do.”
Denver: People always say you’re never really a great manager until you’ve managed volunteers.
Gary: Well, I would actually agree with that.
Denver: It’s a skill.
Gary: Thank goodness for our volunteers because we wouldn’t get anything done without them. But the volunteers are very vested in the Society, so they want the Society to be as successful as possible. So we went through the process, and the volunteers all agreed over a period of time that this is the best thing to do. So we became a single enterprise.
Today, we have one board of directors; we have one CEO. We’re still not as quick and nimble as I would like for us to be, but we’re working hard to get there, to where we can move much quicker.
Denver: Well, as part of this transformation, you had three overarching themes, and I’m going to ask you to say a word about each of them: mission, relevance, and revenue.
Let’s start with mission. How was your mission changed?
So our mission is very simple. We’re here to save lives, celebrate lives, and to lead the fight for a world without cancer.
Gary: First and foremost, when I first volunteered with the Society, I was automatically drawn to the mission, just being out there, trying to have an impact against cancer and to fight from a volunteer perspective, but also now from a staff perspective. So to me, mission is first and foremost.
Denver: It sure is.
Gary: We have to be clear on what our mission is, what our purpose is, and why we’re here. So I’ve said from day one as a volunteer– and now as CEO– we can never forget why we’re here and what we’re trying to do.
So our mission has not changed per se, but we did change our mission statement. Our mission statement—it’s funny. I looked at our mission statement the whole time I was a volunteer, and it’s like 40-some words. Even after 15 years, I couldn’t repeat it back to you. But we just recently said, “You know what? We’re not changing our mission, but we’re going to change our mission statement. Make it short and something that people can remember.” Because one of the problems we have is everyone knows the American Cancer Society, but they’re really not clear on all the great work that the American Cancer Society does.
Denver: You’re absolutely right.
Gary: So our mission is very simple. We’re here to save lives, celebrate lives, and to lead the fight for a world without cancer.
Denver: Nice and tight.
Gary: Nice and tight. And I’ve got to tell you, Denver, we made that change in January this year, and people love it. Anytime I go out and talk, people will automatically repeat it back to me. So what’s happening now is people are saying, “Okay. Yeah, American Cancer Society – save lives, celebrate lives, and lead the fight for a world without cancer.”
And now what we’re really trying to do from a mission standpoint, which gets into the second part about relevance, is: I believe in today’s environment, especially as a nonprofit, you really have to be seen as being relevant in what you’re doing. So my question has been, from all the great mission-work we’re doing: Is it relevant today in the 21st century? It may have been relevant 50 years ago, but is it relevant now? What type of impact are we having?
So we’ve decided to go back and look at our mission and all the work that we’re doing and… excited about some of the things we’ve come up with. The first thing we decided to do, and I talked earlier about research… Right now, we are the largest, private, not-for-profit funder of cancer research in the United States. We fund about $125 million worth of research per year. We made a decision last year that we’re going to double that amount. So by 2021, we’re going to be funding at least a quarter of a billion dollars worth of research.
Denver: Big time commitment.
Gary: Yes. We’re excited about that. We’re energized about it, and we see that this is one way that we can help accelerate the elimination of this disease.
We also are in the process of developing a cancer control blueprint, which is basically putting to paper everything we know about cancer and what we don’t know. And then, what are we going to do, as the American Cancer Society, to get the answers to those questions? Now, this is going to be a blueprint that we’re going to share with the country because we can’t do this by ourselves. We have to all be in this together, working together towards the goal.
Denver: Well, that sounds actually like a nice change of pace, sharing your blueprint with the country.
Gary: Yes! Exactly.
Denver: From some people we know.
Gary: Well, now you know. So we’re going to publish that at the end of this year, and it’s actually pretty much based upon specific cancers, not just cancer in general. So we’re excited about that.
And then from all the great work that we do with patient services and around screening and education and prevention, just making sure that what we’re doing today really resonates with the public at large. And really make it in such a way that people can grasp it and can understand it. A great fact about cancer is: you can reduce your risk of getting cancer by over 50% just by individual choices that you make. And we really want to get that word out there. So if people don’t use tobacco, they can reduce their risk of getting cancer by about 30%… just by not using tobacco. If you add on top of that: eating properly, exercising, getting your screenings, then you can add another 20%; so you’re already up to 50%, a little over 50% chance.
So we’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that everyone understands that they can take control of this to an extent and help reduce the risk of getting cancer.
Denver: Well, speaking of relevance then, and particularly doubling of your research budget from $120 million to $250 million or so…that leads us to revenue. Now, your signature program for a number of years has been Relay For Life, but I know how difficult it has been to grow these programs after the last couple of years. Tell us what your plans are, as well as some of your corporate partnerships, and others with entertainment and sports.
Gary: I definitely will. So it’s all about mission, and then it’s all about relevance. Because I believe that if you are clear on your mission and you’re doing things that are relevant, then that gives you the opportunity to raise revenue or increase your revenue.
Denver: I know when you started, you actually had it: mission, revenue, relevance. Then you said, “You know what? Relevance has to precede our revenue.”
Gary: I did! And I said to the organization, “I messed up. I got the Rs in the wrong order.” I said, “It’s got to be mission, relevance and revenue.”
Denver: But you pivoted!
Gary: We have. And I tell you, talking about Relay For Life, that is an incredible community event. We’ve been doing it for 32 years. It’s our source of revenue right now. But over the last seven or eight years, the revenues have declined from Relay
Denver: With everybody, in every one of these activities, no matter what the organization.
Gary: I think that’s what’s happening now, and we are pivoting. Because back in the day when Relay was started, people’s lives were not as complicated as they are. There were not as many competing priorities, especially for themselves and for their children. So people would go out for a day, for 12 hours, 24 hours, and they’d walk the track. It was a huge community event, and the community was coming together to make a difference in cancer.
And that’s what we’re doing now. We’re trying to work with communities and say, “Look. If Relay is still important to your community, then that’s awesome, and let’s do it. BUT, let’s do it your way. You do it. It doesn’t have to be 24 hours. It can be as many hours as you want it to be. It can be two hours. It can be three hours. It can be six hours…whatever the community wants.” In other areas where relay is kind of like dying a slow death or a quick death, we’re saying to the communities, “Look. We know you want to fight cancer. We know you want to help us fight cancer. So what would you like to do in your community? How would your community like to come together to help fight this disease?”
So, we’re still going to be very active in the communities to bring the communities together, but then we are working now at a different level where we haven’t worked for a long time. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we had a lot of celebrities that would do cancer educational material for us. But then, their agents got involved, and they wanted to start charging. Obviously, being a nonprofit, we couldn’t pay those fees. But we are now branching out into the entertainment industry and have had some entertainers come to us and say, “Hey. We want to be part of this movement. We want to use our platform to make a difference for cancer.”
One of our major ambassadors right now is Taboo, and people are going like, “I don’t know who Taboo is.” Well, he is one of the singers from the Black Eyed Peas. So he actually had a cancer scare himself. So he now is committed to working with us, to do everything he can to raise the awareness on cancer, and he’s bringing some of his other friends in to work with us.
Gary: In the sports world, we have a great partnership with the National Football League that we’re expanding. We have a partnership now with US Track & Field. We have some other sports partnerships that we’re working on.
And what I’m seeing is, as we are changing and have changed and said, “Look. It’s all about relevance, and it’s all about eliminating this disease,” then we are seeing that a lot of people who in the past had been on the sidelines are actually coming to us and saying “We’d like to be involved. We’d like to be engaged.”
Denver: And also, as you said before, as a single entity now, a corporate entity, you can engage them much more easily than you could in the past.
Gary: That’s exactly right because, to your point, I don’t know a person that has not been impacted by cancer, either directly or indirectly. And I don’t know a person that doesn’t want to fight, to eliminate this disease. So it’s just a matter of us, first of all, showing what it is that we’re doing and how we’re relevant to that fight, and then inviting people to help us.
Denver: Let me ask you about a few specific cancers, if I may. One statistic that really shocked me was that if lung cancer in nonsmokers had its own separate category, it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States. Wow! Tell us about some of your public health initiatives around lung cancer.
Gary: Lung cancer today is the deadliest cancer out there. Literally, we lose more people on an annual basis– men and women– to lung cancer than any other cancer. So we have made great progress through a lot of the work that we’ve done with our anti-tobacco efforts. The lung cancer rates have continued to drop, have dropped pretty significantly for men, but due mainly to men not smoking the way they used to. They’re starting to drop now…the same with women, but women started smoking later, but they also stopped smoking later…but at least we’re seeing the rates come down.
We think there’s more that can be done there, and one of the platforms that we’re looking at now is really trying to bring groups together and put a stake in the ground, if you will, and say, “Over the next 10 years, let’s try to reduce the mortality rate in lung cancer by 50%.” And that’s going to be by continuing to fight, to get people not to use tobacco. Never use it! Or stop using it! To get smokers who have been smoking for some time to get screened to see if they do have lung cancer, because lung cancer, like any other cancer, the sooner you can catch it, the higher the probability of success. So we’re putting and building a whole campaign right now just on, to say, “Okay. Let’s go after this deadly cancer and see how much of an impact we can have working with others to really reduce the mortality.”
Denver: You know, despite some of the remarkable advances that had been made against cancer, a study that your research has led showed that there was an increase in colon and rectal cancer among young and middle-aged adults. Tell us more about this and what needs to be done to reverse this trend.
Gary: I think we were all surprised. The Society, we spend about $25 million a year doing internal research. We publish all the statistics on cancer facts and figures, and we’re looking at all the cancers and what progress is being made. And this finding surprised us…that colon cancer is appearing at a much younger age now.
So one of the platforms that we have been working on since 2014 is to have everyone that is age-appropriate to be screened for colon cancer by 2018. So we call the campaign 80 by 18, so we have at least 80% of the eligible population to be screened. The process we’re in right now with this new finding is, let’s say, “Okay, let’s make sure that everyone who is 50 years of age and older is being screened for colon cancer… and that does not mean a colonoscopy per se. We just want people to be screened. So even if they just have the stool test, which is very simple, very easy to do, that will suffice. So it’s not like I want everybody to say, “Oh, we all need to get colonoscopies now. Just get screened.”
As far as the data we just found with the incidence occurring in younger patients, we’re in the process now of really looking at that data and working with our guidelines committee to say, “Do we need to change the guidelines? Do we need to say that people need to be screened at an earlier age so we can catch it earlier?” So this has just happened, but we are laser-focused on it. Because the public depends on the American Cancer Society to weigh in on these issues and say, “Okay. What should we do?” or “What should be done?”
Denver: Provide some direction. That’s what they want. That’s what they’re looking to you for.
Gary: That’s exactly right.
Denver: Well, as you know, we’re in the heart of the summer season, Gary, and I know you folks have also designated July as UV Safety Month. So what is the latest research? And what are some of the things that we should be keeping in mind when we’re working in the garden or heading out to the beach this summer?
Gary: Real simple. Just use your sunscreen. First of all, stay out of the sun. But if you’re going to be in the sun, make sure you have on sunscreen.
Denver: What number sunscreen do you guys recommend?
Gary: At least 30 or above. And depending on how long you’re going to be in the sun, but at least make sure you have a good sunscreen with 30 level protection or above. Wear your sunglasses; wear hats…just do everything you can to protect your skin. And do not go to tanning salons. Do not use tanning beds. Because it’s unfortunate that so many of us who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s…I can remember my sisters, they used to lay out in the sun and they would put iodine baby oil all over their bodies and just lay there and fry like a piece of bacon.
Denver: Speed it up.
Gary: So now all of us are actually seeing the implications of that with the greater rise in skin cancer. On a personal basis, I went in in January this year for my annual skin screening. The dermatologist found a couple of places on me that she was a little worried about but not too worried. And I said, “Well, let’s just go and take them off.” And actually, as it turned out, the one on my forehead was melanoma, which is the most deadly form of skin cancer. And fortunately, it was in situ, which means it did not spread. It’s contained right there at that one spot, but I had to have surgery to have it cut out and make sure the margins were clean.
Denver: Good call, Dr. Reedy!
Gary: I want to share that! I want to share that with everybody because we all need to get our annual screenings of our skin, get our skin checks just to see. And if you see anything suspicious on your skin – a mole, a spot, or whatever – make sure you go to your doctor and have it checked out. Because, as I said before, fortunately, in my own personal situation, if I had said, “We’ll just leave that there. Don’t worry about it,” in three or four years, it could’ve been a totally different story.
Denver: I had the same thing happen to me last year. So I know exactly what you’re talking about. And I think another thing about suntan lotion is that it’s not a panacea. And that’s what some of these people think. They think if they put it on, they’re protected, and they can stay out in the sun as long as they want. And that probably is not a smart thing to do, correct?
Gary: That’s absolutely correct. Another point on using sunscreens is a lot of times, people put them on in the morning and think, “Okay. That’s great. I’m good for the day.” And that’s really not great. They really need to be applied fairly frequently throughout the day when you’re out in the sun. So every couple of hours would be terrific as far as making sure that you, whether you spray it on or rub it on, about every couple hours that you’re reapplying it so that you really are protecting your skin.
Denver: Got you. Let’s move on to something else. Health care reform is Topic A these days…an issue that every American is deeply concerned about. How would some of the possible reforms impact cancer patients? What is the role that the American Cancer Society is playing here?
Gary: Going back to the mission – we do research, we do patient services, we do education and screening, and the last part of our mission initiative is around advocacy. So we advocate on behalf of cancer patients, both at the federal and at the state level. We like to say we’re totally non-partisan. And what I like to say is that we are advocating through the lens of a cancer patient. So we’re out there fighting to make sure that all cancer patients have access to good care and to affordable care.
So what’s going on with health care reform right now? We are actively engaged in that initiative. We are being very, very vocal, very visible. We are enlisting all of our volunteers to talk to their congressperson, to their senators. Because what we want to make sure happens is: whatever happens in terms of health care reform, we want to make sure it’s better than what we currently have. So things that are really important to the American Cancer Society and to cancer patients, and actually to all people, are making sure that there is coverage of pre-existing conditions. Because you can imagine if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and then you can’t get insurance… if you lose your job and have to get insurance someplace else… and you can’t because you have a cancer diagnosis, that’s not good.
So, make sure that the coverage of pre-existing conditions stays in there. We want to make sure that the essential health benefits stay in. There’s a lot of debate right now about trying to reduce Medicaid expenses. And all we’re saying is there are a lot of cancer patients right now who have access to treatment through Medicaid. So if Medicaid is reduced, let’s make sure that we have something there that’s not going to leave those patients out in the cold.
But I can assure you that we’re fighting every day, and we’re being very vocal, very visible.
Denver: Very intentional.
Gary: Very intentional. I just can’t stress enough that it’s totally non-partisan, and we don’t take sides. We don’t take sides–whether it’s a democrat, a republican, or whatever.
Denver: The only side you’re taking is the cancer patient.
Gary: That’s exactly right. We’re on the side of the cancer patient. So we don’t even look at whose bill is introduced, or by whom, or by which party. We look at: what does that bill say? And how does this look through the lens of a cancer patient? And that’s what we’re fighting for.
Denver: You know, there’s been a lot of energy in the cancer community around the Cancer Moonshot project that is being spearheaded by former Vice President Joe Biden. Tell us a little bit about it, its objective, and some of the recommendations that have come out of its blue ribbon panel.
Gary: I tell people all the time when President Obama, I guess in 2016, announced “the Moonshot” and that Vice President Biden was going to be in charge of it. I was elated that that happened because ever since Nixon signed the War on Cancer back in 1971, there’s been a lot of progress that’s been made. But we were on the edge now of just making exponential progress, and I thought what the Moonshot did… I think it did a couple of things. It really raised the awareness in the public again that we can end cancer as we know it if we focus on it as a country. So that was number one, raising the awareness.
The other thing that was terrific was it became very obvious to everyone that to do that, we all have to work together. And to me, that’s one of the biggest things that came out of Moonshot, is former Vice President Biden was in charge of all the government departments that have anything to do with cancer. When he was there, he made it really clear that all of you are going to be working together now to help end this disease.
Denver: That’s great.
Gary: And then in the cancer centers, it’s been made very clear that we all need to work together. We need to work together, and we’d get there much quicker. So is it happening? It’s happening like anything else. It’s happening in spots. It’s not happening consistently, but at least the message is there. And I know at the American Cancer Society, we are doing everything to can to support the Moonshot, to support the recommendations coming out of the Moonshot, and we’re saying to anyone that we will be glad to collaborate and to work with you if by so doing, we can have 2x, 3x, 4x the impact than if we did it, each by ourselves.
So we’re trying to take that movement towards collaboration and really make sure that it continues to move forward. We’re trying to “walk the walk” as well.
Denver: Well, that’s really encouraging to hear because collaboration has been something that’s been missing from our entire sector, not just in the cancer community, but everywhere. We have a common enemy, but we very rarely work together and speed it up. I think a lot of the hope comes from these exponential technologies, and I don’t think that people understand that sometimes this exponential growth starts very, very slowly. But now, you’re beginning to see that doubling and doubling and doubling, so this could be a very exciting period that’s coming up.
You’re the American Cancer Society, but I also know that the World Health Organization estimates that more than 500,000 people will die of cancer in sub-Saharan Africa… more than malaria as a matter of fact. And the cancer burden is projected to just mushroom in the next 15 years. You recently announced an initiative in this regard. Tell us about it and how global work fits into the mission of the American Cancer Society.
Gary: We’re very excited about this. We are partnering with the Clinton Health Access Initiative to really work in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa to bring chemotherapeutic agents to these countries. In the US, the cancer burden is bad enough, but as you mentioned, outside the US, it’s exponential. And in sub-Saharan Africa, we found out that a lot of times, patients are dying because they don’t have treatment. We’ve been working for years to try to get pain medications for these patients because they were dying, and they were dying in pain. Now, working with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, we’ve actually worked with them and with two other companies – with Pfizer and with Cipla – to expand access to 16 essential cancer treatment medications in these countries: Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.
So this is a start, but we’re excited about this. And what we’re wanting to do is find partners outside the US that we can work with to take our knowledge for the last 104 years… and some of our resources and our talents and our efforts, and work together to start addressing the cancer burden outside of the US.
Denver: Great! Let me ask you a little bit about the corporate culture of the American Cancer Society. That’s one of our favorite topics on this show, and we’re always talking about how you keep your people motivated and engaged. I just would like to have you speak about that a little bit and also how this recent transformation has impacted that culture.
Gary: The great thing about the American Cancer Society and the culture is everybody that is working there wants to be there, and most of them have a personal connection. They’re there for a very personal reason…in some way, cancer has impacted them. So we’re very fortunate that people really want to work at the American Cancer Society.
But to your point, over the last four or five years, there have been some major transformations and transitions going around, which has resulted in quite a few reorganizations and some positions being eliminated, and unfortunately, some associates losing their job. So we’re right now very focused on the culture, and we’re very focused on—going back to what to I said earlier—“Let’s all remember why we’re here. Let’s remember what our purpose is, and let’s all work together as a team. We’re all on the same team here. So let’s go forward, and let’s get there as soon as we can.”
What I say to people all the time is: when I first started out in my career on the business side, in the corporate world, I used to say: “ Let’s work hard and play hard.” And then I realized that that was wrong because you can work hard and not really accomplish anything. So now what I say is: “ Let’s work smart,and let’s have fun.” So what we’re trying to do now is, as we work our way through the end of this transformation and transition is really start focusing on how we’re working together and creating a new culture that’s very proactive, very inclusive, very nimble. I tell folks all the time, I say, “We have to take risks. We have to be aggressive because we’re here to help eliminate cancer. So we have to change things up and do things differently and constantly change.” I’ve told the entire staff and volunteers that as long as I’m in this position, we will constantly be changing because the world is changing. So we have to keep on changing and trying to improve ourselves.
Denver: If you’re standing still, you’re falling behind…
Let me pick up on what you said about being in the corporate world. I think most recently, your job was as North American President of J&J’s Ortho Biotech division. What’s it’s been like to go from the corporate world to the nonprofit world?
Gary: I get that question a lot because I’ve spent 37 years in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, and most of that was with Johnson & Johnson, which is a terrific company. But people ask me that question all the time, and my answer is always the same. For me, it’s been pretty seamless because I was a volunteer at the Society for 15 years. I was on the National Board. As I said before, I really helped lead, from a volunteer standpoint, this transformation. So I’m taking my business experience, my 37 years of business experience, and just applying everything that I’ve learned to how we at the American Cancer Society really fight this disease. So it’s all about empowerment; it’s all about accountability. It’s all about impact, relevance, results.
So I actually was in the corporate world one day and leading the American Cancer Society the next, and I believe we are a business. We may have a nonprofit status, but we are a business, and we have to act like a business. I say that whether someone decides to invest in the American Cancer Society $25 or $25 million, we have to treat that exactly the same because they are investing whatever resources they have in us because they feel that we are going to be able to do something to have impact with that money. So I’m just trying to get that mindset that we’ve got to be the best stewards possible that we can be, and that everything has really got to be focused on relevance and on impact.
Denver: And you never know if that $25 donor might be a $25 million donor someday.
Gary: Well, you’re absolutely right! The other thing about that $25 donor, and thank goodness, we have lot of those throughout the country, they never know that $25 that they donate could very easily be going towards the next breakthrough in cancer. So, they could be a part of that.
Denver: Let me close with this, Gary, and I want to do that by going back to the very beginning of our discussion, which is: How are we doing in the fight against cancer? Is there one area, whether it be in research or prevention or detection, that you are exceptionally excited about these days and believe just holds enormous potential to fight this deadly disease?
Gary: Absolutely! And it’s what’s going on in research right now. We are making exponential progress, maybe not on a daily basis, but certainly on a monthly basis. What we’re finding out, and I’m saying we collectively, not just the American Cancer Society, but all the researchers out there, the biggest challenge we have right now is keeping up with the research. Seriously. And I tell people that we’re finding out, we’re finding new information every day, and we’re failing faster, which is really important, because we’re finding out that something is going to work or not work quicker.
Denver: You’re learning.
Gary: And right now, there’s a lot of excitement about immunotherapy or using your body’s own defense mechanisms to fight cancer so you’re not using chemo; you’re not using radiation. It’s a very exciting area. The best example I give all the time is President Carter. Two years ago, at age 90, he had metastatic melanoma to the brain. He was treated with immunotherapy, and now he’s cancer-free and very active and very engaged.
So I want everyone to know that we’re making incredible progress today. We’re really able to look at all of these cancers at the cellular level and see what’s going on there and what mutations are occurring, and then very quickly determining – do we have something that will stop that mutation? And if we do, then let’s use it; if we don’t, then what do we need to have that will block that mutation or shut it down? So from a research standpoint, very, very exciting.
I’m very optimistic. I tell people—it’s funny. I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by a reporter from Newsweek. Her last question for me was: What’s your vision for the American Cancer Society in the next 10 years? I said, “To be out of business.”
Gary: I said, “That’s my vision. I would love for us to be out of business.” I don’t want to say that we’ll eradicate cancer in the next 10 years, and cancer will always be around because a lot of it is genetically predisposed. But I do feel that we’re getting to a point now to where some of these cancers are being cured, and where I think a lot of them, if they’re not cured, that they will be able to be managed as a chronic disease. So it’s truly, truly exciting what’s going on.
Denver: It sure is! Well, Gary Reedy, the President and CEO of the American Cancer Society, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, the kind of information you have there, and how people can get involved to help support the work of the American Cancer Society?
Gary: Well, I’ll be more than happy to, and thank you for this opportunity. First of all, I tell people all the time: if you get that diagnosis of cancer, or if you have a friend or a neighbor or a loved one, there’s two things you can do immediately that’s going to make you feel a lot better:
We have a toll-free number that you can call. It’s 1-800-227-2345. It’s available 24/7, 365, and we’re there to answer your questions and to help you get the help you need. You can also go to cancer.org, which is our website. There is a ton of information there in layman’s terms that gives you resources, support, and actually provides information about the specific type of cancer that you may have or may want to know about, once again in layman’s terms.
So please call our toll-free number; go to our website. Like I said, we’re there 24/7, 365 for you. Also on our website, there is a place where you can volunteer. Today, we have about 2 million volunteers throughout the United States, so we’ve grown in the last 104 years from that 15,000 to 700,000.
Denver: Ever since the women got involved, you’ve grown.
Gary: And I tell you what, thank goodness they did! But we have over 2 million volunteers, and I’d love to have 2 million more. So we’d love to have you volunteer for the American Cancer Society. You can express your interest to do so on our website. You can call the 800 number and tell people you’d like to volunteer.
Denver: And you can click on that “donate” button, too, right?
Gary: Well, you can. You absolutely can! I tell people today I’ve gotten rid of the term “donor.” I use the term “investor.” I tell people that I don’t want them to give us money, but I want them to invest in us if they think what we’re doing is relevant… so that we can be even more relevant.
So it still says “donate” on there, but maybe one of these days, we’ll change it to “invest.”
Denver: You’re the boss. Go ahead and do it!
Gary: We’d love to have anyone and everyone engage with us in this fight because I can’t think of a better time to be involved in it.
Denver: Fantastic! Well, thanks, Gary. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Gary: Well, thank you very much.
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