An interview with Hala Moddelmog, CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.
Before Susan G. Komen died of breast cancer, she and her sister Nancy Brinker dreamed of a day when the disease would be eradicated. Nancy promised Susan that she would do everything in her power to end the disease forever. She has kept that promise by building an organization that has become the global leader of the breast cancer movement, investing almost $1.5 billion since its inception in 1982.
As CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Hala Moddelmog helps continue the dream the sisters began. A breast cancer survivor and former Fortune 500 executive, Hala already had a passion for championing women’s issues and community engagement before joining the organization in 2006. Her own beginnings as a small-town girl from Hartwell, Georgia bring a unique empathy and perspective that has helped her successfully lead the vast network of staff, affiliates and volunteers needed to make the dream a reality.
Hala is married to Steve Moddelmog, a financial consultant and accomplished musician. She has a son Ty, who works for Teach America in New York City, and a daughter Kierstin who is a senior at the University of Colorado.
The Dew sat down with Hala to talk to her about the challenges still ahead:
The Dew: The story of Nancy Brinker and her sister, Susan G. Komen is now legendary. Did Susan have children or other family members who are involved with your organization?
Hala: Susan had two children and her son, Scott, is very much involved with Komen’s St. Louis Affiliate. Additionally, Nancy’s son, Eric Brinker, was one of Komen’s first volunteers — he was a child when Nancy began her work and he grew up with the movement, so he remains active today with Komen’s Peoria Affiliate (Nancy and Susan’s home town) and as one of our most devoted and active “volunteers at large.”
The Dew: Since Nancy began this, so many wonderful innovations have evolved, including genetic testing for the breast cancer gene. Has Nancy had this done? Since you have had breast cancer, is this something you would want your own daughter to do? What is Komen’s position on women having this done, and in some cases, having a preventative mastectomy?
Hala: Let’s combine the two questions. We are absolutely in favor of giving women all the tools they need to make their own decisions about their health with their families and with their doctors, which is why we have extensive information on our web site at www.komen.org. We wouldn’t presume to make a recommendation for such a personal decision such as whether a woman should have a preventive mastectomy or gene testing. I would, however, be in favor of my own daughter being tested, if only to get her started on a regimen of additional screenings to catch any ensuing tumor.
The Dew: As the healthcare reform issues rage, how deeply has Komen been involved? No doubt, uninsured women and men are at the greatest risk in our country. What is Komen’s position on the healthcare reform package/s and specifically, the so-called public option?
Hala: We’re at a place in this country where poverty is now a risk factor for not surviving cancer. We know that uninsured people in the U.S. are 60 percent more likely to die of cancer within five years. Too many people don’t have access to the health care system or face financial ruin when they do, and a large part of our advocacy platform is ensuring access to quality cancer care for everyone, along with supporting legislation to get quality information about breast cancer to young women. Komen has been very active on Capitol Hill throughout this debate. Our Komen Advocacy Alliance has more information at www.komen.org (including the opportunity to sign our petitions or otherwise become involved).
The Dew: Another issue in health reform is of course the pre-existing condition, which causes rates to go so high that some women who have had breast cancer are forced to go uninsured. Does Komen have statistics on women in the U.S. who are have died because of dropped/lack of insurance?
Hala: As I said, we know that uninsured people are 60 percent more likely to die of cancer within five years than their insured counterparts. We favor requiring coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
The Dew: On that note, does Komen see a statistical difference in the incidence of women per capita who get breast cancer (or die from it) in countries that have national health (i.e.,. the UK, France, etc).
Hala: There is a lot of rhetoric today around those comparisons, but in our view, it’s not accurate to compare specific death rates, survival rates, incidence rates, etc., to any one variable such as a national health care system. Cancer is complicated. Many factors contribute to incidence and mortality rates.
The Dew: Do you see a shift in how your organization is working with the new presidential administration versus the previous? What are the differences that you have perceived?
Hala: We’ve worked alongside a number of presidential administrations in the past 27 years and we have excellent relationships with the Obama Administration and President Obama’s predecessors in the White House. Our view is that breast cancer is a non-partisan issue.
The Dew: So many high-profile women have spoken of their cancer. But men get the disease as well. What are the statistics? Is breast cancer in men related to any other characteristics or genetic markers? Is it more severe for men than women? Should all men do checks the way women do? Has Komen urged men to talk about their stories as well?
Hala: Roughly 1,900 men will get breast cancer and about 450 will die of breast cancer in the United States this year. Some 192,000 women will be diagnosed and about 40,000 will die. Though rare, men absolutely should know the look and feel of their breasts and report changes such as a lump to their doctors. Komen has extensive information for men on our web site, www.komen.org.
The Dew: You came from a business background. How was that perceived in the not-for-profit community of fundraisers, volunteers, researchers and public policy lobbyists? What were the challenges you faced? How did you earn your stripes with those various constituencies?
Hala: That wasn’t an issue at all. There are a lot of similarities between leading a non-profit and leading a for-profit corporation. In each, you must have a vision, good people, and a need that you’re trying to address. Both require risk-taking, good financial judgment, the right investments in the right programs, and both require that you produce results. In our case, the results can be measured in terms of lives saved and scientific advancements achieved, and the results are encouraging. We’ve invested $1.5 billion into our mission – a third of that in research which has touched every major advance in breast cancer science. And we’re seeing higher survival rates as a result and more personalized treatments for different types of breast cancer (as opposed to the one-size-fits-all approach of mastectomy, chemo and radiation that was the only course of treatment 30 years ago). There are 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States today. That’s the largest number of cancer survivors and a testament to our investments in education, early detection, awareness and science.
The Dew: Coming from a business background that is all about competition, how do you work with other breast cancer organizations? Is it collaborative process or do you fight for the same dollars/funding?
Hala: It’s fair to say that just about every breast cancer organization has its own reason for forming and its own set of priorities. Some organizations focus more on research; some on education or awareness; some for advocacy. Susan G. Komen for the Cure does all of it – research, awareness, support for women and men in the community, advocacy and international outreach. We have a great respect for the work that breast cancer organizations are doing. We even help to fund some programs run by the American Cancer Society in our communities. We have tremendous collaborations internationally through partnerships like the Samsung Breast Cancer Initiative in Europe and non-governmental and government agencies in about 50 countries, where we’re helping to establish programs that will help address breast cancer issues, particularly in developing countries.
The Dew: The obvious priority and mission for your organization is a cure. What are some of the other short term goals along the way to achieve that?
Hala: We’re learning so much about this disease but there is so much more to learn. We’re on the cusp of knowing why some breast cancers become aggressive and others don’t. We’d like to develop methods that would help us differentiate between the two with specificity. That could, in turn, lead to very simple tests – like blood tests — that would help us detect cancers before they develop, and even determine which cancers might be the ones to worry about and which might not be. Ultimately, we’d like to have a vaccine against breast cancer, just as we have vaccines for polio and other diseases that were at one time considered incurable and unavoidable. Komen is funding research into all of this, incidentally, and $20 million of our $50 million research portfolio this year was devoted just to prevention research. While we fund that science, we’re also investing in research that has the best potential – in the next decade — to reduce the incidence of breast cancer and mortality from the disease.