LAURA FARMER SHERMAN is the executive director of Susan G. Komen for the Cure in San Diego County. She’s a seven-year breast cancer survivor, has been a volunteer with the organization since 2004 and took the helm of the group in 2007. She’s proud of the work done locally by Komen, and confidently willing to address headlines from the last year brought on by decisions made at the organization’s national level.
What has the past five years been like at the helm of Susan G. Komen for the Cure in San Diego?
Imagine finding a lump in your breast, and knowing you don’t have health insurance to figure out what’s going on. That’s the reality for one out of four women in San Diego facing a breast cancer diagnosis. Working hard to get these women and their families taken care of is what the past five years has been like for me, and the small team here at Komen San Diego. It’s my honor to work for this organization. We’re the only foundation funding programs across the continuum of care in breast cancer — all for uninsured women. That means qualified women receive everything from free diagnostic mammograms and services to free surgery, chemotherapy, meal delivery and temporary financial aid.
What are your immediate goals for the future of the local organization?
Our mission remains the same: We study the barriers preventing women from accessing breast health services in San Diego County; we raise funds through the Race for the Cure and events all year round; then we invest the funds in the form of community grants to help local women get screened, diagnosed and into treatment as fast as possible. Of every dollar raised in San Diego, 75 cents stays here to fund free services and treatments, and 25 cents funds international breast cancer research.
We’re focused on reducing breast cancer incidence and mortality within the next decade. Unfair numbers of young women, and women from Latino, Filipino, African American and other diverse groups are showing up in the emergency rooms of our hospitals with advanced-stage breast cancer. We’re working hard to stop that from happening. But the bottom-line goal? Locally, it’s to make sure every uninsured woman who qualifies for a mammogram receives an annual mammogram and appropriate follow-up care. We believe that where you live and how much money is in your pocket shouldn’t determine if you live.
Last year, the national board found itself in headlines when it proposed defunding Planned Parenthood. Where does that policy stand now?
All San Diego County-based nonprofits working to provide breast health services can request funding from Susan G. Komen for the Cure. That includes Planned Parenthood. Our grants are funded through a fair, very competitive and transparent process. The toughest part of the controversy is that some believe that Komen abandoned the very women we serve. That breaks my heart. We have always stood for the uninsured women in our county who need access to healthcare and a lifeline for survival. We have always stood for keeping up the pace of progress that’s been happening in research to find the cures. That has never changed.
There has also been ongoing criticism that Susan G. Komen for the Cure overstates the benefits of annual mammograms. Is that recommendation still in effect?
Mammography isn’t perfect, but it’s the best widely available detection tool that we have today. We’ve said for years that science has to do better, which is why Komen is putting millions of dollars into research to detect breast cancer before symptoms start, through biomarkers, for example. Komen also is funding research to help accurately predict which tumors will spread and which won’t. While we invest in getting those answers, we think it’s simply irresponsible to effectively discourage women from taking steps to know what’s going on with their health. The numbers are not in question. Early detection allows for early treatment, which gives women the best chance of surviving breast cancer.
What are your most powerful memories from any Komen-related programs held in San Diego?
Family Health Centers presented us with their coveted Spirit of the Barrio award in July. It was presented by a young single mother who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her diagnosis, treatment and services were all provided free through a Komen grant. Now, she works at Family Health Centers helping other women navigate through a breast cancer diagnosis.
Are we any closer today to a cure for breast cancer?
Absolutely! Breast cancer death rates have dropped by 33 percent since 1990 in the U.S. and the five-year relative survival rates for early stage cancers has risen to 99 percent, versus the 74 percent when we first started 30 years ago. We’re funding research along the entire continuum of care: prevention, causes, better screening technology, and treatments for the most aggressive and lethal forms of breast cancer. We want those results to move from the lab to the consumer in the shortest period of time, and they are: 83 clinical trials are either in process or scheduled as a result of our grants. However, breast cancer is a complex disease. We still don’t know exactly why cancer cells start proliferating, why some spread or specifically how environment, diet or lifestyle issues factor into breast cancer development.