Liz Thompson provides leadership for Susan G. Komen for the Cure®

By Doug Murano

It all began with a promise.

Inspired by her sister Susan G.Komen’s strength and compassion for others during her battle with breast cancer, Ambassador Nancy Brinker vowed that she would dedicate her life to the eradication of the disease. Although breast cancer ultimately claimed Susan’s life, her legacy lives on. To honor Susan’s memory, in 1982, Brinker founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, a nonprofit that focuses on breast cancer awareness and research. Nearly 30 years later, the group has become the largest such organization in the world—and second only to the National Cancer Institute in terms of funding for breast cancer research. Its mission has reached all corners of the country, and more than 50 countries around the world, encouraging women to make commitments to themselves and each other while delivering a message of hope and healing.

In light of this, perhaps it’s fitting that USD grad Liz Thompson ’84 B.S., who serves as national president of Susan
G. Komen for the Cure®, began her history with the organization with a commitment to an important woman in her own life. Thompson seized the opportunity to work for Susan G. Komen for the Cure® after a long and successful career in publishing and cancer advocacy. Her decision was part of an effort to advance the cause of breast cancer awareness and treatment in honor of one of her professional mentors, and in September of 2010, she was promoted to president of the organization.

Today, she dedicates her time to building upon her commitment—and that of the organization’s founder—forging partnerships with regional partners and world leaders alike to make innovative strides toward better health for women everywhere.

Weekly Reading on the Rural Route
Far from the globetrotting that characterizes her current schedule, Thompson described an idyllic childhood growing
up on a farm that sat along an old dirt road just northwest of Mitchell, S.D. She spent her first- through eighth-grade years in a two-room country school, but Thompson said her early education provided a broader set of experiences than she might have had if she’d been in a more conventional classroom.

“I was probably one of the last generations to go to a country school like that,” she noted. “There were some amazing things there—if you could read and write at other levels, you could move through the classroom. You learned a lot by osmosis, from other things that were going on around you.”

By the time Thompson entered classes at Plankinton High School, in Plankinton, S.D., she had developed an insatiable intellectual curiosity and the ability to appreciate and interact with a wide variety of people in various age groups.
“I’ve never met somebody who wasn’t a friend—or a potential friend,” she explained. “I think that rural upbringing in
South Dakota helped me to understand that at the end of the day, it’s not about an area, it’s about the individuals who live there.”

Thompson speaks at a Susan G. Komen for the Cure event.

It’s an insight that serves her well in her current duties, which often involve building relationships across multiple levels of society. Thompson also recalls developing an intense love of the written word. Since her family’s mailbox was a half-mile away from the house, heading out to retrieve the “Weekly Reader” became something of a ritual for Thompson.

“I would sit down on the road—a typical, dusty South Dakota dirt road—and read my “Weekly Reader” and totally forget the rest of the world,” she said. “It gave me so much joy to understand that I was connecting with other people who were learning about the same things at the same time.”

A Citizen of a Larger World
Given her interests, Thompson’s choice to enroll as a communication studies major at the University of South Dakota
felt like the natural one, after completing a “mini college tour” to SDSU, USD and Augustana College. “I was really planning on going into publishing,” she noted. “I thought that communications studies would give me the
best edge.”

Thompson’s class time with Nancy McCahren, former instructor of English, conjures up her most vivid memories.
Thompson recalled one hot August day during the first week of her freshman year. The building in which class was held had no air conditioning and she described classmates fanning themselves, trying to stay cool.

“In spite of that, [McCahren] held our rapt attention talking about the books we were going to be reading, the things we were going to be thinking about, and the ways we were going to use that type of thinking to move ourselves forward as citizens. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can’t imagine there was any place I would rather be,’” she said, noting after that class period, no matter what the weather, she made every effort to never miss one of McCahren’s classes. Thompson said McCahren’s enthusiasm for teaching and citizenship in the larger world, coupled with the faculty’s collective focus on providing ample personal attention, empowered her to become an active learner and instilled within her the confidence required to take risks.

“My high school graduating class had less than 30 kids in it, so for me to come to a place like USD with thousands of kids
was big,” she explained. “The amazing amount of time these individuals spent with you gave you the confidence to work
within the framework of a larger world. I know that gave me the confidence to go forward and try new things and, of course, sometimes fail,” she added.

A Fateful Meeting
After graduation, Thompson relocated to Minneapolis to begin a publishing career that would span more than 15 years, with Appleton and Lange, which was owned by a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster. It was while working for Lynn Richter Patterson—the first woman ever to be a president of a major medical publishing company—that she was inspired to greater heights and to use her skills and knowledge in service of finding a cure for breast cancer.

“Lynn had this wild, unruly hair that she didn’t like, and she would wear wigs from time to time because she didn’t really like curling her hair,” said Thompson. “She was an exceedingly fashionable woman who would change her look often, but we noticed as employees that she seemed to be starting to wear wigs more and more often.”

Fast-forward about a year. By then, Thompson had been promoted twice within the company, and one day, the two ladies
were in Patterson’s office discussing a strategic business issue. Though Thompson knew Patterson wasn’t well, she didn’t know exactly what was wrong. By the end of the meeting, she would understand—and have the beginnings of a new direction in life.

“After we’d finished our business discussion, we had a very candid conversation where she told me that she had metastatic breast cancer,” said Thompson, who said Patterson also confided that she expected that she had only three or four months left to live. “She didn’t feel that she was able to tell any of her officers, she hadn’t told her boss yet and she said, ‘I am afraid to. I’m afraid as a woman to admit that I have a woman’s disease. I’m afraid to have frailty, and I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I ask for help or if I tell them what’s wrong with me,’” she continued.

Patterson finished the conversation with a request: that Thompson utilize her talents to make a real difference in the world. Thompson admits she was dumbfounded at the news, but managed to ask about what Patterson had in mind.
“She said, ‘I think you need to do something about breast cancer,’” Thompson said. At the time, Thompson didn’t believe she had the knowledge or expertise to take on such a challenge, but Patterson assured her she’d recognize the opportunity when it came—and she’d be ready.

It would be several more years. Building her career steadily, Thompson worked through project management and marketing aspects of the industry before finishing as a publisher responsible for sales, marketing, product development and business financials throughout the United States, Europe, India, Asia and the Pacific Rim. She says she loved the work, but given the international travel required by her position, finding a satisfactory career/life balance proved difficult.

Ironically, her decision to focus on her family life led her to the direction that Patterson suggested years before. She was ready to honor her promise to her mentor, and first joined the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, then helped found an organization dedicated to colorectal cancer, and then to head of government affairs and research for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). In 2008, she joined Susan G. Komen for the Cure® as managing director, overseeing the organization’s vast research medical and scientific affairs program. Two years later, she would be the organization’s president.

A Global Effort
In the years since her discussion with Patterson, the time in our country when a woman could not utter the words “breast cancer” in polite company or amongst her colleagues has passed. Much of the stigma surrounding the disease is gone, thanks in large part to the Komen organization’s development and mastery of “cause-related marketing” (see: “Think Pink”) and the thousands of men and women who have taken on responsibility to raise funds and awareness through grassroots efforts. Indeed, particularly during October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month), one sees Komen’s presence everywhere, from local events to television ads, to NFL fields decorated with the group’s signature pink ribbon. More and more women are receiving the message, getting screened and catching breast cancers at their earliest and most treatable stages.

“Certainly, in our country we have broken down those barriers tremendously,” said Thompson. “We’ve also, through our
Race for the Cure, figured out how to engage people all over our amazing country and now 50 other countries around the world,” she added.

The organization’s success, she said, comes from its “grassroots/grasstops” strategy. It’s a simple strategy with a complicated execution. From the “grassroots” end, she and her colleagues form partnerships with people who have high visibility in their communities. These partners assist the Komen organization in mobilizing area residents in fundraising efforts, building awareness about the need for screening and providing support to women already undergoing breast cancer treatments. Often they are local medical professionals, since they are the first point of contact for breast cancer patients. At the “grass tops” level, she collaborates with government leaders, finance ministers and ambassadors, in efforts to get a sense of the scope of their region’s cancer burden, identify the needs and rights of the citizens, assist them in forging strategic partnerships and setting a research agenda. “There has to be a natural tension and a push-pull between the two,” she explained of the importance of this dual dynamic.

One of the Komen organization’s most recent and ambitious initiatives was announced in September 2011, an effort called
Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon®. A unique public-private partnership of the George W. Bush Institute, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Susan G. Komen for the Cure  and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon will expand the availability of vital cervical cancer screening and treatment and breast cancer screening and education in developing nations.

Starting in Africa, the Komen organization will help build breast and cervical cancer support systems where Red Ribbon had already built the medical infrastructure for HIV and AIDS care. “What we’re finding is that in countries that really understand how to deliver AIDS care, women are now dying of cervical cancer and breast cancer at alarming rates,” she said. Should the initial stage of the project succeed, Thompson expects eventual expansion to other locations, including Latin America, China and Russia. While they may not have HIV/AIDS infrastructure, medical facilities throughout each country exist for other reasons.“This really is about understanding how to use existing infrastructure to improve global public health,” she explained.

Challenges Remain
Despite the progress of the past few decades, Thompson is quick to add that much work remains. “There is a big difference in the amount of awareness, but today in our country forty percent of the women who are eligible to be screened, are not being screened,” she said. “So we know that while women know they should be screened, and if they are diagnosed they can talk about cancer, they still need to make a choice to put themselves first and follow screening guidelines.” Thompson went on to explain that in countries where attitudes toward women and medical issues may not be as progressive as they are in the U.S., challenging deep-seated perceptions is a key part of their efforts. “There are many places where that openness is not there,” Thompson said. “There are some places where there are laws where you could be stoned to death for having breast cancer. There are laws on the books in some countries where men could divorce their wives and cast out their female children, just because the mother has breast cancer, and that would mean that the daughter could then be ‘defective,’” she continued.

Thompson emphasized she’s ready to meet those challenges, and feels more energetic than ever about her career path and the goals she supports. In fact, listening to Thompson discuss her work provides flashes of that young girl who had a zeal for learning—the same girl who walked the familiar path down the old country road toward the mailbox and her “Weekly Reader.”

“At 49, I am still learning,” she said. “I am not done learning and I am not done changing. I certainly have not finished the contributions I hope to make.”

To become involved or learn more about Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, visit www.komen.org, and click on a ribbon near you.

Watch an interview with Elizabeth Thompson that highlights Susan G. Komen for the Cure® and their efforts in research and treatment.

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