10 Questions with Ashley DeGooyer Executive director of the American Cancer Society, South Region
Thursday, November 8, 2018
Posted by: Andrea Evans
By Judy Pearson
1. How did you become involved with the American Cancer Society (ACS)?
My education revolved around counseling psychology with an emphasis in social work. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to helping others who are faced with challenges. When I started with ACS as a patient navigator in 2009, it was a great fit. My work gave me the opportunity to serve patients and their families, an experience that changed the way I look at life. In some capacity, most lives have been touched by cancer. Oddly, when I started with ACS I didn’t have a personal connection to the disease. Now, nearly 10 years later, my life has been personally impacted by cancer time and again: aunts, best friends’ family members, childhood friends. People seek me out for support and I’m able to comfort loved ones diagnosed with this disease in ways I couldn’t imagine if my path had been different.
2. You’ve worn a number of hats with the organization. Can you give us a glimpse into each role?
My first position as patient navigator allowed me to support newly diagnosed cancer patients through the continuum of care, removing barriers through our programs and supplying resources. I transitioned to become a health systems manager, where I worked directly with top-level executives to promote systems change and incorporate ACS programs. As the senior director of community engagement, I oversaw the Society’s work in metro Phoenix and Tucson, promoting it in the community and aligning it with community partners. My focus was on promoting events and raising awareness of our programs, services and presence in the community. Now, as the executive director of the Southwest area, my work has expanded to include Arizona, New Mexico and El Paso.
3. What do you see as the organization’s biggest challenges?
Educating communities about our lifesaving mission. The public knows our name. They know we hold fundraising events like Relay for Life and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. But they don’t know how that fundraising translates into support for cancer patients right here in Arizona. I want my region’s population to be aware of the things we offer, such as transportation to treatment, lodging and other services for patients and caregivers. I want them to know about the importance of prevention and early detection, and how the research done nationally impacts the people diagnosed locally.
4. What has been the organization’s biggest impact?
Without a doubt, it’s our research program. ACS has been at the forefront of cancer research, playing a role in nearly every major cancer breakthrough. Since 1946, we’ve invested more than $4.6 billion in research and 47 of the researchers ACS have funded have gone on to win a Nobel Prize! We were the first to acknowledge a link between smoking and lung cancer, underwrote the research and discovery of the BRCA gene mutation linked to breast and ovarian cancer, developed the drug Herceptin to treat breast cancer, and more.
5. How do you see integrative oncology fitting into cancer treatment?
Many patients seek integrative oncology when faced with a cancer diagnosis, whether to relieve the treatment effects or to explore treatment options with fewer side effects. Some simply want to take a more active role in their health and wellness. Whether or not to use complementary and alternative medicine in addition to traditional treatment is up to the patient. ACS urges patients to talk to their doctors and ask questions about their personal treatment. Patients need to realize they’re empowered and are their best own advocate.
6. What are the best things a family member or friend can do for a survivor?
The best thing is to continue to be “you.” What I mean by this is to continue to be the family member or friend you’ve always been. Too often, we let the diagnosis change the way we act toward people, when that loved one really needs the consistency and normalcy of the relationship not to change. Recognize that the loved one diagnosed is just as worried about you as you are about him or her. Allow them to feel their emotions; there are so many in a cancer diagnosis. Patients, too, need to be kind to others and themselves. I’ve often seen patients who feel they have to constantly be strong through cancer and put on the “I’m OK” front. That’s not necessary. Ride the roller coaster that is your treatment. Lean on the people who love you. Be true to yourself.
7. ACS does fabulous work researching better treatments and finding a cure. What kind of work does the organization do in survivorship?
Survivors are the backbone of the work we do. More than 15 million Americans are alive today due in part to our efforts. Our approach is multifaceted, beginning with our patient navigators, who help newly diagnosed patients deal with the complexities of treatment and lifestyle changes. They make patients aware of free programs or discounted lodging when cancer patients must travel for treatment. Often, patients don’t have friends or family locally who can drive them to treatment, or they don’t have a car or simply don’t feel up to driving. Our Road to Recovery program provides the free transportation they need to get to potentially lifesaving appointments. ACS also has online communities for survivors to connect with each other.
8. Of all work ACS does, can you name the one closest to your heart?
It would have to be our patient navigation program. Each day, our navigators meet with people and their families who have just heard the words, “You have cancer.” They are the front line to navigating the cancer journey and are able to answer the multitude of questions that come after a diagnosis. The ability to support an individual in the fight of their life, and be an unbiased ear — regardless of whether they have no one or have an incredible support system — is still something I believe makes the most personal impact in saving lives.
9. Are we getting closer to cancer being 100 percent curable?
Cancer is an incredibly complex disease. It’s actually more than 100 different diseases, all with their own distinct features. A breast cancer diagnosis, for example, can be one of a variety of subsets of that disease. Because different kinds of cancer are treated differently and tend to have different outcomes, it’s not likely there will ever be one singular “cure.” However, many cancers — breast cancer, most skin cancers, testicular cancer and others — have a high cure rate through medical treatments, and improvements in prevention and early detection. ACS supports initiatives, like the HPV vaccine initiative. We educate and create awareness of the disease, while honoring cultural and generational differences. All of this will allow us to see survivorship continue to grow.
10. After nearly a decade with ACS, can you share the most inspiring story you’ve encountered?
I couldn’t choose just one. Patients, caregivers and volunteers inspire me in different capacities. From the melanoma survivor who rescheduled a chemotherapy appointment so she could testify in front of lawmakers on the importance of banning tanning for minors, to the caregiver who became a Road to Recovery driver after their loved one passed away so everyone can get the treatment they need, to the countless people we meet each day who share their stories of perseverance, I’ve been taught never to take life for granted. The perspective I’ve been given through meeting cancer patients and hearing their stories helps me feel fortunate to wake up.
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