The finish line is in sight.
Yes, there still remains much ground to cover on the journey, but the goal has appeared on the horizon and it’s coming into sharper focus with each passing day and each stride forward. Crossing that finish line and eliminating breast cancer mortality is close, according to Erica Bills. It’s also something the executive director of Susan G. Komen Michigan plans to be part of when the day finally arrives.
Excitement, concern, hope, empathy and enthusiasm show through when Bills speaks about her work with the nonprofit dedicated to combating breast cancer in the state. Even a little irritation can spark when she discusses some of the obstacles that still stand as barriers on the path to treatment and preventative care for residents, but Bills is quick to toss in a humorous aside – maybe even peppered with some slight wink-and-a-nod sarcasm – to let her audience at the Lansing office of Susan G. Komen Michigan know that it’s all just part of a day’s work. The good and the bad, the successes and the setbacks – it’s simply the package containing the passion and purpose of her job.
Bills was named as executive director of Susan G. Komen Michigan in February 2017, after serving for several years on the organization’s board of directors. As the familiar story goes, she initially volunteered to serve on the board because her life was personally touched by breast cancer. Her grandmother succumbed to the disease and Bills knew she wanted to get involved, be a part of something positive from the experience, become an active agent working toward a solution. She was slightly taken aback when her new resolve was met with some initial resistance: a statement along the lines of “There is so much focus on breast cancer; why not put your focus on something else?”
“That was a frustrating comment to hear,” Bills said. “Why would you stop building a house when you’re 98 percent done?”
Komen Michigan is engaging in a strong push toward that last 2 percent with its goal to cut breast cancer deaths in the state in half by 2026. Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of death for Michigan women. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services projected that 8,160 new cases of breast cancer in Michigan women would be diagnosed in 2017, resulting in 1,410 deaths. Cutting such projections by 50 percent is setting a high bar, but not one that is insurmountable, Bills said.
“It’s an enormous goal, but you have to break it down into workable pieces,” she said.
Using Jackson County’s 26 deaths from breast cancer as an example, Bills explained that by diagnosing two additional county residents each year who would otherwise go undiagnosed would meet Komen Michigan’s goal for that county. However, finding those two undiagnosed residents also means that an additional 304 women would need to be screened who otherwise wouldn’t be, Bills added.
How that happens plays into Komen Michigan’s other relatively new objective: a refocused mission on education and community engagement.
“We had always been more event-focused. We wanted people to come to us,” Bills said. “But those in the greatest need, those who are being underserved, aren’t going to go to the doctor. underserved, aren’t going to go to the doctor. We will go to the communities and to where they go – community organizations, churches. We have changed our focus to outreach.”
Of particular importance is outreach to women of color, Bills added, noting that African-American woman are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer and are much more likely to have a less complete health background, meaning they may not know of hidden genetic dangers that could be caught through early detection by health screenings.
“We need to let people know that these disparities exist and how to change them,” Bills said. “It’s about learning to be your own health advocate and how to ask questions to the doctor.”
Such inequalities are explored in the HBO film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” starring Oprah Winfrey. Komen Michigan is hosting free screenings of the film as bookends to its Powerfully Pink awards luncheon on Dec. 6 at Celebration Cinema North in Grand Rapids. The free screenings are open to the public, but Bills noted that a morning showing is specifically targeted to high school and college students.
“Our goal is to expose people to this at an early age and educate them on the importance of health equity and being your own advocate,” Bills said. “Even if we have one student walk away with an increased clarity to the health care services that are available, it will be a success.”
Visit komenmichigan.org for more information.