Brenda Neville, president and CEO of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, launches into high gear during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. “While I am not a survivor of breast cancer, I am a survivor of losing my baby sister Tracy to this disease on July 17, 2017,” says Neville, whose sister died at 46, leaving behind a husband, a 14-year-old son and a classroom of kids who lost their teacher. After Tracy’s death, breast cancer education and awareness became a priority for Brenda. 


Over time, she has continued to encourage and educate both men and women about breast cancer and the many proactive steps that can be taken to detect it early. “Every employer says they care about their employees,” says Neville, “but one way they can really show that ‘love’ for their employees is to raise awareness and to promote mammograms and healthy habits to prevent the disease.”


I have known many women who died of breast cancer but am also fortunate to know many who survived because of early detection -- including my sister-in-law. Unfortunately, the CDC recently reported 80% declines in breast cancer screenings during the start of the pandemic, which increases the probability of cancer being discovered at later stages and with worse prognosis. It does not have to be this way.


Businesses and leaders have a role to play in preventing a disease that attacks half of the population and workforce. Early detection and treatment can pave the way for better outcomes for women, so they can get on with their personal and professional lives.


One person who benefited from early detection is Mary Whisenand, senior relationship manager at Mercer Health and Benefits Administration LLC in Des Moines. After years of routine annual mammograms, Mary was surprised by a follow-up call from her physician, who said, “We see something that we can’t quite pinpoint. ... Can we do an ultrasound?” 


Mary had an ultrasound, but it wasn’t conclusive so her doctor did a biopsy. The results did not indicate cancer, but were not benign. The radiologist referred her to a surgeon and she was diagnosed with atypical ducal hyperplasia, which her surgeon described as the cells being “all revved up, ready to go, but haven’t turned the corner” to full-blown cancer. She went in for a lumpectomy on a Friday and was released later in the day. She returned to work on Monday and went right back into her routine, saying, “Other than my direct manager and a few very close co-workers, no one was aware why I was out that one day.” 


In the subsequent five years, Mary has met regularly with her surgeon and oncologist to monitor her health. She says that early detection allowed her to get on with her life, noting, “Other than time off for appointments and the one day of my surgery, it didn’t interrupt my career like having radiation, chemotherapy or mastectomy would have.” Grateful for her outcome but mindful that others’ stories have not ended so easily, Mary has worked tirelessly to promote breast cancer awareness.


Like Mary, Deann Cook, president and CEO of United Ways of Iowa, was always proactive about breast cancer screenings. However, just a year after a healthy mammogram, a small cancer appeared. Early detection meant the treatment plan was straightforward, quick and without much discomfort. “I am now cured of breast cancer,” says Cook. “This diagnosis was a bump in the road instead of a life-altering experience because we got it early.”


 In sharing her diagnosis with colleagues and friends, Cook soon learned that many women have fallen behind in their mammography schedule for several reasons, including COVID, inconvenience, fear or sometimes simply forgetting. “It’s certainly not an appointment anyone is excited about,” says Cook, “but it is literally 10 minutes that has the potential to extend your life.” She now encourages everyone she encounters to stop putting off mammography. “Fear of cancer is real,” she says, but allowing it to go undetected by ignoring it is “not a cancer-fighting strategy.” 


Deniz Franke, private wealth adviser at Franke Miller Group in West Des Moines, was also diligent about yearly checkups, having witnessed her mother’s fight with breast cancer. After her breast tissue appeared denser than it had in the past, her doctor wanted to do an ultrasound and a biopsy to get a more definitive result. “I learned I had stage 1 low-grade ductal carcinoma,” says Franke. She ended up getting a lumpectomy, but after the surgery the labs revealed not all the cancerous tissue had been removed so she had to repeat the procedure. After a month of healing, she underwent radiation treatments and was able to return to her practice.


“Paying attention to your family history is very important,” says Franke, who urges women to get regular screenings. She advises, “A few minutes of pain is worth dealing with breast cancer treatment or preventing death, so go and get checked.”


Dr. Susan Beck, medical director of MercyOne Katzmann Breast Care, advises all women to get regular mammograms, and also points out that the incidence of breast cancer for white and Black women is about the same, but Black women have a 42% higher chance of dying from the disease.


Beck emphasizes that keeping women healthy is good for business and essential for our community. “Women, especially women of color, play a vibrant role in businesses across the country,” says Beck. “Their health is important for business and family dynamics to run smoothly.

What can business leaders do to support Breast Cancer Awareness?

  • Make education and support a priority. Neville says since losing her sister, her  awareness of breast cancer increased, noting, “Breast cancer impacts a large number of people, and because of the scope of impact, it needs to be on business leaders’ radar all the time.” 
  • Invest in your team’s health. Whisenand says, “Businesses are about investment -- in clients, goods, services and employees.” She urges leaders to maintain a culture of promoting basic health screenings and to make it clear that the business stands behind employees taking time away for those screenings.
  • Empower women to get regular mammograms. “Early detection represents one area where women can take charge of their health,” says Cook. “Businesses interested in creating a culture of health and well-being can support women in being proactive about mammography,” she says, pointing out that the earliest possible detection and medical intervention for breast cancer equals less treatment, recovery, and time out of life and the workforce.