Daily Record–New Jersey native is new Susan G. Komen president

October 4, 2013

Written by MaryLynn Schiavi Special to Gannett New Jersey | dailyrecord.com

She has moved to Dallas from Washington D.C. to assume her new role Sept. 9 as president and chief executive officer of Susan G. Komen, but Dr. Judith A. Salerno, born and raised in Newark, said she will always keep memories of New Jersey close to her heart.

In her new role, Salerno will be responsible for the day-to-day operations and strategic vision of Komen, established in 1982 by Nancy Goodman Brinker after her sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer at 33.

Best known for its pink ribbon logo and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure event, Komen has grown into the largest organization in the world dedicated to the eradication of breast cancer. In 1982, the first race included 800 runners. In 2011, the event drew more than 1.6 million participants and 100,000 volunteers.

In her previous role, Salerno served as executive director and chief operating officer of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. She was responsible for directing the institute’s research and policy programs and guiding the Institute’s operations on a daily basis. She also oversaw the National Cancer Policy Forum.

In an exclusive interview, Salerno shared her vision for the nationwide organization that has raised more than $2.2 billion since its inception. As Salerno pointed out, during this time the survival rate for those diagnosed with breast cancer has increased from 74 to 98 percent.

And of her New Jersey connection?
“I have always had a profound affection for New Jersey. I grew up in Newark in a neighborhood where everyone knew each other. It was a warm and friendly place to grow up,” Salerno said.

One of her fondest memories of New Jersey were the days she spent on the roller coaster rides at
Seaside Heights.
Question: What are you most excited about in your new role as president and CEO?
So far it’s been an amazing journey. In the process of transitioning into my role with Susan G. Komen, I have been meeting people everywhere, survivors of breast cancer and even complete strangers, who have told me their stories about how they have been helped. I feel it is such a privilege to be part of an organization that has done so much for so many.

What do you see as your greatest challenges?
I think finding a way to handle the dual message. We want to communicate how much Komen has
accomplished but we also need to communicate that there is still so much work to be done. Breast cancer is still the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in women. So we have to keep going until we eradicate this disease. We’ve done a lot in the last 31 years. We need to look at survival rates which have improved dramatically. When Komen was founded the survival rate was 74 percent. Today it is 98 percent. Komen has played a major role in raising awareness and promoting education about the disease.

What can the organization be most proud of and count as its greatest accomplishments?
I think what Komen can be most proud of is bring the discussion about breast cancer out of the shadows — overall increasing awareness and being willing to support women who have breast cancer. I think the work of Komen is reflected in the wonderful statistics we have today.

While Komen ultimately reversed its decision to discontinue funding to Planned Parenthood in early 2012, do you think this has created significant problems for the organization going forward?
We turned the corner on that issue a long time ago. We have moved on and are focusing on what we are here to do. At the center of our mission is to help women with breast cancer.

What are the most important messages you hope to convey?
We have a scientific advisory board that is grounded in the best science and we have significant research grants. This is a disease that we can approach through science and awareness to make a real difference in the lives of women and men. This is the 21st century and we are learning so much more about the genetics of the disease and what happens at the molecular level and the role of environmental factors.

The most important message is: we won’t stop until we eradicate the disease.

What else would you like the community to know about Komen’s commitment to extinguishing
breast cancer?
Komen has raised more than $2.2 billion which has been used in cutting edge research, education,
awareness, and providing breast cancer screening and therapy, funding for mammograms as well as child care. We have been and continue to be a comprehensive organization that continues to support research that will make a profound difference. The funds that people collect when they participate in our Race for the Cure events demonstrate that we have grassroots support. So much is collected through the efforts of individuals as well as our sponsors at the national level. The participants in our races run the gamut from children running to honor their grandparents as well as members of large corporations.

What offers you the greatest hope that we will eradicate breast cancer in the coming decades?
The pace of science in the last 50 years has been incredible. Our 21st century science affords us the opportunity to investigate the most promising prevention and treatment. However, government funding for breast cancer is not increasing, especially in light of our current problems with the national budget. Komen has been the second largest funder of breast cancer research next to the federal government.

Final thoughts?
As an organization we are moving to the next level. I like to call it Komen 2.0. We have done so much to support research and we are going to intensify our focus — working to the point where we are not needed any more — because we will have conquered this disease.