In the highly intersecting world of oncology it is not at all uncommon for professional careers to coincide, and the current leadership transition at CancerCare is a case in point.
In 1981 Helen H. Miller, LCSW, was a fledgling oncology social worker at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center under the supervision of Diane Blum, MSW.
Three years later Ms. Blum joined CancerCare as its assistant director of social work before being named social services director and then executive director in 1990.
In 1985 she helped found National Breast Cancer Awareness Week with other cancer organizations.
Ms. Miller remained at Sloan-Kettering and was part of a five-year colon cancer prevention grant that eventually moved to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where she stayed a few more years as director of its HealthOutreach Program before returning to MSK as director of the Cancer Prevention and Wellness Program before being recruited as executive director of the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia & Parkinson Foundation about six years ago.
Ms. Blum spent the next two decades transforming the nonprofit organization founded in 1944 from a regional resource into a national professional support service providing anyone affected by cancer—including patients, survivors, caregivers, children, loved ones, and the bereaved—with counseling, support, education, financial assistance, and practical help free of charge.
Then about a year ago Ms. Blum told me CancerCare had begun its search for her successor since she planned to step down as executive director and take over leadership of the organization's Co-Payment Assistance Foundation, which was started in 2007 to help cancer patients with insurance meet their treatment co-payments.
She was excited about the new venture, and so I was somewhat surprised when I learned that she would be leaving Cancer- Care the end of 2009 to take over as Chief Executive Officer of the Lymphoma Research Foundation.
It was also announced that Ms. Miller had been appointed as CancerCare CEO effective January 2010.
Ms. Blum said that she had been “living with the idea of leaving CancerCare for a long time.”
“During my seventeeth or eighteenth year, I asked myself, ‘Do I want to continue doing this much longer?’ As much as I love this job, change is good.” she said.
She had been serving on the American Society of Clinical Oncology's Cost of Care Task Force and was interested in taking over the Co-Payment Assistance Foundation after her successor was found, but realized that the foundation had become better organized and would no longer constitute a full-time job. “I also knew that staying in the same organization might not permit my successor to make her own mark, and so that might not be the best choice.”
She said she would retain her position as Editor-in-Chief of ASCO's Cancer.Net (www.cancer.net), the society's online cancer resource for the public.
ASCO also recognized her many accomplishments last spring when it presented her with its Partners in Progress Award for addressing the psychosocial needs of cancer patients and their families and improving quality of care.
She said that once word got out that she would be resigning as executive director, she started hearing from search firms, and when the Lymphoma Research Foundation position came along, she was attracted to its clear-cut research focus on a single disease as well as working with its prestigious scientific board and its smaller staff.
She was also only interested in another New York City-based not-for-profit organization. Her husband, Ronald H. Blum, MD, is Director of the Cancer Centers and Programs at Beth Israel Medical Center and St. Luke's-Roosevelt Medical Center.
“The Lymphoma Research Foundation has wonderful educational programs, and a pretty good grassroots effort throughout the country, but the area that will need more work will be fundraising,” she said. ‘I'm sad about leaving CancerCare and will miss the people, but then I'll only be one mile away.”
Interestingly over the past few years Ms. Blum used to comment that she was one of the last executive directors left, since many nonprofit organizations had re-titled their top staff position as CEO or President, and so now CancerCare has finally followed suit with its leadership transition.
OT spoke with Ms. Miller via telephone at the end of December, two weeks before she was slated to take on her new responsibilities. When asked about getting back into cancer work, she was very eager to test out her line, “Diane may have smaller feet, but larger shoes,” saying that although her most recent affiliation may have not been cancer specific, she was always mindful that patients with Parkinson's or other diseases were not immune from cancer, and there was always overlap, and people with melanoma have a higher risk for Parkinson's.
“As my first supervisor at Memorial, Diane served as my mentor. I'm coming into an organization with a strong history, that's functioning and doing well, so I see my role as sticking to CancerCare's mission, while continuing to let it grow and keeping up with changes.”
She said when finances are tight social workers and the services they provide are often the first to be cut. “Part of the problem is that we [social workers] couldn't articulate the outcomes. We've got to be able to better articulate more of the research components of the outcomes,” she said.
She said that when CancerCare had announced her appointment, she received many calls including those from three different longtime friends who had experienced CancerCare services firsthand.
“Each told me about how they had turned to CancerCare when they or loved ones were coping with cancer and how the organization had helped them. I had known them for many years, but never knew they had an affiliation with CancerCare. So we've got to articulate better what the organization does for those with cancer and so those without it know about contacting us when they need to.”
Today CancerCare and its 60 oncology social workers provide free counseling, education, and support services to millions of people affected by cancer nationwide.
Multitude of Services
Under Ms. Blum's tenure the organization also expanded to include its free telephone Connect Education Workshops; Web-based services and publications; the Co-Payment Assistance Foundation; various specialized programs addressing unique needs such as Hispanic Outreach, CancerCare for Kids, and Young Adults; and in addition to its own toll-free telephone helpline (1-800-813-HOPE), its staff runs the toll-free helplines for such other nonprofits as the Lance Armstrong Foundation (until early this year), Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, and the L'Oreal Paris and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund partnership.
The organization also helped distribute $687,000 in transportation-related financial aid to more than 500 cancer patients affected by Hurricane Katrina, and has made $4.7 million available to more than 16,000 people, and provided direct services to more than 90,000 people in all 50 states.
“The skill sets for social workers are pretty generic and involve intervening for someone at a point of crisis,” Ms. Miller said, adding that it was important for CancerCare's board to find another leader with credentials in oncology social work.
Control over How to Cope
She said that it may not always be possible to control the ultimate outcome of cancer, but people can have some control over how they cope with the disease.
Raised in Service-Oriented Environment
A New York City-native, Ms. Miller was the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and was raised in a service-oriented environment, learning at an early age how people deal with crisis. This experience was intensified, she said, when she spent a summer while an undergraduate at Hollins College (now University) working with children at a ministry-based program in Labrador, Canada, and she eventually attended Columbia University where she received her master's degree in social work.
She said her three older brothers also followed socially responsible paths—as a minister, cardiologist (who “mends broken hearts”), and public relations executive involved in nonprofit causes.
And now the self-described five-foot-12-inch tall head of the venerable 65-year-old social service organization knows that by filling the “bigger shoes” of Diane Blum she will have the opportunity to help even more people coping with the crisis of cancer.