Just over 10 years ago, Cati Diamond Stone was a litigation attorney practicing as in-house counsel at a large corporation. But a diagnosis – Stage III breast cancer – changed her life and career path forever.
For the past seven years, she’s dedicated her career to the organization responsible for researching and providing the critical care she needed to survive her diagnosis: Susan G. Komen. As the organizations’ vice president for community health, Stone now works to ensure that breast cancer survivors, patients and caregivers across the country receive the care and support they need.
It’s a mission that Walgreens is proud to support: in October 2019, Walgreens announced a $25 million multi-year commitment with Komen (along with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society) to enable research in tough-to-treat cancers and increase access to care.
Walgreens News spoke with Stone about her life, career and the work Komen and Walgreens are doing to research, detect, prevent and treat breast cancer in the U.S.
Walgreens News: What brought you to Komen?
Cati Diamond Stone: Just a few weeks after my diagnosis, I learned that Komen was working on a clinical trial with a drug that would be pivotal to my survival. A few months later, I joined the board of a nonprofit organization working with Komen to drive impact in the community, which is when I became aware of Komen’s 360-degree approach to the disease. As I worked through my two years of treatment, I decided to pursue a career that would allow me to help others detect and survive breast cancer, just like I did. For me, that meant a career with Komen.
WN: What are some of the ways Komen supports breast cancer patients and survivors?
CDS: One of the things that makes Komen unique is that we work to ensure that people have everything they need at every stage of their care. We do a lot of work to ensure that every person has access to care to begin with. For those with a diagnosis, we offer patient navigation, psychosocial support, and treatment assistance program that provides financial support for patients in need who are currently in treatment. We have breast care and clinical trials helplines that are available free of charge to anyone who may have questions about the breast cancer journey or need access to resources. We also have support groups and educational opportunities for survivors and those living with metastatic breast cancer, as well as their caregivers.
We know that every patient requires unique and individualized care, and we are proud to present high quality programming that is available for every patient, no matter where they live or where they are in their breast cancer journey.
WN: What is the focus of your role at Komen, specifically?
CDS: I am the vice president of community health, and I lead a team that’s focused on community health interventions, such as the breast cancer and clinical trials helplines and our treatment assistance program. We're building out a new patient navigation program to supplement some foundational work we already have on the ground, as well as a nationwide screening and diagnostics program.
What we know, through our research and analysis, is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach that applies from community to community. People living in urban communities require different things than those living in rural communities. We know that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by breast cancer and other diseases. That’s why our team focuses on executing interventions that allow us to get closer to patients and meet them where they are, removing barriers to care along the way.
When I think about my own breast cancer experience, I was so lucky in that I had great insurance. I had a car that would allow me to get back and forth to treatment. I had a supportive family who could take care of my 16-month-old daughter when I didn’t feel well. I spoke the same language as the clinicians who were providing the care for me. Not everyone is so lucky.
But you shouldn't have to be lucky to detect and survive breast cancer, which is why we create interventions that remove barriers to care. We want to get patients into the right care and keep them there so patients have better outcomes.
WN: What role does research play for Komen, in helping to reach as many people and communities as possible?
Komen’s research program is an essential driving force for achieving the mission of ending breast cancer forever. We identify and support the best science around the world, and the advancements made help people with breast cancer no matter where they live.
WN: As part of our commitment to people with cancer, we’re always looking at how pharmacists can help support patients through treatment. Did pharmacists play a role in your own cancer journey?
Right now, I’m four months away from finishing a 10-year regimen of a medication related to my breast cancer treatment. And every month for these past 10 years, I’ve gone to the pharmacy to pick up my prescription, and every month the pharmacist personally looks me in the eye and asks if I have any questions, or if I need anything as it relates to that medication. To me, this shows that the pharmacist is making an investment in my health, and I appreciate that special touch.
Those kinds of things are why patients come back to their Walgreens pharmacy, because they know the pharmacists understand that things can change – that just because something worked last month, it may not be working now – and they are there for the patient if they do.
Walgreens is a place I’ve always trusted, and it also was geographically well-suited for me. I was diagnosed in Minnesota, then moved to Atlanta and I have family in Alabama, so I’ve spent a lot of time in all those places. I've been able to go to a Walgreens pharmacy and talk to the pharmacist in all three states, and I get the same level of care at each one.
In fact, on one occasion when I went back home to Alabama, which is where I grew up, the Walgreens pharmacist I spoke to had a very familiar face. It was a good friend from high school, but we had lost touch when he joined the military. So here I come walking into the pharmacy, and there he was standing behind the counter!
It all just comes back around to those local community connections, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Stone with her daughter, sister, Olivia (far right) and grandmother, Ruby (center) by her side during treatment.
WN: What makes Walgreens such an important partner for Komen as you embark on this work together?
CDS: There are so many reasons why Walgreens is a strong partner. Walgreens understands that through partnership, we can better impact local communities together. And if we combine the reach of Walgreens with the reach of Komen, we really can help more patients and improve outcomes.
One specific thing I'm most excited about is that currently, in-store fundraising at Walgreens is being used for a cutting-edge, patient directed breast cancer research project that Komen is working on. It’s a study of disease recurrence in patients who have been diagnosed with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer, which is one of the breast cancers that is most likely to recur. This is groundbreaking research that will allow Komen to be directly in touch with these patients who sign up for the study, understand why this recurrence can happen and then ultimately derive interventions that will prevent it from recurring. It's exciting, it’s impactful, and it's something that Komen wouldn't be able to execute without this strong partnership with Walgreens.
On top of that, working together with a partner that’s trusted in communities all across the country – just like I always trusted my local Walgreens pharmacies – allows us to continue reaching and impacting local communities, in addition to innovating on a national level.
WN: When you reflect on these last 10 years, how has your experience with breast cancer informed how you support others going through something similar?
CDS: I was 35 years old when I was first diagnosed. I didn't have any of the most common risk factors that go along with a breast cancer diagnosis. I had no family history. So as an attorney, I decided to spend a lot of time researching why I might have been diagnosed and what my treatment path would look like. I treated it more as a journey, and I decided early on in my treatment that I wanted to come out of the journey with a better outlook on life. For me, that meant changing my career to one that allowed me to serve others.
One thing that surprised me is that people, even those closest to you, tend to treat you a little differently after a diagnosis. While you're going through treatment, they kind of handle you with kid gloves, as they say. I didn’t like that because I was still the same person. I still wanted to laugh. I still wanted to go to the movies. I still wanted to go for a walk. I was so surprised that I just … almost disappeared, in the eyes of other people, in terms of who I was before my diagnosis versus who I was after.
Another thing I think about a lot is that the focus during the breast cancer journey is often on the patient, and the caregiver can get lost in that. It's really hard to be a caregiver for someone living with cancer. I had 16 rounds of chemo as part of my treatment plan, and I had a family member or friend go with me to every single appointment. They would pick up on things that the doctors and nurses would say that I would not, and we could later compare notes. It was so great to have someone there who could support you emotionally, but also provide that extra level of information that the patient can’t just physically and mentally pick up sometimes.
Komen provides educational and support resources for caregivers, and some of our educational programming is directly focused on the caregiver journey. Because at the end of the day, that’s who’s taking care of you. That’s who’s picking up your prescription for you at Walgreens. Caregivers need care too.