Leading the Battle Charge – SWGA Cancer Coalition

KK Snyder

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Ten years ago, then-Georgia Governor Roy Barnes committed state funding to help fight cancer across the state, leading the way for organizers in Southwest Georgia to stand up and be counted as one of several cancer coalitions across the state.

Today, the Southwest Georgia Cancer Coalition serves 31 counties, working hand in hand with a multitude of partners, including area businesses, local citizens, community and spiritual leaders, health care institutions and academic institutions to provide a seamless system of cancer education, prevention and treatment for more than 700,000 residents.

Led by Diane Fletcher, CEO, the goal of the SWGA Cancer Coalition is to reduce suffering from cancer throughout the region with a coalition approach – building collaboratives and partnerships to make the best use of resources and show best practices to be able to carry the services across a large region.

Referring to the coalition as a “community profit organization” – a newly coined term some are using instead of “non-profit” where applicable, Fletcher says the expansive team of partners doesn’t work to raise revenue to benefit the coalition, but rather to improve the health of the community.

“We help both employers and their employees improve the health of the community. A healthy workforce is a much more productive workforce,” said Fletcher.

Coalition staff and partners educate employers and the general public on the importance of preventing cancer by reducing risk factors such as smoking, poor diet and little or no exercise. In addition, finding cancer as early as possible and having access to the highest quality care saves lives and provides an economic benefit, she added.

One example of services provided by the coalition is the health navigator program, wherein partners dubbed “navigators” help individuals navigate through the health system. Needs might include transportation, testing, or funding for surgery among other things.

“These are trained professionals who reach out to individuals throughout the area who may have a higher risk of cancer or who need cancer surgery and medical care and are not getting it,” she said, adding that providing education that is culturally appropriate and understandable is key for the program’s success.

With health care costs being a concern of all business leaders, recognizing the economic benefit of detecting cancer early – a $3,000 colonoscopy versus a $300,000 initial treatment cost following a colon cancer diagnosis, for example – is a huge benefit to everyone.

In addition, the SWGA Cancer Coalition is deeply entrenched in research and works in partnership with large academic institutions, including the Emory Prevention Research Center, funded by the Centers for Disease Control. The coalition is a community partner, helping the center find out what contributes to the high rates of cancer and cancer deaths in our region. To gather data for the studies, coalition staff, health coaches and research assistants go into homes and find out what is influencing lifestyles that include smoking, poor diet and lack of physical activity.

“Then we take the next step to see what we can do to help them create a healthier lifestyle and reduce their chances of cancer,” said Fletcher. “Of course, it doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s remarkable how small changes in eating right and becoming active affect the overall family or even a worksite.”

Fletcher says the organization is often mistaken for one of the many national cancer organizations, but 100 percent of programs and services are local and 100 percent of funding stays here in the region.

Fundraising can be difficult, especially when trying to avoid overlapping with fundraising efforts of their partners. But the coalition has a number of innovative fundraising ideas, including a current online auction (visit www.swgacancer.org). They are also on the lookout for potential partners.

“We’re looking for businesses who are interested in our work,” she said. “Hopefully, businesses consider themselves corporate citizens of the cities in which they do business. We’re interested in finding businesses that want to adopt us as ‘their cause.’”

The auction will run through the end of June. Businesses interested in donating items, gift certificates or services for the auction should call (220) 312-1700.