CEO Confidential

How Mom’s Cancer Diagnosis Sparked My Leadership

After my parents had cancer — one dying and one surviving — my passion for oncology (one I’d always had) became a greater purpose in life, as well as an eye-opening experience.

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and cardiac disease, that singular event sparked an idea, which led to a fiery passion that I’ve translated into a new dimension in my career. That was the moment I realized I could do more with my education and experience than make money and advance my career. It was the moment I realized that I could — and should — do something to better the world around me.

My Spark

My mom’s diagnosis left me upset, concerned, and terrified of losing her. But once the shock subsided, I reminded myself just how far the healthcare industry has come in the treatment of breast cancer.

Today, texts exist that allow us to detect the disease in its earliest stages, medicines and treatments that can specifically target the harmful cancer cells, and procedures that can eliminate the disease all at once. Organizations like Susan G. Komen and events like Breast Cancer Awareness Month have done phenomenal jobs at generating attention and funding for the cause.

As a result, breast cancer mortality rates have decreased by 36 percent in recent years, and survival rates for early-stage breast cancer are now 93 percent or higher, according to American Cancer Society data.

Even though Mom’s diagnosis was scary, the statistics and outlook offered us a sense of relief. In my mother’s case, there were options. There was hope.

That’s when I began to wonder about other serious, deadly diseases women face today that don’t get the same attention, funding, and research. Who was championing for those women and their anxious daughters?

My Flame

Not long after that, I got involved in two passion projects that would change my life.

The first project was founding the cardiac disease prevention nonprofit, Women at Heart. The American Medical Association recently discovered that women’s heart attacks differ greatly from men’s. And although cardiac disease is the leading killer of women today, most funding is given to trials that use male participants. Women at Heart raises money for cholesterol and blood pressure screenings for women in lower socioeconomic areas.

The second project was attending an ovarian cancer conference where I had the opportunity to speak to women battling the disease. While not as prominent in the public eye as breast cancer, ovarian cancer is more deadly than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. Because so little advancement has been made in this field in the past 30 years, the detection of the disease in an early stage (when survival rates are still around 90 percent) only occurs in 20 percent of cases. Today, only 50 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive five years.

What struck me the most from that conference was the number of young women with what is commonly thought of as an “old person’s disease.” These were women in the prime of their lives, faced with unfathomable odds of survival. Where were the sports teams brandishing teal helmets and uniforms in support of these women? Where were the national news spots on their disease? Who was advocating for them?

I knew I couldn’t walk away from this cause. I began networking, building connections, and developing ideas until I found the perfect way to put my leadership and consulting expertise to good use.

As CEO of Vermillion, I advocate for ovarian cancer funding, research, and awareness. I feel blessed to be able to work toward providing hope for all the women who found their situations so hopeless before. In time, I hope my work will bring significant improvements to the entire field of women’s health.

My Torch

Turning a passion project into a career can seem frightening and intimidating. But I believe working toward something greater than money or power is one of the most fulfilling choices you can make as a businessperson. Creating a positive change in the world — in whatever way suits you — gives your work real impact and purpose.

I hope I can inspire other business leaders to make the leap into building careers for a cause. Here are my suggestions for turning your passion project into a successful career:

1. Find your spark. My idea to become an advocate for ovarian cancer awareness didn’t fully form right away. But while my mom was being treated for breast cancer, I never could shake the feeling that I could and should be doing something for women without the same options for care.

Even if it takes a while, don’t give up on that tiny voice telling you to pursue your passion project. It may take brainstorming, financial planning, making the right connections, or just more time, but it’s always worth your efforts.

2. Start small, but dream big. My ultimate goal is to bring attention to as many overlooked or underfunded areas of women’s health as I can. But in the beginning, before venturing into other areas of need, I first established my company as a reputable voice in the field of ovarian cancer.

In the beginning, focus your efforts on one aspect of your project, and make big ripples in that area. Once you have a strong reputation and support system to back you up, reach for new horizons. It helps to have clearly defined goals from the get-go so you don’t veer off track trying to take on too much at one time.

3. Build a passionate, diverse team. My company’s success really comes from our strong, diversely talented team. While I lead the way on the business side, Dr. Judy Wolf, a world-class expert in gynecological cancer, drives the healthcare side, bringing in top ovarian cancer experts from around the country to help us achieve our goals. It’s truly an “Ovarian Dream Team.”

Fill your team with professionals who can utilize their education, connections, and experience to strengthen your company’s efforts. And don’t worry too much about the numbers; you don’t have to have a big team to make a big impact.

4. Find the best way to communicate with your audience. Our team has had the most success building an audience through online communications, from social media to targeted publications. We use our social media campaign and knowpelvicmass dot com to promote the B.E.A.T. message — which teaches people the early warning signs of ovarian cancer — and both have increased our web traffic tenfold.

Evaluate your industry, audience, and the marketing options available to find the best fit. And don’t overlook the power of word-of-mouth marketing; as you acquire followers, implore them to help spread your message.

I never would have guessed that my mother’s cancer diagnosis would put me on a new career and passion path. But I am so blessed today to be at the helm of a company leading the way in ovarian cancer research and giving a voice — and hope — to women around the world. With any luck, I can encourage other business leaders to recognize those unexpected moments of inspiration and give light to their own passion projects in the future.

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Author: Valerie Palmieri, Chief Executive Officer at Vermillion, Inc. / ASPiRA Laboratories.

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Valerie Palmieri
Valerie Palmieri was appointed president and CEO of Vermillion in January 2015. She joined Vermillion as chief operating officer in October 2014 and brought more than 30 years of experience in the diagnostic laboratory industry, serving in numerous sales, operations, and executive leadership positions for both laboratory service and consulting organizations. Valerie holds a Bachelor of Science degree in medical technology from Western Connecticut State University.
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