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Cancer Coalition of South Georgia battles cancer on local level

Coalition screening program helps cut region's cost for cancer treatment

Staff of the Cancer Coalition of South Georgia include, front row from left, Melissa Goodin, Tarccara Hodge and Rhonda Green; back row from left, Chameka Robinson, Kimberly Scott, Casey Perkins, Denise Ballard, Jennifer Johnston, Charles Greene, Theresa Pope and Beverly Nembhard. (Special photo)

Staff of the Cancer Coalition of South Georgia include, front row from left, Melissa Goodin, Tarccara Hodge and Rhonda Green; back row from left, Chameka Robinson, Kimberly Scott, Casey Perkins, Denise Ballard, Jennifer Johnston, Charles Greene, Theresa Pope and Beverly Nembhard. (Special photo)

ALBANY — If Cancer Coalition of South Georgia CEO Diane Fletcher and her staff need a testimonial for the work they’re doing in the region, they can get a significant one from one of the most respected practitioners in the front-line battle against the disease.

CANCER CHRONICLES

This is the fourth in a five-part series on individuals and doctors coping with cancer.

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital Cancer Center Radiation Oncology Director Dr. Chuck Mendenhall, who was recently recognized for 30 years of service in the community, volunteered insight into what he called a “dirty little secret that needs to get out” about the work of the Cancer Coalition versus the better-known American Cancer Society.

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“There’s a huge difference between the Cancer Coalition and the American Cancer Society and, unfortunately, not many people understand that,” Mendenhall said. “The American Cancer Society does nothing to help local cancer patients. They hold these local fundraisers that bring in thousands of dollars, and every dime of it supposedly goes into research. Where it goes is to a fancy high-rise building in Atlanta.

“We’ve asked them on a number of occasions to help us provide programs for local people who can’t afford medication, who have no transportation to (the Cancer Center) for treatment. They’ve always said no. They’ll put out nice-looking booklets that are supposed to educate people about cancer screenings, but they won’t give a dime to help us fund those screenings on the local level. It would seem that if they were going to talk the talk, they should be willing to at least walk a little of the walk.”

Mendenhall is as effusive in his praise for the Cancer Coalition of South Georgia as he is critical of the American Cancer Society.

“There’s a huge difference between those organizations,” he said. “The Cancer Coalition works to solve local problems, and they’ve been effective in doing so. If someone has a loved one pass away and they want to make a contribution to a worthy cause in their loved one’s honor, they’d help their community by giving to the Cancer Coalition.”

Fletcher, who came to Albany from Pittsburgh 8 1/2 years ago to become the Coalition’s first chief executive officer, admits that she’s flattered by Mendenhall’s praise. But she’s more appreciative that the well-respected radiologist differentiated her organization from others with similarly stated goals.

“The bottom line is, we want people in this region to understand that we’re distinct from other national cancer organizations because our focus is totally on the local community,” said Fletcher, a trained oncology nurse who ran the Pennsylvania Cancer Consortium for five years before coming to Albany. “We bring all our resources and all our expertise — 100 percent — to this community, to this region.

“The Cancer Coalition of South Georgia exists to prevent cancer and increase survival among the people of South Georgia. We do this through community-based service, education, research and outreach in our 32-county region. We’re fighting cancer right here, right now.”

The Cancer Coalition was formed in 2002 when stakeholders in the region, concerned over the growing number of cancer incidences and deaths, sought a single entity to help in the fight against the disease on the local level. Regional cancer centers at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Tift Regional Hospital in Tifton, South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta and Archbold Hospital in Thomasville, anticipating an influx of funding from the state, unified in their support of the coalition as a means of bringing some of that funding into the region.

But the anticipated $20 million that was discussed during Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes’ administration, much of it from the national tobacco industry settlement, became, in reality, $200,000 under Gov. Sonny Purdue. As Fletcher says, “That’s a lot of zeroes.”

It’s to the local stakeholders’ credit, though, that they did not let the setback kill the dream of a local cancer-fighting coalition.

“The CEOs of the four area cancer centers believed in this concept so much, they committed a combined $500,000 for each of the next three years,” Fletcher said. “Amazingly, even with declining budgets, they’ve honored that commitment for 10 years.

“When I saw that kind of passion from the cancer centers and from Dr. James Hotz and the board of the Cancer Coalition, I decided this is where I wanted to be.”

Fletcher found huge disparaities among the mostly poor population of the region, disparities not only in health insurance coverage but in education levels, income and access to health care. The needs were so great, she convinced the Cancer Coalition board that prevention and education were crucial to the mission of the organization.

“When I interviewed for the job, I asked questions like ‘What’s the strategic plan?’ ‘What’s the budget?’” Fletcher said. “The board told me, frankly, ‘That’s what we need you to do.’ One of the first things I had to do was convince them that we did not have the manpower or resources to tackle all the issues associated with cancer. There was just no way.

“We had to find the best way to impact the local population.”

With a plan of attack in mind, Fletcher sought and hired a team to help her in her quest to make a difference in the region. She credits that staff — including Coalition Vice President Denise Ballard, CFO/COO Jennifer Johnston, Development Manager Melissa Goodin, Health Education Coordinator Kimberly Scott, Communications Coordinator Casey Perkins, Office Coordinator Theresa Pope, Community Cancer Screening Program Manager Rhonda Green, Community Cancer Screening Senior Project Coordinator/Navigator Beverly Nembhard, Community Cancer Screening Project Coordinators/Navigators Charles Greene and Chameka Robinson, Research Specialist/Navigator Aisha Viques and Lead Research Specialist/Navigator Taccara Hodge — with maximizing the coalition’s impact.

“This organization, in a nutshell, is this incredible staff,” Fletcher said. “We created, together, a program that has a workable system in place. We have relationships with the health care providers, community health centers and public health centers that allow us to get into the homes of the at-risk and in-need population. We’re able to help them get needed screenings at reduced or no cost, and our navigators follow up to make sure there are no obstacles to hinder their keeping appointments and to assure they get needed follow-up attention.

“Our screening program is the quintessential example of how the vision of the coalition’s founders can work. By facilitating screenings that would not have been likely before, the Cancer Coalition is having a tremendous positive impact on our community. Instead of the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to treat cancer patients, our screenings promote early detection at costs that, at most, are in the thousands.”

Like most health care entities, the Coalition has its own unique budget struggles. Still, it’s been adopted as a statewide model and was recently awarded one of three national Mutual of America Community Partnership awards.

“We have our budget issues like everyone else,” Fletcher said. “That’s why we urge people whose lives have been touched by cancer and want to support an organization that focuses on local concerns to keep us in mind. We need local support and local volunteers.

“I’m so proud of the work we’ve done at the Cancer Coalition of South Georgia. I don’t consider what we do work. It’s humbling to be a part of an organization that’s really making a difference in our community.”