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Lunch with Mimi: The American Cancer Society’s Tammy Ahles

on December 31, 2018 1:06 PM

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there are 78,000 new diagnosed cases of cancer in Pennsylvania each year with a 63 percent five-year survival rate. The American Cancer Society’s mission is to free the world from cancer by providing funding, conducting research, sharing expert information, supporting patients, and spreading the word about prevention.

As executive director of the American Cancer Society of the Greater Pittsburgh Area, Tammy Ahles oversee a community development staff in five major markets from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, to raise funds to deliver this mission.

Originally from Ehrenfeld, Ahles attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania for business management. She and her husband, Craig, moved to State College in 1993. In addition to her work with the American Cancer Society, she is very involved with Pleasant Gap United Methodist Church and volunteers for Relay for Life of Happy Valley.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Ahles at Spats at The Grill to discuss how she got involved with the American Cancer Society and how the organization supports cancer survivors locally.


Mimi: Well, a little more than 10 years ago, I took you to lunch just to meet you at the Allen Street Grill, which is now Spats at The Grill, to talk about your new job with the American Cancer Society. Let's talk a little about that transition in your life, and what you have learned and how you have grown in the 10 years since then.

Tammy: I came from the for-profit world; I was a retailer and I was faced with a career choice due to downsizing. When I really sat and thought about what I wanted to do with my life going forward, I thought I could continue to sell sweaters for a living, and that certainly makes people happy. Or I could do something to benefit others with my brain and business sense that could really make a difference in the world. So, I was connected with the American Cancer Society and was honored to be hired. And here I am 10 years later.

Mimi: So what's been the most beneficial part of the 10 years for you?

Tammy: I think growing as a as a contributing individual to the community. I wasn't as connected to the community when I first joined the American Cancer Society. Over the years, I've met some amazing people like you, Mimi. I've learned about the State College community and all of the communities that I've worked in. I learned how giving and generous people are. It's made me a more giving and generous, much more compassionate to people who have a need.

Mimi: Can you leave your job at work?

Tammy: No, because it's always something that's with you. Cancer touches so many people in their lives and there are so many times when you meet somebody that has been impacted by this disease, whether they’re a survivor, lost a loved one, or there's someone that's just been newly diagnosed. So, no matter where I go, people know where I work and what I do. So, people often share their stories with me. Many of them are happy stories, but there are a lot also that are really sad.

Mimi: Cancer victims and survivors need shoulders from time to time. I find it fascinating that without speaking before this interview, you and I both are wearing pink. I’m deeply involved in the cause of Pink Zone because I’m blessed to be a survivor, almost 40 years now. There’s something tangible about giving back. To what extent do you, the American Cancer Society, try to garner the potential of the energy of survivors?

Tammy: We're all about survivors. Our mission is to save and celebrate lives, and lead the fight for a world without cancer. Survivors are why we do what we do. There are 14 million survivors in the world today. A lot of that is the result of the research that we're doing and the help that we can provide to people. So, we celebrate our survivors at all of our events and everything that we do. It's definitely a motivator for me as well as my staff when we meet a survivor.

Mimi: I've always felt that the American Cancer Society was infectious. I was very active even before I had the challenge myself. And, of course, my late first husband raised money from his hospital bed in Memorial Sloan Kettering in the closing months of his life. Somehow, when the word cancer is on your plate, you are motivated to do for others. Is the incidence today greater or less?

Tammy: Less. There are several different reasons. Some of it is the education and early detection that the American Cancer Society has been a part of. People are much more aware of how to prevent cancer or to detect cancer at a much earlier stage. So, the survival rate is much higher than it has been in the past.

Mimi: With the rage, if you will, of giving local, of buying local and all that, to what extent might that impact an organization like the American Cancer Society?

Tammy: We always get those questions – “Does the money stay local?” “How are you helping people locally?” And while we are a national organization, there are a lot of different ways that we help people locally. We do have our local programs like our free rides to treatment.

We really focus on getting people access to the care that they need, whether that would be a free ride, or whether it can connect them to the appropriate health system to get the help and the treatment that they need. If they need to travel far away from home, we provide free lodging through our lodging partners.

Mimi: Do enough people locally know that those services are at their beck and call?

Tammy: I don't know that there could ever be enough people that know about the services that we provide. We do our very best but we can always do a better job of making sure that people know how the American Cancer Society can help them.

Mimi: So, you have a lot of communities where you’ve linked up and become a force. How do you do it all?

Tammy: Through our volunteers. There is only so many staff and there are only so many hours in the day, but we have millions of volunteers across the country, thousands just in our area, who we utilize to help spread the word about what the American Cancer Society does.

Mimi: You hold major events in certain geographic areas. What part of that stays local, and what part of that is sent off to national?

Tammy: It's really hard to give you an exact percentage. I can tell you in Pennsylvania and in the greater Pittsburgh area, more dollars that are being raised through our events actually come back into the community, not only through our programs and services, but also through our research programs. We fund a lot of researchers locally right here at Penn State University Park as well as at Penn State Hershey. We’ve funded over $20 million in research over the last 20 years. And then also through the University of Pittsburgh, we've funded over $60 million in research. That's $80 million just from Penn State to Pittsburgh of dollars that come back to the community.

Mimi: On the national level, what’s the most remarkable research happening right now that the American Cancer Society is funding?

Tammy: We fund researchers that are external through institutions, but we also have our own internal research program. The American Cancer Society conducts long term studies that play a major role in helping us understand the causes of cancer and how to prevent the disease. One of the things that we're doing is called Cancer Presentation Study-3, where we recruited over 300,000 people to participate in the study over 30 years, all over the country. CPS 3 isn’t a new study but it is an exciting research project. Studies such as CPS-3 have shown how lifestyle, medical environment and genetic factors relate to cancer and have contributed to the 26 percent drop in cancer death rates between 1991 and 2015.

Some exciting results from one of our earlier studies, CPS-II, have provided us with knowledge of how to prevent breast cancer through things such as exercise, weight loss, and alcohol and tobacco use. There's a survey that participants receive every three years with all kinds of interesting things about their environment, diet, sleep, and exercise habits. We follow these people and the only thing that we asked is, should they be diagnosed with cancer you let us know. At the time when they signed up, we took a small blood sample and a waist measurement. And so, if they're diagnosed, we pull all of the data from their as well as their blood sample. And we're trying to use that to determine if there are certain environmental factors that might cause cancer. It’s really an interesting study.

Mimi: Great discoveries take time and programs like that. It’s hard to accept how long it sometimes takes. Shifting back to the local scene, it might be helpful if you explained how a person who needs help can go about getting the help you have available.

Tammy: The easiest way is to call our 800 number (800-227-2345). Most people think when you call an 800 number you're going to get an automated system where you have to hit option one to get somebody, but our call center is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – never closed – and you talk to a live person, a cancer information specialist. And then we can connect individuals to programs and services that the American Cancer Society provides, as well as thousands of other resources and things that we might not have. If somebody needs a ramp built in their home because they're not ambulatory, we can connect them to a local service that can help them do that. Or they can visit our website (, or certainly call our local office (814-238-3430) as well.

Mimi: Why do you work for the American Cancer Society?

Tammy: Well, when I was faced with my career change, I thought about what I wanted to do and just prior to that I lost my cousin to thyroid cancer in his early 30s, which is a very survivable cancer. But it had metastasized. He was a very close friend, so it was a way for me to honor Jeff. But since then my daughter just recently had a baby girl. So we're blessed to have this amazing granddaughter. But she will never know her paternal grandmother because the baby's father, his mother passed away when he was 16 from breast cancer. So, he lost his mom and his sister is also a two-time breast cancer survivor. So, it makes it even more impactful for me to be able to do what I do.

Mimi: Well, as a breast cancer and thyroid cancer survivor, I can remember it was the first time I ever dealt with my own mortality.

Tammy: I think the most important thing is I don't want anybody’s daughter to have to lose their mother or anybody to lose their daughter because they didn't get the care that they needed.

Mimi: The Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition has sold that theme statewide and they have done a remarkable job.

Tammy: We know that with any cancer, early detection saves lives. So, if you find a cancer early regardless of whether it's lung, prostate – colorectal cancer can be completely prevented just by screening – breast cancer in its early stages, melanoma in its very stages … that early detection piece makes a big difference in the overall outcome, and it can save people's lives.

Mimi: Let's conclude on getting your read on the most important things in life.

Tammy: It really is your faith, your family, and your friends. And if you lead with that, then your professional career is bound to be successful.

Mimi: I think that's a good note on which to end. Thank you so much and keep up your wonderful work.

Tammy: Thank you, Mimi.




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