John Seffrin (PhD '70) (Photo by John Underwood)
Like many around the world, John Seffrin is no stranger to the personal toll that cancer can take. His grandmother, who lived with his family, died of colon cancer when he was 10. His mother died of cancer. And his wife of 46 years is a breast cancer survivor. Unlike many, though, Seffrin has taken his experience from the personal to the professional. He is head of the American Cancer Society.
Seffrin (PhD '70, public health) comes to his current job with a background in academe — first on the Purdue public health faculty and then for 13 years as chairman of Indiana University's Department of Applied Health Science. It was in the early 1970s, while on the Purdue faculty, that he first got involved with the agency he now oversees. He volunteered with the Tippecanoe County unit of the society, eventually rising to become state chair for public education and, in 1989, national board chair. In 1992, he became the organization's chief executive, a salaried position.
From his first days with the American Cancer Society, stemming from his anti-tobacco work, Seffrin has remained committed to education as a force for changing the health of a nation. "If we fully implemented the cancer control measures that we know work, we could save 1,000 lives a day," he says. "I see it as a moral imperative. There were so many years when we had a belief in the scientific method, but no answers. Now we have answers that aren't being applied. Much of the suffering from cancer and many of the deaths from cancer are needless; they don't need to happen."
Once a community service agency that loaned medical equipment such as hospital beds to cancer patients like his grandmother, the American Cancer Society has grown to become a global public health agency with more than 3 million volunteers. It fights the deadly disease on multiple fronts, supporting research, influencing policy, undertaking advocacy for cancer patients and their caregivers and offering reliable information and support for people facing cancer.
"The key point is that we have to make sure that in a country like ours — in spite of this great recession, we still are one of the richest nations in the world — that we implement the answers discovered at places like Purdue. The information needs to get to the bedside or inform policy," Seffrin says. "We know what can happen if we do the right thing. We also know what will happen if we don't. Shame on us, if we don't."
Seffrin spends his days raising money, meeting with scientists, visiting the society's Hope Lodge facilities — free, temporary housing for cancer patients — or dropping in on the call center, staffed 24 hours as a resource for cancer patients. He is past president of the Geneva-based Union for International Cancer Control, and travels often from the society's headquarters in Atlanta, taking his commitment to the cause worldwide. Last spring, in a one-week period, he attended the 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Singapore then traveled to Purdue where he delivered a speech for one of the "Life Inspired" events, a 12-day showcase of the College of Health and Human Sciences.
"It's a high privilege that has allowed me to chart directions for this incredible organization and to be part of a team that is making a difference in people's lives," Seffrin says of his work. "It has brought real meaning into my career. It's a lifesaving, disease-preventing, reducing-human-suffering enterprise."