How an SAP executive is taking down the #1 cancer killer in the US

06/07/2017 05:55 pm ET

When John Matthews lost his mother, Kathleen, to lung cancer in 2011, he found his life’s calling in the most tragic of ways. “My mother was diagnosed in March and passed away in December,” says Matthews. Turning his tragedy into his purpose, John is on an unrelenting quest to transform how the world thinks about lung cancer so that funding for research and access to early detection can be increased.

In August, John will start a 50-day cross-country journey cycling from SAP’s American headquarters in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania and finishing in San Francisco. From start to finish, John will pedal 3,400 miles on his bicycle, raise awareness about the disease that took his mother and with the power of technology, social media and the corporate social responsibility work embedded in SAP’s brand promise, raise $1 million dollars to end the stigma associated with the disease and increase screening and personalized medicine to diminish the power of lung cancer on the lives of those who contract the killer disease.

Lung cancer is a powerful enemy

Cancer is the leading cause of death in the United States. Think about it. Do you know someone who has or had cancer? My hope is that your answer is no and my greater hope is that your answer is not the person you see in the mirror. Yet, I cannot ignore the facts.

Up until I was in my late twenties, I didn’t know anyone in my family and friends’ circle that had cancer. What a difference a generation makes. In stark contrast, my two teenage daughters can’t say the same thing.

In her recent byline on Huffington Post, Bonnie J. Addario, founder of the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, shared a startling truth from the Stand Up To Cancer organization: 100 percent of Americans will know someone who is diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Half of men and a third of women will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States. This makes cancer everyone’s problem to address.

According to the American Journal of Hematology/Oncology, lung cancer is the deadliest of all cancers in the United States. Lung cancer occurrence has grown significantly over the last decades despite a decline in the number of US smokers. In 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the number one cause of cancer death for women. Lung cancer has since become more prevalent; the number of women in the United States who were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016 reached 72,160. That is more than the top five cancer causing deaths of US women combined: breast (40,450), ovarian (14,240), uterine (10,470) and cervical (4,210).

Taking down the #1 cancer killer in the US

John not only wants to impact the mortality rate and dominance of lung cancer; he also wants to reverse the negative stigma associated with the disease. I felt this stigma first hand when I expressed my grief of losing a loved one to lung cancer and was met with “well, did she smoke?”. When you fear that you will be met with contempt and shame, it makes it hard to share grief. It also makes it hard to share information. Until the stigma is lifted, the death rate will continue to rise. The only answer for John is to start a movement.

John worked with his team, his peers and his boss to ensure that nothing in his daily work would fall through the cracks as he makes his way across the country. While not easy, he has the full support of his leadership team. ”SAP CEO Bill McDermott reminds us every day that when a company does well, it should also do good. As leaders, we have a responsibility to be civically engaged, including enabling our people to contribute in meaningful ways to the communities where we work, live and play,” says Rick Knowles, SVP & GM, Apple Partnership at SAP.

John has done what so few could do when it comes to ending the stigma of lung cancer to get to the important work of curing the disease: he used storytelling, community building and corporate CSR programs to rally his program. This all-in community is something that one can’t help but think would make Kathleen feel pride and joy. “My mom always told me that many hands make light work,” says John.

With the power of the SAP brand promise to make the world a better place and through the work of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility team, John has assembled a large team of SAP employees to spread the word about his campaign. His colleagues are sharing their own stories to educate about lung cancer and the many supportive organizations including the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation on which John serves as a board member.

“Corporate Social Responsibility is a gateway to encouraging our workforce to proactively give back to the world in a way that aligns with corporate-wide and personal passions. With 89,000 people at our company, imagine the positive impact we can make in the world,” says Knowles.

It’s no wonder that John’s team of supporters continues to grow as team members take it upon themselves to engage their friends and family on social media. Donors who work for companies that offer match programs will accelerate the time it will take to reach the $1 million fundraising milestone.

Lung cancer’s biggest enemy could be you

I have known John for nearly two decades. He hired me into my first grown-up job that has led to an incredible career and we have been friends and colleagues ever since. One of his most admirable qualities is his ability to build environments for success. He has an eye for talent, a mind for assembling high performance teams and the heart to stick with even the toughest challenges when others have lost hope. “John is a very organized person. Once he makes up his mind to do something, there is no stopping him,” says Beth Solomon, fellow SAP employee and John’s wife.

John’s commitment to end the unfair stigma of lung cancer and increase awareness of the facts associated with this horrible disease is as much of an ask for his wife as it is to him. She describes her role as supporter by ensuring that John is safe, healthy and gets what he needs in order to complete his journey.

Perhaps his greatest tribute to Kathleen’s legacy is the commitment by those who loved her most to not let the disease define her death, but instead her value-based life be the focus. Cancer may know no race, culture, age or gender. But neither does lung cancer’s enemy. “Talking about my mother-in-law is emotional for me,” says Solomon. Our relationship meant the world to me. She accepted her Jewish daughter-in-law with open arms and curiosity and always went out of her way to make me feel included. And, she could always make me laugh.”

May we all live a life where we help the people around us to feel like they belong. No disease, no matter how strong, is any match for that kind of power.

Please visit the Ride Hard, Breathe Easy donation page to find out how you can help.

And, please join me at SuccessConnect in London next week or in Las Vegas in August to learn how your HR department can enable your workforce to embody a culture that can change the world.

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