Black communities in the United States face an urgent and little-discussed threat: death rates among Black people from cancer are significantly higher than their white counterparts. Mortality rates from breast cancer are more than 40 percent higher among Black women than among white women, while black men are more than 70 percent more likely to develop prostate cancer, and more than twice as likely to die from it than any other race or ethnicity. Whether the disparities are because of failed treatments or late diagnoses, the underlying culprit is often longstanding systemic racism and inequities in the health system—and the result is a country in which far too many communities needlessly lose friends, family members, and loved ones to a deadly disease.
As leaders of two national cancer organizations—one as President and CEO of Susan G. Komen, and the other President and CEO of the Prostate Cancer Foundation—we are both deeply alarmed by these outcomes and committed to finding ways to narrow the gap. That’s why the support we each received from Robert Smith, the philanthropist and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, were so important.
Robert’s interest in supporting our efforts was substantial, and his help was vital. His Fund II Foundation, where he serves as the founding director and President of the charitable foundation, granted funding that was instrumental in creating Susan G. Komen’s African-American Health Equity Initiative, a 10-city initiative designed to improve the quality of healthcare delivered in Black communities, and create access to this much-needed medical care. It also helped to launch a national education campaign to drive conversations about family health history and breast cancer in the Black community—promoting a better understanding of genetic factors and highlighting the importance of early detection and early connection to care. Building on a successful pilot in Chicago, these programs are certain to save lives.
Meanwhile, Robert’s contribution to the Prostate Cancer Foundation is the largest donation ever explicitly dedicated to advancing prostate cancer research in African-American men. The gift is being used to launch the Robert Frederick Smith PCF-VA Center of Precision Oncology Excellence in Chicago, Illinois, to aid veterans in the Chicago area and beyond who are battling prostate cancer. It serves as a precision oncology hub for the Foundation’s efforts. And it will enable the Foundation to accelerate the work of clinical investigators across the US seeking to solve some of the most lethal forms of prostate cancer while also advancing the quality of healthcare for Black men in America.
But it isn’t just Robert’s financial support that has made our work possible, and it isn’t just the scale of his donation that has been remarkable. It is his commitment, his passion, and his relentless focus on better outcomes and a better future for the Black community.
What makes Robert unique—and what we have been fortunate to see firsthand—is his personal commitment to the causes he supports, and his optimism in the face of extraordinary adversity. In the years since his involvement with Susan G. Komen and the Prostate Cancer Foundation began, Robert has supported our efforts, championed our lifesaving work, and challenged us to deliver transformational change. We have learned that this exceptional level of care isn’t an aberration; it is simply who Robert is.
We are fortunate to meet and interact with a long list of impressive individuals committed to making the world a better place. At a time when we are called upon to solve multifaceted, intractable problems like health inequity in cancer — when change requires perseverance and hard work and timetables that stretch beyond daily headlines — Robert’s leadership stands out.
Paula Schneider is the President and CEO of Susan G. Komen.
Jonathan W. Simons MD is the CEO of the Prostate Cancer Foundation.