“My life was and has been very, very committed to doing what I can for equality,” says Saundra Pelletier, the founder and CEO of Evofem Biosciences, women’s sexual health focused biotech company. Last year, after a five-year FDA approval process, Evofem launched Phexxi, the first non-hormonal birth control gel for women. Evofem’s revolutionary new product is a game changer for those within and outside of the cancer community, but bringing such a product to market was an extra difficult test for Pelletier who was simultaneously battling stage III breast cancer.
“Women’s health, in my opinion, was never taken as seriously as it should be,” says Pelletier. Whether it be through innovation or funding (as explored in this issue’s story “Breaking Barriers,” p. 67), women researchers, physicians and patients are often at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to their health. This reality inspired Pelletier to launch Evofem in 2009 to support the sustainable supply of contraception in the developing world. As the CEO of the company, Pelletier raised more than $400 million dollars to gain FDA approval for Phexxi as well as expand access across the globe. But during the middle of all of her efforts, something even more challenging arose: breast cancer.
Pelletier had always taken her health seriously, but her history with fibrocystic breasts left her unprepared for the reality of cancer. With no family history and no genetic connection, Pelletier’s diagnosis of a “very aggressive, very late-stage breast cancer” came as a shock.
“I said to [my doctor], I am not going to tell anybody, but this is one of those times that you have the wrong patient chart. There is no chance this is right. There is just no chance,” recalls Pelletier.
However, after the initial shock wore off, Pelletier approached her initial diagnosis like she approaches most things in life—by taking action. “It was like something came over me,” says Pelletier. “If it needs to get done, I will do it right now. I am not a procrastinator.” Within a month of her diagnosis, she began chemotherapy and received a double mastectomy. She also opted for aesthetic flat closure.
Besides any health fears, Pelletier was afraid of any potential complications with her work. Many cancer warriors work during their treatment, and Pelletier was no exception. “I worked my way up the corporate ladder for 25 years and then I thought, ’And now cancer is going to take it away from me. That’s not going to happen,’” recalls Pelletier.
Her biggest concern was what she described as the “male investment community.” Would the board of her company ask her to step down? Could her diagnosis negatively affect fundraising for her contraceptive? Would her competitors threaten her hard work? “I was 100 percent thinking to myself, how can I preserve my strength and my integrity? How can I continue to show people that I can still maintain my post?” Pelletier says.
Although the timing was not ideal, Pelletier persevered in large part by accepting the reality of her diagnosis rather than try to deny it. “This is not going to be something that you just power through in the way that you’ve powered through all these other obstacles,” Pelletier recalls her friends and family telling her. “When I finally allowed myself to accept the fact that I will never be like I was before cancer, that it’s not reality that it is never going to be, I was changed. I like myself better now. I had to release that idea.”
Part of her healing process involved incorporating both Eastern and Western medicine practices to combat her cancer from all sides. “I am going to treat this [like] how I treat everything else, which is, I kill a fly with a sledgehammer. And sometimes that’s not the best strategy, but I still do it,” she emphasizes.
While undergoing traditional Western treatments like chemotherapy and surgery (in addition to a double mastectomy, she also underwent a hysterectomy and oophorectomy), Pelletier also received regular lymphatic massages, acupuncture and vitamin C treatments through an IV. She incorporated daily meditation and used an infrared sleeping bag. She even flew to Spain to meet with an oncologist who uses mushroom therapies. According to Pelletier, the plan was to attack the cancer from all sides to give her the best chance of survival. “I am going to do everything, every single day, including exercise, to try to kill this cancer in every way possible,” she says.
Her efforts were successful.
“Your inner dialogue is everything,” begins Pelletier. “If you believe you are in the right hands and care, if you believe you’re doing the right things every day, if you believe you’re surrounded by the right kinds of people, the right attitudes … if you feel good and you feed yourself good information about your recovery and your ability to survive, it is game changing.”
Last year, Phexxi also received its FDA approval. After investing $150 million to bring Phexxi to the market, Pelletier is now educating oncologists about the product. “Women manage their fertility for decades and the burden and responsibility, no matter how good some men are, it’s on the woman,” says Pelletier. With more than 21 million women not using any form of hormonal birth control, Phexxi provides a great opportunity, including for cancer warriors and thrivers, to take control of their reproductive health.
“I’ve learned you can only control two things. You can control what you feed your body and what you feed your mind. So garbage in, garbage out. Positive things in, positive things out,” says Pelletier. “We’re excited for the women who don’t want to put a hormone into their body every day, but we’re excited for the women who can’t put a hormone into their body either. It’s really important.”
Saundra Pelletier is the CEO, president and executive director of Evofem Biosciences. For more information on Phexxi, the company’s first FDA-approved commercial product, visit phexxi.com.