“I have an attitude of gratitude,” says Stephanie Herron, chief development officer (CDO) of Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). “It’s a privilege to do this work, and when I get to the end of my days, I want to know that it mattered.” SU2C is the gold standard of cancer research foundations — in just 15 short years, they’ve funded more than 270 clinical trials testing breakthrough cancer drugs and therapies, and they’ve pledged over $746 million dollars to 3,000 scientists across the world. They’ve been able to do all this because their research model was designed to initiate collaboration, accelerate the pace of cancer research and clear the way for high-impact breakthroughs.
As CDO, Herron is responsible for SU2C’s fundraising strategy, which includes major gifts, corporate philanthropy, digital engagement and innovation. And it’s a formidable position — one that sometimes has Herron logging 13-hour days with meetings across multiple time zones — but one that suits her perfectly. She’s razor sharp, incredibly passionate about improving outcomes for people with cancer, and she has an innate creative drive that has already inspired innovation within SU2C, despite assuming the role only a few months ago.
But the position, nor Stephanie, could ask for anything less. Especially if Herron is to fulfill personal goals in helping the foundation evolve into one that will be at the forefront of supporting research that will, ultimately, “turn all cancer patients into long-term thrivers.” This is the focus of SU2C’s Convergence team, which Herron says is at an important point of understanding cancer biology, prevention and treatment, noting their studies into cancer genomics, the microbiome’s impact on treatment effectiveness and the use of mRNA vaccines to treat cancer. “Aligned with our mission to bring together the best and the brightest minds in cancer, the SU2C Convergence grants unite various scientific disciplines to investigate fundamental questions about cancer biology and to reimagine the way we bring promising new cancer treatments to patients quickly,” Herron says. “We won’t stop until every cancer patient is a long-term cancer survivor or thriver.”
Herron, like the foundation as a whole, is understandably hesitant to use the word “cure,” but SU2C’s fundraising model is innovative in that they funnel fundraising dollars into research across the cancer spectrum, bringing together researchers with different skill sets united under one goal. “If you can start to bring these disciplines together and this research together [from] across the world, we really have a chance to defeat this disease,” Herron says. “My hope is that we raise the money that will fund these world-class scientists and researchers, and that through them, we will save more lives, and cancer patients will have less-toxic treatments and better quality of life.”
Herron knows too well how cancer and its treatment can be devastating — not just for the person diagnosed but for their loved ones, as well. In 2005, her brother passed away from esophageal cancer — a rare and aggressive form called small-cell carcinoma of the esophagus. “I’m close in age to my brother, we went to the same high school together, he was a senior when I was a freshman, he married his high school sweetheart, [who] is a good friend of mine, and I couldn’t believe how quickly it all happened,” Herron says. “That is what led me to want to figure out how I can impact this cancer space; how I can make a difference.”
Herron says the loss of her brother represented a turning point in her life. When he was diagnosed in 2004, she was working in academia as the director of development at California State University Channel Islands. She started volunteering to raise money for cancer research in her personal life, participating in 5k or 10k fun runs. “I felt like it was so important just to be out there,” Herron says. “That’s where it started. […] All of my experiences in philanthropy, in business, personally, have led me to Stand Up To Cancer — led me right to the place I am today.”
Herron’s career in cancer research fundraising spans more than 20 years, but she’s been working in the nonprofit space since the early 90s, when she became executive director of a downtown revitalization organization in Bristol, Tennessee. “It really showed me the power of when a small group of passionate people […] come together, what can be achieved,” Herron says. Following her brother’s diagnosis, Herron knew she could harness this power and aimed to refocus her career on “the fight against cancer.”
“What I love about Stand Up is it’s not just focused on one cancer, it’s across the spectrum of many different cancers [and] studying how and why cancer takes hold,” she says. Initially, she was intrigued by SU2C’s founding, noting media personality Katie Couric and the former CEO of Paramount Pictures Sherry Lansing, along with a “group of really extraordinary women” that were all connected to the entertainment industry.
“And each one of the SU2C founders has a different story about how cancer has touched their lives,” says Herron. “These women banded together to say, we’re not scientists, we don’t know what we’re going to do here, but we know we want to do something to save more lives and to advance how cancer is detected, how it’s potentially prevented [and] how it’s treated.”
SU2C is unique in that they were the first to establish a “collaborative, multi-institutional research model,” according to Herron, which has resulted in remarkable progress in the organization’s 15 short years, including the development of nine FDA-approved therapeutics. Herron notes that the traditional research model rewards individuality and individual discovery, but SU2C aims to foster collaboration among researchers across disciplines and institutions. “For its time, it was a totally revolutionary model,” says Herron, adding that other organizations noted SU2C’s success and followed suit. “[SU2C] challenged the status quo.”
One pillar of their fundraising model — drawing on the renown of stars from film, TV, sports and journalism to encourage donations and help SU2C become a household name — is also one-of-a-kind. “Because of [SU2C’s] relationship and involvement with the entertainment industry, we are the beneficiary of very unique integrations that celebrities bring forth, and it’s a wonderful partnership,” Herron says. Perhaps most well-known is SU2C’s live telecast, which occurs every two years and features well-known celebrities coming together to highlight SU2C’s collaborative research, share patient stories, perform live music and collect donations from the public. Past telecasts had appearances by Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Tom Hanks, Matthew McConaughey and many, many more.
Those in the cancer community know SU2C’s name well, but it would be difficult to find anyone who isn’t at least vaguely familiar with the organization — especially given major corporate partners like Major League Baseball, American Airlines and Mastercard, to name a few. “It’s really interesting, as I’ve gotten to know more of our corporate partners especially, how often the leaders of the organization or the employees [have all] somehow been touched by cancer,” Herron says, noting how SU2C’s partners share a genuine commitment to advancing cancer research.
Herron believes it’s this thread of authenticity that will carry SU2C into the future. “We will continue to be an honest broker and break down barriers and support multi-disciplinary, multi-institution, multi-country [research efforts],” Herron says. SU2C is funding research into immunotherapy, disease progression, the role of the microbiome in preventing and/or treating cancer and so much more. Again, Herron nods to SU2C’s commitment to innovation, sharing that they will continue to fund “high-risk, high-reward” grants, awards and early career investigators.
“What I mean by that is, we want to fund young investigators, or early career investigators or ideas that are so novel they have a hard time getting funding from traditional sources,” Herron says. “You’re going to see Stand Up To Cancer continue to drive access to [SU2C]-funded clinical studies and continue to drive our mission into medically underserved communities.” Looking ahead five or 10 years, SU2C also wants one of their focuses to be on artificial intelligence and its potential to further accelerate cancer research. “I really do think this is the decade in which we’re going to see major breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of cancer,” Herron says.
Being pulled in so many different directions undoubtedly results in hectic days for Herron, but it also allows her to flex her creative muscles — “My role for years, really, in whatever fundraising seat, [has had] a creative component,” Herron says, explaining that fundraising strategies are often “audience-led,” and it’s Herron’s job to determine what messaging will have the greatest impact. “When you think about fundraising, you have to first create awareness, and then get people to take action, and how do you do that?” she says. “There are those creative through-lines, [and] I really enjoy that part of the work.”
Herron also knows the importance of nurturing her creative spirit out of the office — she’s a gifted nature and bird photographer. “It involves being present in the moment, and I think that’s what really helps me to get centered and renew my soul,” Herron says. “In our workdays, [we’re] always looking at what’s next, [but] when I’m out in nature, and I’m with my dog or my husband and I have my camera, I’m just right there in that moment, and enjoying God’s creation and the beauty — it really grounds me.” (Herron’s dog, Honey Badger, is rarely far from Herron’s side.)
“Being out in nature fills my soul, and it gives me the energy and the quiet that I need, but also the creative outlet that I need,” Herron says. Wherever her day-to-day life takes her — flying across the country to meet with donors, waiting patiently for a new species of bird to find its way behind her camera’s viewfinder, and everywhere in between — Herron’s passion rings true. “I have experienced tremendous personal loss, [and] you can focus on the grief, or you can choose to take these life experiences, and say, ‘What am I going to do with this life, to change the outcome for other families?’ And that’s what fuels me,” she says. “I think there is incredible power when you live your life with purpose.”
Learn more about Herron and Stand Up To Cancer at StandUpToCancer.org