In 1993, Amy Swygert was a recent college grad without health insurance. That year she was also diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.
“I was able to jump on my dad's insurance,” she recalls, “but that was scary to potentially face a cancer diagnosis and not be insured.
“I understand the [importance] of what we do,” Swygert adds. “I can relate to [our] target audiences. [As] someone affected by cancer, I know what people want to understand [and] need when they're going through the experience.”
Swygert, who has been cancer-free for 15 years, took her first post-illness job with GCI in Atlanta. While there, she knew she wanted to work on healthcare issues. After winning business with ACS, the opportunity arose to work for the organization. She's been there since 1997.
“When I first started, we were a very small PR department,” says Swygert. “Over the years, the importance of communications came to the forefront.”
The communications function at ACS includes everything from media relations to internal communications to brand awareness work.
“One challenge from a brand perspective is that we're well known, but people don't have a sense of what we do,” says Swygert. While the ACS is noted for its research, other programs tend to go unnoticed.
“Most people don't know that ACS is a place to turn for their personal needs,” she adds. “They don't realize how much [we have] to offer, whether it's someone who's battling cancer now, wants to stay healthy, or someone who wants to get into the fight. That's one of my passions. I've personally benefitted from everything the organization has done.”
Bringing that passion and brand perspective is key for an entity that is heavily steeped in science, but speaks to an audience that isn't.
“How we translate that science information to consumers in a way that they can act on it is a microcosm of a lot of important things that we do,” says Wendi Klevan, MD of issues management at ACS and a 10-year colleague of Swygert.
Over the years, the corporate communications department has grown from 10 to 50 people, operating more like a firm, without silos, and relying heavily on strategy. Swygert, Klevan, and the rest of the team have seen their effort branch beyond research into areas of detection, risk, and control.
With healthcare a popular election-year topic, access to it has also become a hot issue. Despite progress made in the fight against cancer, Swygert realizes that economic issues might make people decide to put off testing and treatment.
“Cancer doesn't go away in tough economic times,” says Swygert. “That is when people need us the most.”
Colleagues value Swygert's insight. “That is one of the strengths she brings to the table,” says Klevan. “It makes her such an asset.”
And despite the horror of cancer, Swygert is able to see the value in that experience.
“There are some positives in a strange way,” she says. “You come out stronger for it, with a sense of purpose. That's driven my career.”
American Cancer Society (ACS), VP, strategic communications planning
Sept. 1997 to Jan. 2008
ACS, various positions
Jan. 1994-Sept. 1997
GCI Atlanta, acct. supervisor