Celebrating science and self-advocacy in marking my ten-year breast cancer “cure” milestone

Betsy Bassan


Breast cancer has shaped my and my family’s life for at least three generations. What I learned from this family history of cancer is that each of us must be our own best advocates – as early detection detectives and empowered voices with our health care workers. We also must be ever grateful for the medical advances that make treatment options and survival rates better each year.

My mother’s breast cancer story. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was two and died shortly after I turned four, on Jan. 4, 1958, just shy of her 41st birthday on Valentine’s Day. Surgery and steroids were the key treatment options in those days: radical mastectomies, where the breast and a lot of surrounding tissue and muscle were removed, while patients gained curves elsewhere via weight gained from the meds.

Unfortunately, surgery didn’t come soon enough as the cancer had already spread. Over a long and painful couple of years, the cancer spread further, slowly debilitating my remarkably vibrant mom, who eventually became bedridden and then the unimaginable happened – she died.

She left five kids ages 4 to 11 and my dad, a doctor who never fully recovered from his grief of losing her and his guilt of failing to save her. He soldiered on. We were fortunate that we could afford the household help needed to care for so many kids. And our dad’s intense interest in life kept us busy exploring the vast playground of Washington State from our hometown in the Emerald City, Seattle. Still each of us have our individual lifelong scars from losing our mom.

My breast cancer story.
The prospect of breast cancer hung over my head throughout my life like Damocles’ sword. I labored under a foreboding sense that it could strike at any minute. My greatest fear was leaving my three kids without a mom, forsaken to repeat my family’s experience. This fear was so great that my mind would stop processing as soon as the topic arose. Amazing as it now seems, my gynecologist never suggested genetic testing to see what my real risk was.

One thing that did resonate was the need for regular breast self-exams, possibly a result of a graphic breast self-exam demonstration in college in which the demo breast was lovingly, but quite embarrassingly, called “Betsy breast.”

Besides regular mammograms, I kept a plasticized set of breast self-exam directions on my showerhead, trying my best to track a monthly course. In the shower just home from a business trip to the Philippines in October 2007, at age 53, I found a lump deep in the lower part of my right breast. My internist quickly got me into a surgeon’s office for a biopsy. My fear was incalculable. My very kind surgeon said he didn’t think the lump felt like cancer. I was convinced otherwise and unsurprised when two days later he told me it was indeed cancer.

Thus started a whirlwind of tests to nail down the specifics of the tumor and chart a treatment plan. I started out believing I had been given the same death sentence as my mom. But times had changed and, over the course of a battery of tests, my doctors plotted a promising plan of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I have many heroes from those few weeks. Once I knew I would live, I was able to share my situation with my three kids.

I learned that I had a 4 cm “triple negative” tumor and that I carry the BRCA genetic mutation that makes breast and ovarian cancer almost inevitable. Triple negative had a particularly horrible ring, consistent with the aggressive growth that brought it to golf ball size only six months after a clean mammogram. My last mammogram was even double-checked and its “cleanness” reaffirmed.

Through breast self-exam, I caught the cancer before it spread beyond my breast and into my body. One of my doctors literally did a two-step when my PET scan showed the cancer had not spread outside the breast. I have no doubt that breast self-exam saved my life.

We removed the affected breast immediately and I likened myself to the Greek Amazon women who, like the Sagittarian that I am, shoot arrows better without that right breast getting in the way. While arduous, I cherished the life-saving miracle of chemotherapy and radiation, visualizing a magic elixir flowing through me doing battle with any little cancer metastases it ran into, while mentally traveling to my happy place in the Olympic National Rain Forest.

People with triple negative tumors are most at risk for a reoccurrence in the early years. Over the years, the risk declines, plateaus, until finally, at year 10, one is declared “cured.” I am deliriously happy to arrive this October 22nd at that milestone. Because of my genetic mutation, my doctor at Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center is only graduating me from semi-annual to annual appointments. Whew. I also go to my onco-gynecologist annually, mostly to check that the inevitable ovarian remnants aren’t having any morbid tendencies.

Every day — and I mean every day — I give thanks for the advances in medicine and my own prevention efforts that saved my life so I can be here for my kids.

My daughter’s story. After experiencing firsthand the importance of early detection and equipped with an understanding of the BRCA genetic mutation, I’m having my children tested as early as possible. Each has a 50/50 chance of inheriting it. One was spared, one tested positive, and one is yet to be tested. The one who tested positive is enrolled in a special intensive screening program.

While a difficult discovery, we all feel deeply grateful that research and medicine have progressed to a point where, in our family’s journey with this genetic mutation, our children’s generation can be spared an early, painful, and sad death like my mother, and probably also the harsh treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. Rather, our child knows the risk and proactively is taking the steps needed to ensure a long, healthy life.

Meanwhile, treatment options continue to expand. All in my lifetime.

My mother, Celeste Franklin Bassan, wearing the breast cancer symbol, before it was even invented.

Happy 5th Anniversary, Panagora Group!

Panagora Group, a woman-owned social enterprise focused on global health and international development consulting, turned five this week! We are thrilled to mark this milestone by celebrating some key achievements.

  • Advancing local systems. Panagora is deeply committed to nurturing host-country capacity and positioning individuals and institutions to carry work forward independently. We are especially proud of our work with the Capacity Building Services Group (CBSG) under the Bangladesh Smiling Sun Franchise Program (SSFP). Working hand-in-hand, we used participatory organizational development processes to build the capacity of 26 national NGOs, ultimately equipping 12 (triple the target) to host direct USAID awards. CBSG is now a regular provider of capacity building services in USAID activities. Panagora carried out similar work for the Afghanistan Regional Agricultural Development Program-South (RADP-South), and is now launching such activities for Afghanistan Health Sector Resiliency (HSR) and Kenya Afya Jijini.
  • Taking an integrated and multi-sectoral approach to global health. We recognize that integrated health services linked appropriately to other sectors creates synergies and reflects how people seek health information, services, and products. We have brought our extensive track record in integrated and multi-sectoral approaches to health into many activities, e.g., our M&E work on the School Reading and Health Program in Uganda, multifaceted gender and youth strategies, and infusion of business principles and partnerships into health services provision in Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
  • Using private sector modalities. Engaging the private sector and using business practices in meeting development objectives creates win-win situations key to long-term sustainability. In Bangladesh, Panagora staff helped convert 26 NGOs and their 327 clinics into a social franchise, allowing them to better serve 20 million people. We helped leverage and share best practices from almost 30 public-private partnerships (PPPs) with national and international business. We developed PPPs under the Burundi Integrated Health Program, and are now mobilizing PPPs and promoting network and franchise concepts in Afghanistan HSR to increase health service quality, efficiency, and access.
  • Innovating in monitoring & evaluation (M&E). Improving aid efficacy requires shifting the M&E paradigm to serve real-time learning and continuous improvement objectives. Under the Uganda Performance and Impact Evaluation (P&IE) contract, Panagora carries out user-focused performance evaluations, and pioneered use of continuous evaluation for real-time performance feedback to support adaptive management. Panagora was the only small business to place in USAID’s CLA Case Competition and is among a handful selected to present its case to USAID. Panagora brings our seasoned and cutting-edge M&E expertise to USAID via our prime M&E IDIQ contract.
  • Promoting evidence-based programming and sustainability of knowledge assets. Panagora works doggedly to promote programming that builds on proven approaches and help knowledge assets live beyond projects. Under Ukraine Strengthening TB Control, Panagora designed a web-based information, training, and knowledge sharing platform, with a build-operate-transfer (BOT) approach to shift stewardship to a national partner. Starting in 2016, as a partner to Chemonics International under USAID’s Global Health Procurement and Supply Management (PSM) program, Panagora is honored to lead communications and knowledge management (CKM) and support advocacy.
  • Industry leadership with international development companies (IDCs). Given U.S. companies implement up to 40% of USAID’s programs, IDCs must be a voice in foreign aid discussions to ensure a full evidence base. Panagora was pivotal in founding CIDC (Council of International Development Companies); our CEO served on its board and led its effort to collate best practices in IDC capacity building for panels at CSIS. As Chair of SBAIC (Small Business Association for International Companies) for three years, she led its transformation from a modest network into a highly effective advocate for its 170 members, helping USAID achieve its small business goals and better development outcomes. For her commitment to enhancing IDC contributions while managing a startup, Betsy Bassan was named a 2015 Enterprising Woman of the Year Champion.
  • Harnessing technology for improved project performance. Development programs have long needed tailored software for aggregating and presenting data for sharing results efficiently and building a user-friendly evidence base. Panagora partnered with Newdea to help advance use of its best-in-class cloud-based software for program monitoring and management. Newdea’s Project Center software aggregates all performance and financial data along with associated narrative and other rich media, providing a collaborative platform for better teamwork, program oversight, and learning.
  • Extensive network of partners and experts via multiple mechanisms. Panagora has built many relationships and developed creative approaches in numerous strategic planning and design collaborations. Successful IDIQ partnerships in addition to the activities mentioned above include two USAID IDIQ prime contracts (global health and M&E), six USAID IDIQ subcontracts (global health supply chain (3), global health, water, and human and institutional capacity development), and a CDC IDIQ (global health). Read descriptions here.

A business startup in the international development space faces many challenges. Our startup was complicated by aid reforms that initially relegated small business to a back seat. Through strategic partnering, persistence, and market adaptations, Panagora has built a social enterprise that offers USAID a new source of innovation via seasoned development professionals and small business benefits of flexibility and nimbleness. Through our SBAIC efforts, we are helping other small businesses penetrate the international development space, at the same time helping USAID expand its partner base.

We extend our heartfelt thanks to our many partners, colleagues, and friends for being willing to place their faith in a startup. We thank USAID for its open communication and collaborative spirit in working with the small business community. Panagora is thrilled to hold two prime USAID contracts, and in 2015 receive an audit with no findings and a NICRA. We thank Chemonics for our partnership under the mentor protégé program and several subcontracts, most recently PSM. We thank our other prime partners, in particular NORC on P&IE, Palladium on Afghanistan HSR, and IMA World Health on Kenya Afya Jijini. We thank our numerous IDIQ partners, and organizations such as Grant Thornton LLP and Newdea for establishing special working relationships that allow us, together, to achieve more. Finally, we thank the national and international consultants who roll up their sleeves and implement our approaches around the world, enabling Panagora to realize our mission of making the world a better place, for good.

We look forward with excitement and anticipation to advancing our mission through these and other relationships to come in the years ahead. Happy 5th Birthday, Panagora!

Panagora Only Small Business to Place in Top 25 of USAID’s CLA Case Competition

To read our CLA Case Competition, click here.

Announcing Prime Contract Award: Monitoring and Evaluation IDIQ (EVAL ME)

Panagora is delighted to announce that we have been awarded a prime contract under USAID’s total small business set-aside to provide monitoring and evaluation services through the EVAL ME IDIQ under the Office of Learning, Evaluation, and Research in USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL/LER).

Panagora and our partners appreciate the pivotal role evaluation and performance monitoring play in achieving USAID’s vision for reform and improved aid efficacy — guiding development policy, strategy, and programming. Under this IDIQ, we will provide technical and advisory services to USAID missions and bureaus in carrying out performance and impact evaluations, supporting performance monitoring, building M&E capacity, and identifying and sharing lessons learned.

Complementing Panagora’s decades of IDIQ experience and unique blend of M&E, capacity building, and CLA experience, our consortium includes major subcontractor Grant Thornton LLP with its global presence and deep M&E, data management, and finance expertise; and other small businesses with specialized expertise across EVAL ME technical areas, including Evans Incorporated, Food Economy Group, IMPAQ International, J.E. Austin Associates, Johnson Law Group International, Natural Resources Consulting Engineers, Newdea, Overseas Strategic Consulting, Scintilla Consulting, Seward, and Sonjara.

Panagora’s IDIQ Manager, Dr. Dan Blumhagen, brings three decades of expertise in designing and implementing performance management and evaluation systems, in USAID and as a consultant. He has conducted numerous evaluations, and is equally adept in performance M&E policy, implementation, oversight, and capacity building.

Panagora and our partners are excited to play a part in achieving USAID’s M&E vision and helping drive better development outcomes through a learning and adapting approach to M&E.

SBAIC’s “Working Together to Achieve USAID’s Small Business Targets and Achieve Good Development” Panel

President and CEO of Panagora Group, Betsy Bassan, led the SBAIC panel at USAID’s M Bureau on Partners Day on March 3, 2015. In the panel, titled “Working Together to Achieve USAID’s Small Business Targets and Achieve Good Development,” we shared SBAIC views on USAID’s efforts to meet its small business goals. To read key points made in the panel, click here.