Dr. Sandy Goldberg is founder and chairman of A Silver Lining Foundation, a nonprofit that provides cancer resource information, quality-of-life serves and mammography to people who might not otherwise have them. A clinical nutritionist, Dr. Sandy, as she is known, has been an on-air contributor on health and nutrition topics for Chicago’s NBC affiliate since 1994. She won an Emmy Award for her special about her own battle with breast cancer, diagnosed in 2000. That led her to create A Silver Lining in 2002 and a TV show for The American Cancer Society that aired on CAN TV from 2002 to 2010. She sits on or is an advisor to several boards, including that of the Washington Square Health Foundation, which she joined as a board member this year. Please go here for complete information about A Silver Lining Foundation and the work she and her organization does.
You’re a woman with a remarkable record of achievement. How do you assess the ongoing discussion of maximizing women’s opportunities to achieve?
My reaction is that we’ve been talking about this forever. Is it happening? Well maybe a little bit more than it was before. But look what’s happening. Look at the boardrooms and the top companies. Has there been a tremendous amount of change? No. Has there been a twitch here and there? Yes.
But you believe that discussion should continue, I assume.
Oh, absolutely. If we hadn’t kept up the discussion, women wouldn’t be voting.
Why do you think the discussion continues and things haven’t changed enough?
It’s a very good question and it’s not an answer that, frankly, I can give you [off hand]. As much as I don’t want to admit it, to a great extent when you’re talking about business it has been a male-dominated society. I still think that in some circumstances women are not viewed as equals. In order for a woman to prove herself she still has to go above and beyond. And even then there can be, “Well, she’ll want to get married, get pregnant, want to do this or that. She’s not serious.” Women are just as serious as men are.
Women need opportunities. But sometimes the problem is not being gutsy enough or forthright enough to say what’s important to you and how you intend to go about doing it. Of course, sometimes we don’t know how we go about doing something. We just get it done.
How did you get things done?
I think when you have an idea and it’s your idea, your baby, and it’s very closely aligned with who you are and your experiences [it gets done]. We talk about disparities in the system all the time. For me, I never realized what a charmed life I led until I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I never had to think about anything I needed. I created my cable TV show and that’s what truly changed my life. I discovered there were thousands if not millions of people who do things infinitely more important than anything I could ever accomplish who did not have access to what I had. And that made me nuts.
We started A Silver Lining Foundation with one program and then our subsequent programs came about almost organically. We saw needs and we went for it. Too often people are told, “You can’t do it” or something similar. Well, if it truly matters to you, you’ll find a way to do it.
Did you encounter that early in your life or career? Did you have to ignore doubters?
It’s an interesting question because the reason I finally felt comfortable to push is that I lost a tremendous amount of weight many years ago in my mid-twenties. I divide my life into before and after I lost the weight. For me, losing the weight was a real liberator because I realized, in retrospect, that even though I had a graduate degree and all I didn’t feel that I could do anything.
After I lost the weight, it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t at least give anything a college try. What I found out was that I had just been in my own way. When I got out of my way, things moved along. I’m not going to say it was all dancing around the maypole or that it was all easy then or is all easy today. But it certainly was a hell of a lot easier than it was.
In your career, have you found with others that it’s often true that they need first to get out of their own way to succeed?
I think we’re fearful. There’s an old saying: leap and a net will appear. You have to trust that the net will be there. You must trust yourself, trust your instincts. But you also have to do your homework. That’s the important thing. Is there a need for what you want to do? Are you passionate enough to push through what you want to do? If you start an organization or business, do you know your financials? How are you going to start and sustain it?
Many people come to me for advice [on nonprofits] and the first thing I say to them is, “I understand that this is your heart and soul, but you have to run it like a business.” If it’s not run like a business, you’ll be a flash in the pan, and there are people who need you whom you cannot help.
I also have to say that ignorance is bliss! I can’t tell you how many times I told my husband that all I wanted to do is help people, but look at this [business] “stuff” involved in doing it. And he’d say that stuff is what’s going to help you help others as you want to do.
A desire to help others does seem to be the unifying principle to what you’ve done in your life. You’ve worked to bring people information and now services. To what do you trace that?
My mother. My parents were immigrants. My mother had a third-grade education but my father was vey highly educated. And my mother may have had a third-grade education but she was the smartest woman I ever met.
At the end of the month, my father would sit at the table and write checks and my mother would sit and explain what the bills were for. That’s the way it was done in my generation, especially with immigrants. They would talk to each other in Russian or Yiddish because they thought my sister and I didn’t understand. We neglected to tell them we knew perfectly well what they talking about. But I remember my father saying who is this person and why am I paying their rent? I remember him saying, “Evie, buy as much food as you want, but we’re only four people!” My mother would look at my father and she’d tell him in Yiddish, “We’re all family and we have to help each other through the tough times.”
My eyes were opened after I was diagnosed and I created the cable show and people were calling in. People called in long after the show was over. It exploded, this little program. I realized that people were using it as their primary-care physician and I learned that many people felt they weren’t worthy to reach out because they had no insurance or no money.
That was unconscionable. And I heard my mother’s words again. So her philosophy is what drives us. We drill down to the individual. You asked about obstacles that had been tossed my way and one of them was people saying, “Sandy, there are so many organizations funding breast cancer research. Why start another breast cancer organization?” My response then and now is that I’m here because of breast cancer research. I’m a product of research; I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the research.
I respect every organization but that’s not what we do. We help that woman or man who has no place to go and has to pick up the phone and ask a stranger if they qualify for a test that may save their life. That’s what we do.
We’ve expanded to a teen-education program as well. But the essence of what we do is to take that one life—and the 50 lives that that life ripples to—and we ease it. In some cases we save it. And that’s mishpocha; that’s family.
Because the impact of your work can be that profound, can you get yourself to where you don’t have to attend to it 24/7?
I don’t think you cannot do it 24/7. I think if it’s your passion, if you’ve been in those shoes in terms of fear after a diagnosis, I don’t see how to not live it 24/7.
I was misdiagnosed initially and properly diagnosed nine months later. I was in treatment for five years, and I wouldn’t wish treatment for one day on a dog. But I could get treatment. I didn’t have to think that the pills for the nausea were $40 apiece after insurance. I didn’t have to think about it because I put a lot of goo on my face and I sat at a TV anchor desk. But when I asked why I should have it when other people don’t, that’s what drives me.
When did you realize that you could work to change that?
It’s a good question. I don’t know if it was a sudden realization per se, I just felt that it was something that had to be done. A component of that was the weight loss. I lost 183 pounds. As of February 1, my weight’s been off for 40 years. Subconsciously I thought that if I could do that, there wasn’t a lot I couldn’t at least try.
I think people know if you’re giving them an elevator speech or if it’s something that matters to you down to the essence of your soul. I think people respond to that. And there are few people today who haven’t been diagnosed or who don’t know someone who has or don’t know what’s going on with breast cancer. With early detection, a woman or man can go on to live a perfectly normal life, 98th percentile. The question is access.
For example, with the African-American community in Chicago the mortality rate for breast cancer is unchanged for the last 30 years. It’s true. This is the sort of thing we address at A Silver Lining. We address it through our outreach program and through our BAMAM (Buy A Mom a Mammogram) program. Now we also address it through our teen program that has morphed into an adult program as well.
We had a quality-of-life center at the University of Illinois-Chicago Medical Center in which we were funding specific quality-of-life situations for people going through treatment there. That program is now renamed and rededicated as the Evelyn Goldberg Mammography Center. So the whole mammography center is now named for my mother. Women who go to UIC—one of our nine partners—are walking into a haven named for my mother.
We provide very specific, very spot-on quality-of-life services. There was a woman in the waiting room recently and she was shivering. Brenda, the chief tech, came to her and said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK. Don’t be scared. Someone will be with you.” And the woman said, “Does someone have an apple or something. I haven’t eaten in two days because I had to save the money so I could get here on the bus.” This is what we address.
Does it ever surprise you to look at the multitiered service organization you’ve been able to create and maintain?
Well the initial idea was mine but I know we wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of what we have were it not for the people who support us: those in the office, and our donors and our 38 magnificent volunteers who work with us. An idea can come from one but implementation never is. Implementation comes from everyone who believes.
From that perspective I don’t know that “surprised” is the right word. Am I thrilled? Am I thankful? Absolutely. I do feel that if you get like people together for a germ of a cause that means something to them, wonderful things can happen.
We have the greatest board of directors. We run A Silver Lining with one-and-a-half paid employees and 38 volunteers. That’s the way we’re able to work. But we’re out there all the time because as the need continues to escalate, the calls to our office are pretty much nonstop. And we all take those calls.
Can you imagine that you feel a lump and you don’t know where to go or if you’ll have to provide financial information and you don’t have the proper documentation? And you’re scared to death. This is your one place where you feel you might be able to get some help that you need. That’s the beauty of what we do.