In July 2018, Evofem Biosciences founder and CEO Saundra Pelletier learned she had Stage III breast cancer--while her company was in the midst of a Phase 3 clinical trial of Amphora, its nonhormonal contraceptive gel for women. Pelletier embarked on aggressive treatment for her cancer, undergoing chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy, and an oophorectomy. At the end of 2018, Evofem announced that Amphora was 98.7 percent effective when used as directed, and 86 percent effective in typical use. Pelletier, who never took a leave of absence, now says she is "done with cancer." She is again appearing at investor conferences, and her hair is growing back. --As told to Kimberly Weisul
I couldn't even believe it.
When the doctor first called, I said, "I don't mean to insult you, but are you sure you have the right chart?" I went from having a clean mammogram to, one year later, having Stage III breast cancer--this type of tumor is aggressive.
My significant other was my first call. Then I called my mother. Next was a former nanny--I wanted her to come back. And then I called Ellen, my chief of staff.
After that, I called Thomas Lynch--my chairman--and asked to see him in person. He thought something bad had happened with the business. When I got there and sat down, he instantly knew something was seriously wrong with me. I had rehearsed my script 100 times: "Thousands of women get breast cancer. Women survive and thrive when they have cancer. My prognosis is not terminal. I hope I've shown you I'm resilient. I hope you believe I can stay in my seat." My whole experience has been that the minute someone is weak, they're kicked when they're down, and discarded. I was worried the board would want to replace me.
Thomas Lynch is a proper man. Quite diplomatic. He let me go into my speech, and he reached out his hand over mine, and he said, "Saundra, if there is anybody who can beat cancer, it is you."
Then he said we needed to call the lawyers right away, because we're a public company. Because my prognosis was not terminal, they said the cancer was private information. Material, but private. They said that unless my prognosis changed, I wouldn't have to disclose it. Ever.
The lawyers suggested I contact our shareholders after my third or fourth chemo session. That way, shareholders could see that I had been leading for four or five months while I was undergoing treatment, and the company was operating without a blip.
I was nervous about telling them. I was so prepared to hear, "What about my investment?" I had a script preparing me for all these things. I was so grateful that every shareholder said, in their own way, what matters most is your health, period. After I spoke to all the investors, I ripped up the script. That was a good day.
I did chemo every 21 days. Ellen would show up an hour after chemo started. We would work. I'd dictate to her. We would do conference calls. Before every call, I would tell myself, "OK, you can do anything for an hour. You can shake it off." I would get chemo on a Thursday, and then be off the grid for two days. Monday, I would start calls again. I had investor calls at 6 a.m. They didn't know I was sick.
I couldn't travel because of the risk of infection. The team decided to go to every conference anyway. Russ Barrans, the chief commercial officer, would do the presentations. The chief financial officer would also go. Delegating the conference responsibility was the hardest thing--for the first time, I had to get comfortable asking for help.
Everyone indulged me. Every time, before Russ would do a presentation, he and I would talk. I even asked him to send me a picture of what he was wearing before he went onstage. He was unbelievably gracious and cooperative. He would definitely have hung up on me if I hadn't been in treatment.
In his presentation, Russ can't talk about what it's like to take contraception, as I do. But he could tell a story about his daughter. A lot of our audience are male investors, and he brought something to the table that I couldn't. When I heard Russ tell that story, I realized he really can--and should--do this as my proxy. Now we have decided that it's probably smarter for the company that we divide and conquer. I'm not sure I could have been convinced of that without the diagnosis.
The saddest thing was that I would go to chemo, and other women would have to end chemo early to get back on the bus because they had three kids to feed. Or they couldn't miss work. I met a waitress who was supposed to be doing heavy-duty chemo every 21 days. Instead, she was coming once a week and getting a much smaller dose. Her cancer might still grow, but that was the only way she could keep her job. I'm still not over that.
At the company, I have changed my operational practices. Now I know my team has a handle on things. I don't have to participate in everything. I can get an update in the executive team meeting. I have a lot more time to think strategically about the company, and about partnerships.
I send people notes all the time, saying, "I saw this and it made me think of you." Even shareholders. Before cancer, I wouldn't do that. I'd think the recipient would be like, "What do you want? You're not my pen pal. Swim in your own lane!"
Now, I don't care. I have definitely loosened up. I just do what I want, pretty much all the time. Above all, I feel grateful that I had great care, and access to support and treatment that not everybody has.
And now I'm on the other side.