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The Catalyst

Cancer Society CEO challenges Class of 2014 MUSC grads


On May 16, the MUSC Class of 2014 graduates and guests gathered at The Citadel’s McAlister Fieldhouse to attend the 185th commencement ceremony.

The commencement address was delivered by American Cancer Society CEO John R. Seffrin, Ph.D. The following is the text from Seffrin’s speech:

Congratulations! Congratulations to the parents, significant others, family members, to the faculty of this great university – but most of all, congratulations to you – the candidates for graduation. It is you that I’m here to talk with. This is your day. You’ve earned it, and you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished to get you to this point. We are all so very proud of you.

As I reflected on what I might say today, I asked myself, “What, John, do you wish you might have heard when I was in your shoes?” The first thing I thought was that I would have wanted it to be short! The second thought was that I would have liked to hear something that might ground me and guide me on my career path moving forward. So here goes.  

The power of choice
For most of you, your career path choice in science was the most significant adult decision you have made thus far. But you will, of course, have many more in the days ahead. So please remember and respect the power of choice. The need to choose is the most constant aspect of conscious human life – and it constitutes life’s heaviest burden but also its greatest opportunity.

Today I’m at the end of a more than 20-year career as CEO of one of the largest and most respected nonprofits in the world, the American Cancer Society. But nearly 50 years ago, I sat where you sit today. And it was often seemingly small but significant choices that led me to where I am today. Even the choice that landed me in graduate school was a surprise to me. I thought I wanted to be a biology teacher until an undergraduate professor convinced me stay in school and study public health. That changed my life — forever.

I can tell you I definitely don’t remember the commencement speech at any of the three graduations I participated in as a degree candidate. Will you remember me when you’re my age? Probably not. And that’s OK.

What you should remember are the seemingly small but significant choices that got you here today. You should remember the hard work and long hours you put in, and the family, friends and loved ones who have helped and cheered you on. And you’ll hopefully remember the feeling; I know, many of you are feeling that now you can do anything. That anything – and just maybe everything – is possible from here. And indeed it is. That’s an important feeling to have as you enter the science and health care field. We need people who aren’t afraid to dream big dreams — and to make tough choices.

Wherever your choices take you from here, all of you are commencing career paths that will touch the lives of people in very important ways.  

It is said that the human being is the only animal that both laughs and cries — and that’s because we somehow know the difference between what is and what ought to be. You have the opportunity to become an extraordinary human being by turning what is into what should be and what can be for the public you serve. The impact of your choice to pursue the health sciences will have profound effects on you and others throughout your career.

Robert Frost, in the poem “The Road Not Taken,” emphasizes how profoundly important our choices are in life, especially our career choices. Frost ends his lovely poem with the lines:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Years from now you probably won’t remember who spoke at your commencement. But if I could share one thing – just one thing – that you would remember, it’s this: You, too, will make all the difference, if you make the right choices, and stay the course.  But how do you make the right choices? Here are three helpful hints, from the heart.

  • Choose to be a change agent.

Not only can you continue to make good choices – you can also influence the choices other people make. You can effect change … and particularly powerful change when it comes to biomedical research and health. You can’t fix everything. We all have limits. But you can do at least one thing, and do it well.
To paraphrase Edward Everett Hale:
You — you are only one;
but still you are the one.
You can’t do everything;
but you can do something.
And because you can’t do everything,
you will not refuse to do.
What you can for the health and
human development of others.

Let me give you an example of the kind of change you can make happen.

When I was in your shoes, back in the 1960s, it seemed like nearly everybody smoked. Moms and dads smoked. Some doctors smoked. Even some members of the American Cancer Society Board of Directors smoked. And they did it at home, at work, in restaurants and on airplanes. Pretty much anywhere they liked. Today … the world is of course very different.

This year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health that helped spur a tobacco control movement in this country, of which my organization was a major player, that has saved millions of lives. The percentage of U.S. adults who smoke has dropped from more than 40 percent to less than 20 percent today. And we have these declines to thank for the majority of the more than 400 lives we’re saving from cancer every day.

What will be the biggest research and health challenges of your time? Because it’s going to be up to you to solve them.
Maybe it’s the tobacco pandemic that threatens to crush economies and kill a billion people worldwide in this century.
Maybe it’s the obesity epidemic, threatening to make this generation of Americans the first to live shorter lives than their parents.
Or maybe it’s something we can’t even imagine today – something you will discover that will change, and save, lives around the globe.

  • Choose to commit.

Whatever the issue you get behind, commit to it. Remember that next to love, commitment is the most beautiful word in the English language. To be your best in anything — in your career or in your interpersonal relationships — necessitates commitment.  To be committed takes discipline, hard work and resolve, but it can lead to the greatest of all satisfactions in this life, or so I believe.

Tagore, the Bengali poet from Calcutta who won the Nobel Prize, said it best in his poem:
    I slept and dreamt
        That life was joy
    I awoke and saw
        That life was duty
    I acted and behold!
        Duty was joy.

If you execute on your duties in research you will bring much joy to life – yours and others.

  • Choose to play.

Keep in mind that play should be a part of your work as well as your leisure. This lesson is one of the most often missed by professionals of all ages. To be your best, and to do your best, and to serve others maximally, you must enjoy your work fully – and you must seek the play in it, even in its most serious parts.

My work at the American Cancer Society is of course about a very serious subject, but it is work that, although very challenging, is also enjoyable, and yes, fun. This I pray you come to understand early in your career. Again, Frost said it best — and these words most reflect my professional philosophy in this life (from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”):
But yield who will to their separation
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight –
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
    Is the deed ever really done
    For heaven and the future’s sakes.

What this says to me is that you should aspire to something that makes a real difference in the world – and that what you do should be so enjoyable and rewarding that you can think of it as not having a bright line between vocation and avocation – between what you do for a living, and what you do because you’re passionate about it. Working to do research and to find better ways to keep people healthy and to cure disease has, I think, more potential to make a difference in this world than any other endeavor.

As you leave here today, and continue your path down the “road less traveled,” remember that your choices are powerful. And if you are committed, you can make all the difference.  My ultimate wish for you is simple but profound — (Jonathan Swift): “May you live all the days of your life.”

Congratulations and good luck!


June 6, 2014



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