As vice president of cancer programs at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, Renea Duffin wants more Louisiana residents to be screened for the disease, since early detection is a fundamental factor in slowing the state’s high mortality rates.
Her job duties at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center include leading patient outreach in an 18-parish area and monitoring the operation of five comprehensive cancer centers, the latest roles in an impressive career trajectory, which comes with a compelling back story.
Duffin applied for the job in 2007 after caring for her sister, Gussie Goins, who had been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer one year earlier. Duffin, then-senior vice president for member and community relations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, had resigned to serve as her sister’s full-time caregiver.
When it became apparent Goins had a short time to live, Duffin helped her return home to Forest Hill and continued to care for her there until her death several months later. Duffin found out about an opening at Mary Bird Perkins and immediately applied for the job, inspired by the high-quality care her sister had received there and also by a newfound mission to promote early detection.
Today, Duffin manages the vast CARE Network, a multitude of screening programs conducted by Mary Bird Perkins and several area partners. Last year, 6,785 individuals were examined for breast, colorectal and skin cancer at 248 screenings, many of them in rural communities. The center has screened more than 36,000 men and women since the program’s inception in 2002.
Duffin, the youngest of 13 children, says she always was driven and goal-oriented. From an early age, she had been a high-achieving student, motivated to earn good grades in school and make her family proud.
“My parents did not have a formal education; they had to quit school to go to work,” she says. “My mother always preached to us about how important it was to get your education.”
As a high school student, Duffin set a goal to serve as one of the governor’s advisers. In 1999, she was appointed secretary of the Department of Social Services by Gov. Mike Foster, the culmination of several years of work in the public sector as an undersecretary at DSS and as a legislative staff member.
Under her leadership, Mary Bird Perkins’ early detection program has increased screenings, partnered extensively with local hospitals and health care institutions to provide seamless care, and instituted new information systems, which improve data compilation from screenings to better track incidence trends. In the fight against cancer—especially cancer mortality—accurate information is an important weapon, Duffin says.
“It’s so important that we have the data to continue to educate communities and make important health care decisions,” she says. “It’s all about continuing the fight and increasing access.”