Christine Gregoire could not believe what she was hearing. It was 2003 and she had just announced her candidacy for Washington state governor when she underwent a routine medical checkup. Now her doctor was telling her the results. As he spoke, she watched his lips moving but just couldn’t comprehend the words he was saying.
“I finally said to him, ‘I need you to stop. Are you telling me I have cancer?’ To which he replied, ‘I am,’” she remembers. “I said, ‘It’s a terrible mistake; it’s got to be someone else’s file that you have, there’s nothing wrong with me.’”
Gregoire, who was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma, said she quickly went through a range of emotions and assumed she’d need to drop out of the gubernatorial race. She didn’t. Instead, after being successfully treated with a mastectomy, she won the election and became the second female governor in Washington state history (and four years later, the first to win re-election).
Gregoire’s life and career have centered on public service and advocating for those who don’t have a voice. She fought for the rights of abused children as assistant attorney general of Washington state. She took on big tobacco and won a landmark settlement as attorney general. She created the seminal Life Sciences Discovery Fund as governor to help further medical research. She signed legislation legalizing same sex marriage in Washington state during her time as governor. Now, she leads the non-profit Challenge Seattle, a coalition of many Seattle-area CEOs dedicated to helping address critical issues, including transportation, that the region faces.
“I am so excited to be a part of an organization that can bring hope to patients, loved ones, family and friends and know that, yes, we are going to find a cure for cancer. It’s right around the corner for us,” she said during an interview at her Seattle office.
Dr. Gary Gilliland, Fred Hutch’s president and director, said he’s looking forward to Gregoire’s new leadership role. “Chris will be a fantastic leader. She’s incredibly bright, she gets things done, she understands the science and she knows how to operate in a complex environment,” he said.
Paula Reynolds, outgoing board chair, said Gregoire’s unique experience and perspective make her ideal for the role.
“We couldn't have a more distinguished board chair than Governor Gregoire,” Reynolds said. “Her counsel as a trustee has reflected wisdom borne of experience running our state and its many and varied agencies. She is also a survivor who shares our single-minded dedication to curing cancer.”
Gregoire will lead a board comprised of 14 other current members, including Vice Chair Matt McIlwain, plus five incoming board members: Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft; Mike Clayville, vice president of worldwide commercial sales and business development at Amazon Web Services; Mark Fleischauer, chair of JH Kelly Holdings; Carl Behnke, president of REB Enterprises; and Bryan White, founder of Sahsen Ventures.
“Our board is stellar as it represents expertise invaluable to our commitment to find the cure to cancer,” Gregoire said. “The board members are passionate about the Hutch, its mission and its people.”
Gregoire joined the Fred Hutch board of trustees in July 2013, only six months after her second term as governor ended. When she originally decided not to seek a third term in office, those around her advised that she take a long break without commitments to have time to decide what her next focus would be.
The break didn’t last long.
When she was asked to join Fred Hutch’s board, she immediately agreed. "It was the one thing where I said that yes, I want to get involved,” she said. “I knew right away I wanted to be a part of an amazing organization that could find a cure for cancer and save people’s lives.”
Cancer has touched Gregoire’s life in other ways beyond her own diagnosis. Her husband, Mike, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, detected during a routine colonoscopy. He underwent treatment and is healthy now, but both she and her husband’s experiences underscore the importance of screening.
During her time in office Gregoire chose to be public about her diagnosis and treatment. She remembers being at a cancer walk not long after her mastectomy where a woman approached her to tell her that after hearing about Gregoire’s cancer, she decided to schedule a long-overdue routine mammogram and learned she had stage 3 cancer, which was being treated. “She said, ‘I am alive. And thank you,’” Gregoire remembers.
There’s an urgency about Gregoire when she talks about the importance of cancer research. Asked if she thinks cancer will be eradicated during her grandchildren’s lifetimes, she jumps in. “During my daughters’ lifetimes,” she said.
Gregoire has two adult daughters, Michelle Gregoire Garrison, deputy prosecuting attorney at the King County Prosecutor’s Office, and Courtney Gregoire, a senior attorney in Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit and a Port of Seattle commissioner. She also has two granddaughters and soon will be welcoming a grandson.
Garrison said that while others see her mom as driven and powerful, her family sees a different side of her — the side that revels in celebrating all holidays in a big way, even Valentine’s Day, and religiously devotes Fridays to caring for her grandchildren.
“I think a lot of people would say commonly she’s very driven, motivated and tenacious,” she said. “But the side of her a lot of people don’t see from a personal level is that she is the most caring, loyal, loving and selfless person. She is constantly thinking of how to make things better for others.”
Garrison jokes that growing up with Gregoire as her mother was a little different than some of her friends’ experiences. In elementary school, she went with her mother when she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time. She traces the roots of her own civic awakening to a trip her mother took her on to see a rescue effort for birds covered in oil after an oil spill off the coast.
“Take Your Daughter to Work Day was certainly a little different for me,” she laughed.
Watching how her mom coped with cancer shaped Garrison’s own resolve to make a difference in the world, she said. “I think about my mom’s experience and how quickly after her (mastectomy) she said, ‘Hey cancer, you’re not going to stop me. I’m going to be the person I want to be. I’m going to do what I want to do.’”
Gregoire knows there is no time to waste when it comes to finding cures for cancer. More than 14 million people around the world are diagnosed with cancer each year and 8 million die, according to the World Health Organization. And that number is expected to increase 70 percent in the next two decades if something doesn’t change.
Behind each of those numbers is a beloved friend or family member and a constellation of those who love them. The urgency of preventing those deaths is what drives the mission of Fred Hutch to find cures. Last year Gilliland, the Fred Hutch president, predicted that there would be curative therapies for most, if not all cancers, within 10 years. It’s a bold claim that Gregoire emphatically supports.
“Our [president] has made a very, very profound statement,” she said. “It has brought amazing hope to patients and family members and loved ones. We must give people real hope – it’s not false hope. It’s real.”
The hope and drive to create a better world has motivated Gregoire her entire life, say those who know her. As the only child of a single mom who didn’t graduate from high school and who worked two jobs as a short-order cook to make ends meet, Gregoire grew up with what she calls “humble beginnings.” But, she said, her mother gave her a bounty of unconditional love and had an unwavering belief her child would go on to do great things.
“It wasn’t just that she showed me love and affection — she was probably the proudest person in the world. That did a lot for me because I was never, ever, ever going to let her down,” Gregoire remembers. “My mom said three things were important in life: Education. Education. Education.”
Her mom, Sybil Jacobs, died of heart failure at the age of 84 in 2000. But she lived to see Gregoire become the state’s first female attorney general. And Jacobs’ influence on Gregoire had a direct impact on many in the state of Washington.
Jacobs had been a lifelong smoker who picked up the habit well before the true health risks were known. As attorney general, Gregoire took on big tobacco in the ‘90s, the era of “Joe Camel,” partly due to evidence the companies were marketing their products to children.
Gregoire remembers that when she was leading negotiations on behalf of 46 states with the tobacco companies and flying to New York regularly, nearly every taxi she saw seemed to have an advertisement for a tobacco product. “As tired as I got, I’d look at that and it would be a reminder that it was wrong.”
Gregoire won the largest settlement ever: $200 billion to be paid to states for smoking-related medical costs, to prevent kinds from starting smoking and for other projects. Some of the money was used to set up Washington state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund to support innovative research.
The woman who has been a fearless crusader throughout her adult life said there’s not much these days that makes her nervous, except when she gets her annual exam and she’s reminded that life can change instantly.
“Cancer is always in the back of your mind once you’ve been diagnosed with it,” she said, growing quiet. “Every year when I get my exam, you should see how discomforting it is. I don’t have sweaty palms; I never have my entire life. But on that occasion — once a year, I do. It’s a very difficult time, facing (the possibility) that you could hear that same thing again a second time.”
Having cancer has shaped her perspective on life, she said. She is clear on what’s important to her and how she wants to spend her time.
“For me (my diagnosis) brought home mortality. I never thought in terms of mortality. But (cancer) makes you understand how blessed you are to have every single day,” she said. “It’s always in the back of your mind: I want today to be a good day because you know that life is precious and for some it doesn’t last as long as it should. Every day needs to be not taken for granted.”
Linda Dahlstrom is a former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center editor. Previously, she was the health editor for NBC News Digital and msnbc.com. She also worked at several newspapers during her 25-year career as a journalist covering AIDS, cancer, end-of-life issues and global health.