Spring 2021

Giving Back, Not Giving Up

Back in 2006, when Ginny Clements was in her 60s, she read a book that changed her life.

She had picked up “Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer.” The author, Nancy G. Brinker, recounted her sister Susan’s death from breast cancer in 1980, a time when the disease was rarely discussed. Following a pledge to her sister, Brinker created Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a charity aimed at raising money for the cause and bringing breast cancer out of the shadows.

Clements herself had survived breast cancer at 15, but “I never talked about it,” she says. “I couldn’t talk about it before I read her book. I cried throughout.” After she put the book down, she adds, “I was able to ‘come out’ and talk about breast cancer.”

Clements began speaking to cancer patients, sharing her fears as a teenage patient and her relief in recovering. That same year, she was 50 years cancer-free, and she celebrated the milestone by creating the Ginny L. Clements Breast Cancer Research Fund at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. To date, the fund has raised over $1.6 million.

Last fall, Clements turned 80, and — in honor of her upcoming 65th year without cancer — she donated $8.5 million to establish the Ginny L. Clements Breast Cancer Research Institute. The money will bring in talented new clinician-scientists to study the disease from every angle. The new institute, a stand-alone unit within the Cancer Center, will get an endowed director, two new professors and an upgrade to its labs.

“[Clements’] incredible gift will help produce bold research and provide the best cancer care to our patients,” says Joann Sweasy, director of the Cancer Center. “This collaborative approach will lead to novel discoveries and cutting-edge treatments that will have a direct and positive impact for patients across Arizona and well beyond.”

Clements notes that she and Sweasy have the same goal: to end the scourge of breast cancer.

“She’s walking the same steps that I want to walk,” Clements says.

Clements’ life has seesawed between joy and sorrows. She has had two happy marriages, a loving family and a successful business career. But after she survived her own illness, she lost a dear 35-year-old friend to breast cancer and later weathered her first husband’s death from lung cancer. She credits her Catholic faith for helping her cope with her tragedies and count her blessings.

“When you’ve been blessed, you have to help other people. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Clements consults with breast cancer researcher and professor Joyce Schroeder. / Kris Hanning photo

Clements grew up in a small agricultural town near Fresno, California, with her mother, father and little brother. She was a lively high schooler — a cheerleader and a pep girl. But when she hit 15, she developed a lump in one breast. She delayed telling her mother, but soon a doctor delivered the horrifying diagnosis of breast cancer.

“My mother was a registered nurse, so after the surgery she had the pathology scans read by two different pathologists,” she says. Such a cancer was so rare in a teenager that “the doctors just couldn’t believe it.”

Young Ginny was given the usual treatment of the day: a radical mastectomy.

“They took your lymph glands, your chest muscle, your breast,” Clements remembers. “They just left you nothing. It was quite a trauma to be a young girl growing up and wondering ‘What’s going to happen to me?’”

But Ginny was a plucky kid, and she returned to school in her sophomore year. Despite everything she had gone through, she asked for only one exception to the school rules. The school granted her request to skip the mandatory gym class, for which students had to dress in front of each other. By her senior year, she was back in the game, cheerleading and performing in plays.

She was never teased, she says, but nobody at school talked to her about what happened. “It was a pretty innocent small town and a small school. Nobody ever brought it up. Ever.”

As a young woman, she headed to the bright lights of San Francisco, working as an executive secretary. She met Bill Clements, and “it was love at first sight — for him!” she laughs. After just a few dates he proposed, and the couple were married three months later.

They moved to Phoenix, where Bill worked with his father. By 1974, they were in Tucson, where they launched Golden Eagle Distributors, an Anheuser-Busch beer distributor.

The business prospered. They had two children, a girl and a boy, born in Phoenix. Besides attending company conventions with her husband, Clements left the business largely to him.

Then Bill died of lung cancer in 1995. Suddenly, in her early 50s, Clements had a company to run. Many of the male executives were not happy to have a woman in charge, and at first, she says, “They made it very hard on me. [But] I persevered. I went out on the trucks with the drivers to learn the business.”

The company thrived under her management. Eventually, her daughter and son took the reins, and five years ago the family sold the business.

Clements remarried in 2009 to Tom Rogers, president of a manufacturing business.

“I had a long and happy marriage before, and now I have another one,” she says. Their blended family has four grown children and seven grandchildren.

Her relationship with the University of Arizona developed over the years. Her daughter, Kimberly, earned a bachelor of arts degree from UArizona in 1994, and Golden Eagle was an active supporter of Arizona Athletics.

Clements began serving on various university boards, and she was particularly honored to be invited onto the UArizona Foundation Board. The people she worked with there, she says, gave her the courage to launch the new institute.

Looking back, Clements says, “I’ve had a very nice life. People say, ‘Ginny, you are so lucky.’ But I say no, I’m not lucky. I am blessed.”

Her Catholic faith tells her that it’s God who has blessed her and God who has had a plan for her all along. She believes that she survived for a reason: to help scientists save women’s lives.

“When you’re 15, you say, ‘How did God let this happen to me?’ He had a plan. I just didn’t know what the plan was — until 2006.”