My Cancer Milestone and My Philanthropic Legacy

Susan Sandler
8 min readSep 14, 2020

Most of us think, at some point in our lives and with varying degrees of urgency, about what mark we will make in this world and what legacy we will leave behind. The questions of legacy and impact became urgent and immediate for me back when I went to the Emergency Room one afternoon with what felt like an intense migraine headache. The kind ER doctor came out after taking a CT scan and said gently, “I have bad news.” The scan had revealed a tumor in my brain that we came to learn was glioblastoma, the aggressive form of brain cancer that has a median survival rate of 18 months.

This week marks the milestone of four years since that diagnosis.

Since that day in 2016, I’ve worked to survive in the present and plan for the future. I literally owe my life to the amazing medical team at the University of California San Francisco Brain Tumor Center who performed the surgery (including after the tumor’s recurrence in 2017) and guided the treatment of chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy and physical rehabilitation. Acutely aware that life is short, I also intensified my efforts to accelerate my social change work, in general, and my philanthropic focus, in particular.

I have been blessed to be part of a family that has had great business success and progressive philanthropic impact. My mother, Marion, broke barriers as one of the first women working in a professional job on Wall Street, and she went on to become the first female — and one of the longest-serving — CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. In 1994, long before the recent awakening in corporate America about diversity and inclusion, my parents diversified the board of their company, taking a rapid and decisive series of actions that created a governing body where women and people of color comprised the majority of its members. As they turned their attention from business to philanthropy, they pursued bold innovations that have transformed the progressive landscape by providing lead and seed funding for the Center for American Progress, ProPublica, the Center for Responsible Lending, the Learning Policy Institute, and other organizations that are cornerstones of this nation’s progressive infrastructure.

My cancer diagnosis forced our family to grapple sooner than we had planned with the question of my legacy. We discussed how I could best continue the spirit of the family philanthropy and also make my own distinctive mark in the world. I am happy to publicly share today that those…

Susan Sandler

Philanthropist, activist, brain tumor survivor, cat lover