Hala Moddelmog grew up in Hartwell, Georgia, where her mother was the secretary to the school superintendent for Hart County and her father was an electrician for the power company. Hala was a 17-year-old, high school senior when her mother died suddenly of a heart attack. It was a galvanizing moment in her life.
“It was a real wake-up call,” recalled Hala. “Nothing is given. Nothing is for sure. It made me very determined to learn how to take care of myself. It really drove my independence. I said to myself that I’d love to get married and have children someday, but not until I know that I can make it on my own financially.”
Hala did just that and much more. For more than 20 years, she has held president and CEO roles in the corporate world. In 1995, she became the first woman to lead an international restaurant company, Church’s Chicken, and in 2009 she became president of Atlanta-based Arby’s Restaurant Group. Today, she is the first female president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Despite her high-profile leadership in the fast food industry, Hala was very low profile about her personal experience with breast cancer. In 2001, at age 45 with no history of breast cancer in her family, she was doing a breast self-exam and realized something was wrong. Genetic testing showed she had the BRCA2 gene mutation. The diagnosis was Stage 2 breast cancer, and her options were limited. She had a double mastectomy, lymph node removal and chemotherapy.
“I never missed a single day of work during chemo,” she noted, indicating that she had no adverse effects from the surgery or chemotherapy. She was president of Church’s Chicken at the time.
“I was the first woman to lead an international restaurant brand, and as a publicly traded company, any negative news could have impacted the business. Here I was dealing with this deadly disease, and I had to worry about what Wall Street might be thinking,” she said. “Regretfully, I was silent about my illness and treatment. I tackled breast cancer like any other business problem – developed a plan, worked the plan and powered through my duties as president during a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. I never shed a tear.”
But five years later, when Susan G. Komen for the Cure contacted her and asked her to become their president and CEO, it was an offer Hala couldn’t refuse. “It was finally time to break the silence and become an advocate for breast cancer awareness on one of the world’s most visible stages.”
“When I went to Komen, I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t been more public about my breast cancer, because one of the key issues is women not talking about it,” Hala explained. “For example, women in parts of the Middle East and Africa were dying, because they weren’t allowed to talk about it. If a mother had breast cancer in parts of the Middle East, she kept it a secret, because she worried that her daughter’s chances of marriage would be lessened.”
While leading the world’s largest grassroots organization working to eradicate breast cancer, Hala established a world-renowned Scientific Advisory Board; helped Komen receive its first-ever four-star rating from Charity Navigator; significantly increased the number of corporate sponsors; and led international mission delegations to Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
She said, “I didn’t know at the time that my experience at Komen would also open my eyes to even more dire healthcare problems across the nation and around the world.”
“I was very fortunate because my breast cancer was discovered early,” Hala recalled. “I was already loving my life. It was so full. So cancer didn’t make me want to change my life at all. But it made me want to really be present every day. You realize every day is precious.”
Hala remembers that being at Komen in the chemo room and seeing what other people experienced was the hard part. “I had the means and personality to make sure I got the best care along with great family support. However, I realized that there are many people who don’t have an advocate in the fight.”
And there’s something about the term breast cancer survivor she doesn’t like. “We’re really all breast cancer thrivers.”
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