In recognition of the company’s mission is to serve patients, Amgen recently hosted an event called “Mission Week.” The event involved participation from staff located around the world and brought together patients (and patient advocates) with some of society’s most challenging diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and asthma. Hearing directly from patients on the front lines of these diseases had a powerful impact on staff, providing them with important insights, a sense of purpose, and deep motivation to do more. Here’s a recap of the event—and one of the gripping patient stories that were shared.
Deborah Carpenter needed about 10 minutes before she picked up the phone to call her sister.
She looked around her dining room. A tabletop with books and papers scattered on it. There was her grandmother’s buffet with framed family pictures, including one with her sister, Jennifer Carpenter. She gazed out the window where the 100-year-old walnut tree stood, its branches and leaves catching the afternoon sun.
Deborah Carpenter had just gotten off the phone with the doctor, who had told her she had lung cancer. She said that phone call lasted for about 15 minutes, but she’s not sure she retained much after hearing the word “cancer.” It felt overwhelming. Final. Her mother had died two years after first being diagnosed with lung cancer and now Deborah was confronted with what she thought were the remaining two years of her own life.
She was 64 and newly retired from teaching at the community college. She had always been one to stay busy – working long hours as an elementary and middle-school. She then became a school administrator before doing the community college teaching job for a couple of years.
Deborah had also grown to enjoy gardening, improving her “pale green thumb” and watching her flowers bloom into a tapestry of purple, white, orange and pink. She also loved mowing her lawn, drawing a special satisfaction at seeing the straight lines the mower left in its wake.
Carpenter thought about all this. It was the spring of 2020 and now 2022 didn’t seem that far off. She looked at her phone. Things always felt more real once she talked to her sister. Except this time, she didn’t want this to feel real at all. If ever.
But she took a breath. She made the call.
Jennifer Carpenter was in her living room when her phone rang. She picked it up and heard her sister start to cry.
“I have lung cancer,” she told Jennifer.
Jennifer was stunned, but she also knew she had to be strong for her older sister this time. She went into pep talk and battle mode. “You’re going to get through this and I’m going to be by your side. You can do this,” she told Deborah.
They talked a little more and then they hung up.
Jennifer Carpenter, in her living room – surrounded by guitars her husband played, family pictures and a salt rock lamp she liked – collapsed on the floor and thought the unthinkable: “I’ve only got two years left with my sister.”
When Amgen kicked off Mission Week in the last week of September 2022, it was a chance for the company’s more than 24,000 staff around the world to see first-hand the people who benefitted from the medicines being made by the biotech company.
The first day, at the hub for Mission Week at the company's headquarters in Thousand Oaks, California, the auditorium was filled with hundreds of people who waited for the kick-off of the themed event, Ignite Your Fight. Tissues were placed at the ends of rows as they waited for panelists – mostly patients – to talk about their journey through illness.
For three days, the site at Thousand Oaks hosted three days of panels. They were thematic, with the first day focused on the importance of information followed by the second day’s panel discussing the need for quality care and the final day’s topic on the power of a connected community. After each panel, the patients mingled with Amgen staff in a reception area outside the auditorium, exchanging hugs, handshakes and stories.
There were other activities as well, including City of Hope’s bloodmobile set up outside Pitch Johnson Park on the Amgen campus, volunteers assembling 600 backpacks with essentials kits for patients at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and there was a 1.8-mile wellness walk for patients and staff who did two laps around the Paseo. More than 500 participated in that.
In excess of 35 local affiliates and sites held their own local Mission Week events and on-demand recordings of the panel discussions have been viewed over 3,000 times.
The company also had the event live-streamed around the world for every Amgen staff member to be part of the experience no matter where they were. The panels were also recorded and made available to staff each day to account for all the time zones. There were watch parties in Australia, Portugal and Hong Kong. The Netherlands site had a lunch and learn.
In Egypt, the Amgen Middle East and Africa team held a town hall streamed to 17 countries across five clusters that featured a presentation of innovative patient-serving techniques – capped by a cardiovascular patient sharing his journey of suffering with high LDL-C.
“It just reminded all of us, that no matter what our role is, our work matters,” Amgen staff member Passant El-Khatib said. “Our work makes an impact and it can significantly improve not just patients’ lives, but also their families, loved ones and societies at large.”
On the stage in Thousand Oaks, there were several chairs for patients and families who would speak about their journey through illness. Amgen CEO Bob Bradway began by thanking everyone for the hard work put into Mission Week, including the patients – some of whom traveled great distances to be there. He thanked the thousands of staff around the world.
“Over our more than 40 years, Amgen has served millions of patients and we will have the opportunity to serve millions more,” Bradway said. “But far more important than the overall numbers are the individuals themselves and their families and their loved ones and their friends.”
Backstage in the green room, Deborah and Jennifer Carpenter watched him speak on a television screen. More than two years removed from her lung cancer diagnosis, it was hard to believe she was here. A miracle, she had called it.
Deborah had been doing speaking engagements for several months now about her cancer fight. It was her new purpose. But most of those talks were online and never in front of a live audience this large.
The two sisters held hands – something they always did to help calm each other. Both were nervous and when Linda Murakami, patient advocacy director at Amgen, introduced them, they walked on stage to the applause of hundreds. It was overwhelming.
Murakami asked how their flight was and Deborah quipped it was great, but after four or five hours, her back hurt. After the laughs had subsided, she got to the point.
“This was a special trip,” she said.
The Invisible Disease
Up until recently, a lung cancer diagnosis didn’t have much optimism attached to it.
According to the World Health Organization, lung cancer is the leading cause of death around the world, with 1.8 million succumbing to the disease in 2020. In that year, there were 2.21 million cases reported – barely trailing breast cancer, with 2.26 million cases.
There were more than 10 million deaths from cancer worldwide in 2020.
Andrea Ferris, chief executive officer at the non-profit group Lungevity, said as recently as 15 years ago, there were almost no clinical trials being done for those diagnosed with lung cancer and it was known as “the invisible disease.”
Ferris, who was on a panel with patients on the third day of Mission Week, said her mother died of lung cancer in 2008 – living just under two years after the initial diagnosis.
“When my mother was diagnosed, it was – you were diagnosed with lung cancer, go home and get your affairs in order,” Ferris said.
But, she said, more drugs have been approved in the last three to five years than there were in the previous 50 years combined. It’s a world now where clinical trials exist, more information is available now than ever before and she said people are not just surviving, but they are living well with it.
It’s a journey Deborah Carpenter knows well.
Jennifer Carpenter was always the realist. Her sister would say that was just pessimism in disguise.
It was Thanksgiving 2019 when Jennifer noticed the cough and wheeze her sister had. Over sweet potato casserole with pecans, turkey, mac and cheese, Deborah’s appetite hadn’t waned but Jennifer remembered driving home to Durham worried about her sister.
“Something’s not right,” she told her husband.
Deborah wasn’t too troubled, however. The optimist in her simply chalked it up to just feeling a little fatigued. Maybe just a flare up of allergies. She was also unhappy that her beloved Dallas Cowboys had lost to the Buffalo Bills 26-15 that day. “We love the Cowboys,” she said with a laugh.
By Christmas, however, things had taken a turn for the worse and Deborah was growing concerned as well. Jennifer said her sister’s breathing was more labored and that she was sleeping more than she’d ever seen her do.
Jennifer helped her sister the best she could.
For the next few months, it was trips to ear, nose and throat specialists and doctors. There were several diagnoses that included asthma and pneumonia. When they gathered in early February to watch the Super Bowl – as they did most years – Deborah was in bed and didn’t seem to be getting much better. Jennifer said she hadn’t seen her sister look that sick in her entire life and began cooking for her, taking care of her and trying to nurse her back to health.
She had rounds of antibiotics. Deborah still wasn’t feeling good, even though she thought the antibiotics might be helping a little bit. She had a battery of tests and scans. One of the tests she had was also the first hint it could be cancer. But the doctor wasn’t sure and wanted to run some more tests and scans.
Deborah still sometimes tried to mow the lawn, something she still found joy in doing. But she soon had to move to a riding mower. Eventually her sister convinced her to let someone else do it. “That was hard to do. I didn’t want to give that up. It was something I felt I had control over.”
The cancer diagnosis was something she didn’t feel control over at first. But her sister – the one who was ready to go to war with cancer – stepped in to try and help get control of this new threat.
The Journey to Amgen
Sitting in the chair on stage for the Mission Week panel, Deborah drew upon her previous years of experience speaking before school administrators to curb the stage fright. She clutched a tissue in her hand because she knew the tears might come.
“That was speaking about things I worked with on a daily basis,” she said. “This was personal about having lung cancer. It was different.”
But she felt her confidence growing as she spoke. She told the audience about how she smoked for 32 years before quitting. She told them about how she changed her primary care physician.
She went over all the misdiagnoses and five or six bronchoscopies. How when they finally told her she had cancer – the same kind her mother had gotten in 2005 and died in 2007 – Jennifer began researching for help.
“I looked up everything, sort of starting fresh to learn about lung cancer and lung anatomy,” Jennifer said. “What are the treatment options? What are the outcomes? What is the mortality rate? I wanted to have all of that in my arsenal so I knew I could be a support for her.”
It bore fruit. It led to her to seeing a series of oncologists. She prepared for surgery and then chemotherapy. But then surgery got canceled and radiation was suggested. Concerned she wasn’t getting the best treatment options, Jennifer asked her sister if she could take the lead on getting her care. Deborah agreed.
Jennifer got her medical records transferred to the Duke Cancer Institute. Deborah then had surgery, followed by chemotherapy. But then came more bad news: The cancer had metastasized to her good lung.
But she then received the results from a biomarker test. Soon after, she learned of a clinical trial. And then a second clinical trial. Her sister was with her through it all.
“She is my saving grace,” Deborah said.
The panel was wrapping up, but Debora Carpenter had been holding in some good news about her treatment that she shared when Murakami called upon her for some final thoughts.
She stood up and shared information about her treatment that caused the room to break out in applause.
She saw everyone rise to their feet, clapping. She sat, somewhat stunned.
Deborah also spoke of the stigma of lung cancer and urged those in the Black community to speak up about cancer rather than “whisper about it.” She told people to share their stories, too.
After the panel ended, she chatted with Bradway and the other panelists. She later met with scientists and researchers to thank them. When she was sitting with her sister outside the hall at a table, she was approached by Risha Patel.
Patel, who works with commercial insights at Amgen, wiped away tears as she told Deborah about how inspired she was by her words. They hugged and cried.
Deborah said, from her home in North Carolina a few days after Mission Week concluded, that the entire trip to Amgen was a big step toward her new purpose in life – to share the story of hope and survival for those with lung cancer.
As she spoke, she looked out at the 100-year-old walnut tree – the one she struggled to climb up as a kid. The same one her grandparents used to look at when it was much smaller and still making its way to reach the sky.
She felt good seeing the tree’s leaves turning to its fall colors just as it’s always done each year.
“I am here,” she said. “Just like that walnut tree. It’s strong and has survived and I draw inspiration from that.”