Philanthropist and two-time cancer survivor Pamela Trefler funds community health programs so others can stay or get well.

If it weren’t for routine cancer screenings and treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, Pamela Trefler says she probably wouldn’t be alive. Over the past ten years, she has survived both colon and breast cancer. Now, with a strong focus on community health programs, she is deeply committed to doing anything she can to make sure others less fortunate don’t go through what she did.

“I find it appalling that someone could die because they didn’t get routine cancer screenings and their cancer was not caught early enough.”

“I’m well educated, have health insurance and great health care,” she says. “But lots of other people don’t.” Over the past 20 years, Ms. Trefler has redirected her business acumen from an earlier career in investment banking to philanthropy. “Even with my advantages, the cancer experience was difficult for me,” she explains. “But I find it appalling that someone could die because they didn’t get routine cancer screenings and their cancer was not caught early enough.”

That’s a big reason why she and her husband, Alan Trefler, founder and CEO of the software company Pegasystems, have committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to programs run by Mass General’s Center for Community Health Improvement (CCHI) in Chelsea, a city with many immigrants. CCHI’s goals align perfectly with the interests of their family’s Trefler Foundation. Its goal is to fund community health, wellness and education initiatives, particularly in low-income communities.

Ms. Trefler helped to mobilize Healthy Chelsea's Youth Food Movement.
Ms. Trefler helped to mobilize Healthy Chelsea’s Youth Food Movement.

Community Health Cancer Screenings

The MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center used to have the lowest rate of colon cancer screenings of all communities served by Mass General, according to Joan Quinlan, vice president for Community Health, who oversees CCHI. Many Chelsea patients came from countries where there aren’t preventive cancer screenings. But now, thanks in part to Ms. Trefler’s contributions, Ms. Quinlan says, “colonoscopies are way up and that disparity no longer exists.”

Ms. Trefler’s support has helped fund the Chelsea Colorectal Cancer Screening Program and the hiring of patient navigators. Patient navigators are community health workers who can speak the same language as patients to whom they are assigned. They steer their high-risk patients to cancer screenings. If patients have the disease, the navigators help them understand treatment options and keep up with appointments.

Support for Healthy Chelsea

Ms. Trefler, who has a master’s degree in education from Harvard, has also been a longtime supporter of Healthy Chelsea, a community coalition sponsored by CCHI. It encourages healthy eating and active living. She helped them mobilize their Youth Food Movement, wherein students learn how to advocate for healthy foods in the schools and city.

“It’s gratifying to know that people are alive because the patient navigator program is so staggeringly effective.”

Thanks to these programs and many others, Mass General was awarded the prestigious Foster G. McGaw Prize for 2015 in honor of its longstanding commitment to addressing community health issues.

The Treflers also funded a researcher studying cancer genetic mutation for her oncologist, David Ryan, MD, chief of Hematology/Oncology at the Mass General Cancer Center.

Clothing Sales for Charity

In addition to managing the Trefler Foundation, Ms. Trefler oversees Trefler and Sons, an art restoration business. She also recently co-founded a nonprofit e-commerce start-up called Union & Fifth. It takes donated designer clothing and sells it for charity. She and her sister-in-law, Christena Reinhard, piloted their idea by cleaning out her closet.

Patient navigator Joanne Toussaint consults with patients about cancer issues at MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center.
Patient navigator Joanne Toussaint consults with patients about cancer issues at MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center.

“From reselling sweaters and handbags, we were able to raise $44,000 from my closet alone,” Ms. Trefler says. “The average woman has 22 items of clothing she will never wear again.” In their first year, they raised and donated about $500,000 to more than 100 charity partners, including Mass General.

Grateful for Her Life

Ms. Trefler spent most of her childhood outside of the United States, as her father was a project manager for Bechtel and oversaw the building of oil refineries around the world. Through her international experiences, she gained an appreciation for the foods and spices of different cultures. She’s a serious amateur cook and takes classes wherever she travels overseas. Her library houses 1,200 cookbooks, “my one guilty pleasure,” she comments.

Mainly she is grateful for her life and feels privileged that she can devote time to philanthropy. She knows personally that cancer can strike despite eating well and staying active.

“I badger friends and even strangers to get cancer screenings,” she says. “And it’s gratifying to know that people are alive because the patient navigator program is so staggeringly effective.”

For more information on how you can support the Center for Community Health Improvement, please contact us.