After Anne Marie Murphy came to the United States from her native Ireland to earn her doctorate in molecular genetics from Johns Hopkins University, she planned to "become an academician," she said.
Volunteering at a clinic for domestic abuse victims altered her course. "I got the 'save the world' bug," said Murphy, 48. "So, much to my parents' consternation, I moved to Washington, D.C., and got a job on the Hill."
After working for Sen. Ted Kennedy in Washington, then Sens. Paul Simon and Dick Durbin in Illinois, Murphy joined the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force. In 2010, she became its executive director.
"Tenacity, impeccable organizational skills and a terrific sense of humor" enable Murphy to run the task force, said Dr. David Ansell, president of its board and chief medical officer of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, in an email. "Her (experience has) given her a unique perspective on the disparity (in women's health care) and what we need to do to fix it."
Already, the 5-year-old task force and Murphy have received a string of awards, including a 2014 Healthy Chicago Award from the city for the organization, and a 2014 Impact Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women for Murphy.
She lives with daughters Isabella, 6, and Rose, 2, and their au pair in an Oak Park house she describes as "arts and crafts and Fisher-Price." Her hectic schedule is a far cry from the Dublin of her childhood, "when moms were home, and the kettle was on every day at 4 o'clock," she said.
But life is "grand," said the upbeat Murphy, as she juggles her roles as single mom and nonprofit director.
Following is an edited conversation.
Q: What persuaded you to leave your political career for the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force?
A: The task force's mission, which is reducing the inequality in women's health care and cancer death rates. Many women have no health care or poor care because of their race, type of insurance, income or where they live. That's not fair.
Q: How do you change this?
A: Through programs like our Beyond October, we offer free mammograms for uninsured and underinsured women. Through our consortium, we improve the quality of mammograms and breast cancer treatment. We fund studies that show the disparities. We work with legislators to change laws. And we educate women about the importance of breast cancer screening and early treatment. When women say they're afraid to get mammograms because they've heard they hurt, we tell them waxing or getting a tattoo is way more painful.
Q: You say the disparities are growing. Why?
A: When the state cuts funding for breast cancer screening, it disproportionately affects women of color. I'm especially concerned about the quality of care for Medicaid patients, and now more and more women qualify for Medicaid (because of expansions of the Illinois FamilyCare program and Obamacare).
Not every mammogram site is the same. There may not be a radiologist on-site who specializes in breast cancer. You may get a screening mammogram but not a diagnostic one. You may not be able to get a same-day read. If you have to come back a second time, you might not be able to get time off work or you might be afraid.
Q: Is your work ever done?
A: When every woman in the Chicago area has an equal opportunity to fight breast cancer, our work is done. We can't help every woman, but we do make a difference.
I'm pragmatic. In politics and nonprofits, everything doesn't get done, but we can aspire to do it all. Just like being a single parent, you make trade-offs every day. I can't be at the school meeting and at work and with the kids.
Q: Who funds the task force?
A: Sources include corporations, individuals, the state, the National Institutes of Health, national foundations such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Avon Foundation for Women and local foundations.