Ginny Clements speaks out: the fight of her life, her hope for the future

Ginny Clements
Ginny Clements

Fathers, hope your daughters grow up to be like Ginny Clements. If they do, they’ll be confident, intelligent, and strong enough to survive most anything.

If you find a list of the longest survivors of breast cancer, Ginny’s name will undoubtedly be at the top. She is a 51-year survivor, and she says she owes it all to God. “I don’t know how people who don’t have any type of faith—I don’t care what type it is—I don’t how they survive.”

Growing up in the small town of Fowler, California, population 1,869, Ginny was a popular high school student who was active in clubs, loved to dance and was the head of her school’s pom-pom line. It was during her sophomore year that the attractive 15 year old, with her whole life in front of her, felt a lump in her breast. “I didn’t know what it was, and I never said anything about it to my mother for four months,” she recalls. “It’s still hard for me to talk about it because I was pretty cut up compared to what they can do for women today. I had a radical mastectomy.” The stigma of being a cancer survivor kept her from talking about it for decades afterwards, even with her family.

When Ginny sees teenage girls play sports or dance, it often reminds her of how traumatic her experience was dealing with breast cancer during adolescence. “When I got it, it seemed like only old ladies got it, and to me at that time women in their 40s were old,” she says laughingly. However, her laughter quickly fades as she remembers how her devastating diagnosis and surgery brought on a flood of emotions and questions that would be extremely difficult for any woman, but especially trying for a teenage girl. “I wondered, ‘What would a man think when he saw me naked? Would a man ever love me?’”

To experience life in a big city, Ginny moved to San Francisco. One afternoon she came home, and her new neighbor Tom happened to be outside and invited her up to his apartment for a drink. She says he immediately picked up the phone, called his roommate and said, “Bill I won the bet, I met our neighbor first and she’s here with me having a drink.” Soon Bill Clements came home, and as fate would have it, Tom went out that evening, and Bill and Ginny struck up a long conversation. Tom had won the bet but lost the bride. Ginny and Bill Clements were wed three months later. As her father drove her to the chapel, he simply said, “I’m so glad this day came.”

In 1967 Ginny and Bill moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where Bill worked his way up the corporate ladder. In 1974 he moved his family to Tucson and assumed the leadership of the family beer wholesale business, Golden Eagle Distributors. Under his leadership, the company grew tremendously, adding warehouses and facilities to distribute products throughout the state. The Clements’ children, Christopher and Kimberly, followed their father into the business but had only worked at the company a short time when Bill died after a fairly brief battle with metastatic lung cancer in 1995.

Ginny recalls, “One of the employees told me to go and play tennis and let the employees run the company, and I said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’” The day after Bill’s funeral, she told herself, “I have a company to run,” and she went to work. “It was an incredible learning experience because I was not only dealing with the death of a loved one, but all of a sudden I was stepping into a business I knew very little about.” Her goal was to take the reigns as CEO so Christopher and Kimberly would some day have a chance to carry on the family legacy their grandfather had started. “I’m so happy they want to stay in the business. It would have been easy to sell it and move on,” she says. “There were many hardships.”

To learn the business from the ground up, Ginny rode in the beer trucks. She stacked beer, learned everything there is to know about beer, hoisted kegs (the empty ones) and cleaned taps. With Ginny at the helm, Golden Eagle experienced record sales and prospered. She oversaw the addition of new product lines and further expansion of their facilities. In 2003 she turned the business over to Chris and Kimberly and retired.

Ginny has served on the Arizona Cancer Center Advisory Board for more than 20 years. “Having had cancer at a very young age, I just felt that I needed to give back,” she says. She and her friends developed a group called 24 Karats, later renamed Tucson Friends of the Arizona Cancer Center, to develop much-needed funds for the Center. “Bill was a great philanthropist. He taught me that as long as we have enough to do the things we want to do, we should give back to our community,” says Ginny.

“Whether you give $5 or a $1 million, I think everybody should try to make a donation to the Arizona Cancer Center. Everybody is touched by cancer at some point during their lives,” she says.

This past spring, Ginny made a commitment to give $50,000 annually to the Center and in addition, agreed to provide a gift of $1 million through her estate. Her gift will fund breast cancer research. “There are too many women who have breast cancer today,” says Ginny. “I’ve been blessed with financial means, so it gives me great pleasure to give to areas I want to give to. For me, giving comes from the heart.”

Ginny is also quick to count her children and two grandchildren as her blessings. “So far I’ve lived a wonderful life. I’ve had a wonderful journey. I have a great family and I have exceptional friends in the community I love very much. I’m just sad Bill’s not here to enjoy it with me.”

Setsuko K. Chambers, MD, Bobbi Olson endowed chair in ovarian cancer research and director of women’s cancers at the Arizona Cancer Center, says, “One of 10 women in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer, accounting for the second leading cause of cancer death in women. With the majority of cancer research supported by federal grants, a constant concern for investigators is the interruption of promising projects due to rapidly diminishing federal funding. Ginny Clements’ generous gift will ensure continued progress toward the cure and prevention of breast cancer.”

At a fundraising event in 1987, Ginny mustered the courage to begin speaking publicly about her cancer. She says that while it is still a difficult thing to do, “that’s who I am.”

Inspiring and self-assured, she has come a long way. If you want to define Ginny Clements, she is the beautiful and successful woman every father hopes his daughter will become.