Changing the Stigma of Lung Cancer While Working Full Time

One person’s quest to change how the world views lung cancer provides the perfect example of how to lead disruption.

Lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer in the world. But it has a stigma, a stigma that often keeps patients and their loved ones tight lipped and feeling alone in their battle. SAP employee John Matthews, founder of Ride Hard Breathe Easy (RHBE), a non-profit with the mission to end the stigma and suffering faced by lung cancer patients and their caregivers, witnessed his mother, Kathleen Matthews, experience not just the harrowing treatment process but also the navigation of having a deadly disease in a world where “it’s your fault” is often the perception toward those with the deadly disease.

“I heard a person say that my mom told people she had another form of cancer to get some empathy. So I knew I had to do something,” says Matthews.

November is lung cancer awareness month. Ride Hard Breathe Easy is challenging everyone and anyone to join their large, growing team of riders on the cycling app Strava. Every turn of the pedal on any indoor or outdoor bicycle of choice will count toward the collective end goal of riding 24,901 miles — the distance equal to riding around the globe. More than 500 people from 14 countries have already signed up to join in the fight. Those interested in participating can sign up here.

Since his mother’s passing in 2011, Matthews has done just that — made an impact by disrupting the stigma-fueled and under-funded status quo that has existed for far too long. Through multiple charity cycling events with friends and family and a ride from the east to the west coast of the U.S. last year, Matthews and his RHBE network of volunteers have raised more than $115,00 — “With more coming in every day,” says Matthews.

I hear from many disrupters around the globe who want to create paradigm-shifting change but never follow through because they have full-time jobs and busy home schedules. Matthews is dedicated to his mission and to continuing to drive impact in his day job, to letting nothing stop him. While SAP has been fully supportive of Matthews and of Ride Hard Breathe Easy, changing the world while working full time is not for the faint of heart.

He shared four key factors that enable him to thrive in the chaos that is the daily life of a disrupter.

Be Ready and Willing to Disrupt What Fuels You

Anyone who has truly disrupted at scale knows it can take a toll, even on the most experienced, tough, and scrappy transformational leaders. Sure, Matthews has had to change what he spends his time on when he’s not working, such as day-long rides and advocacy meetings. But what has made the biggest impact is disrupting what drives him.

“I have gotten to meet, know, and love many people who have been impacted by lung cancer. I know what we are doing is helping them. It has become a big part of my life – I simply cannot stop thinking of ideas to make RHBE bigger and better,” says Matthews.

Create a Seat at the Table for Everyone to Make an Impact

Matthews’ mom passed on the power of community, that no one ever makes it to the finish line alone. “My mom always used to say that many hands make light work,” says Matthews. From the route planning to media and everything in between, over 100 people have volunteered to help RBHE and Matthews create a movement that will continue to grow. With the passion and commitment to drive real change, Matthews sees the impact reach far beyond his personal story.

“From the beginning, we decided that we wanted to be inclusive so that anyone can take part. Anyone with a pair of lungs can get lung cancer. And most anyone can get on a bike and ride outside, inside, in a class,” he says .

Establish a Platform and Make Some Noise

When you are creating a movement like Matthews has done, you have to be savvy. The first place to turn is your network. From corporate writers to friends with blogs, Matthews has managed to have Ride Hard Breathe Easy covered in several articles and blog posts, television interviews, and radio shows.

“I needed to acknowledge where I needed help and ask for it. I have experienced that there are many people ready and willing to be asked. My job was to make it easy for them to help in a meaningful way,” says Matthews.

Build a Solid Foundation Inside and Outside of Day Job

Matthews is a full-time software executive at SAP, a company he has worked at for 25 years. His wife Beth is also a long-time SAP employee. Throughout this experience, he has continued to rely on his immediate and large extended family and global group of friends to help him continue to thrive at work while growing RHBE.

From his wife buying healthier food and being open to the long workout schedules, to his nieces and nephews getting on their bikes and riding more than they ever have, Matthews has created a solid foundation of support and encouragement that acts as a launch pad for his dreams.


To learn more or to make a donation, visit the Ride Hard Breathe Easy website or contact john@rhbe.org.