When Kathy Giusti learned in 1996 that she had multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, she was told she couldn’t expect to live much more than three or four years. Two years later Giusti, a pharmaceutical executive with Searle at the time of her diagnosis, started the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. Now six new drugs are approved for treatment of the disease, and the MMRF played a role in advancing all of them, with more in the pipeline. Life expectancy for many patients has doubled. Giusti, who has been in remission since a 2006 stem cell transplant from her twin sister, talked recently with Fortune about fixing the cancer research system, lessons for leaders, and more. Edited excerpts:

Why has your foundation been so much more effective than most other disease-focused charities?
Because we run it like a business. I took all the business practices I learned at Merck, Gillette, and Searle and brought them to this nonprofit entity. I knew we had to establish a vision. We had to write a strong strategic business plan, and we were very disciplined about that. I had to find the absolute best partners and team to work with us and then execute not only flawlessly but also urgently for the patients we were representing. The cancer research system was broken, and somebody had to fix it.

What was wrong with it?
It was built ages and ages ago. Back in the day, it was fine to say all our scientists are going to work in their single areas, and we’re going to ask them to continually publish to get promoted and to fill out cumbersome grants to get funding. Those things are not exactly nimble, and research is changing so quickly now. We were creating all these islands, and in a very uncommon cancer we needed collaboration in a desperate way. Every medical center would see a handful of myeloma patients, so you’d never have one center doing enough to make a big difference. We had to bring them together.

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