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Women Oncologists Building Bridges

March 8 is International Women’s Day, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the Conquer Cancer Foundation are commemorating the day by recognizing women oncologists building bridges around the world. In the last several decades, increasing numbers of women have entered the field of oncology—enrolling in medical school, conducting cancer research, and holding leading positions at professional societies, cancer treatment centers, academia, government, and industry. Today, more than 30% of ASCO’s 30,000 members are women, and the number continues to increase each year as more and more women join the field. Both ASCO and the Conquer Cancer Foundation have long supported the careers of many of these women and benefited from their leadership, within our organizations and beyond.

ASCO, which represents the physicians who care for people with cancer worldwide, was founded in 1964 by several leading oncologists, one of whom was Jane C. Wright, MD. Dr. Wright was a true trailblazer. At a time when African American women physicians numbered only a few hundred in the United States, she was the highest ranked African American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. She also pioneered the use of anticancer agents and developed new techniques for administering cancer chemotherapy, a treatment that was largely thought of as experimental at the time.

Since it was founded, six women have led ASCO as its president. Currently at the organizations’ helm is Sandra M. Swain, MD, FACP, an internationally recognized authority in the field of inflammatory breast cancer treatment. In addition, Rose Ruth Ellison, MD, FASCO (1974-1975); Karen H. Antman, MD, FASCO (1994-1995); Margaret A. Tempero, MD, FASCO (2003-2004); Sandra J. Horning, MD, FASCO (2005-2006); and Nancy E. Davidson MD, FASCO (2007-2008) have served in this leadership capacity, and helped advance the Society’s mission and efforts to improve all aspects of cancer care. Countless women have also served on the ASCO and Conquer Cancer Foundation Boards of Directors and various committees, and many of these women are leading global efforts to improve the care of people living with cancer in every part of the world.  Former ASCO Board member Martine J. Piccart, MD, PhD, FASCO, for example, currently serves as the president of the European Society for Medical Oncology and has been at the forefront of forging international collaborations directed toward the management of breast cancer.  All of these highly qualified women have brought a wealth of experience to ASCO leadership.

The Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, funds some of the brightest minds in cancer research. This year, the Foundation is also celebrating the 30-year anniversary of its Grants and Awards Program, which has provided millions in support to researchers around the world working to advance cancer treatment and care. The recipient of the Foundation’s first grant given in 1984 was Judith S. Kaur, MD, and since then, hundreds of women researchers have received Foundation support, giving them a start in a clinical cancer research career.  Many of these researchers have gone on to present their work in prestigious medical journals and at scientific meetings,  to direct cancer centers and serve as president of medical societies such as ASCO, and to mentor other researchers, helping to ensure the pipeline of scientists ambitious to discover the cures of the future.

One such example is Nancy E. Davidson, MD, FASCO, who received support from a Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO Young Investigator Award (YIA) early in her career and later went on to publish key research findings in breast cancer. She has become one of the world’s leading breast cancer specialists, and served as ASCO president from 2007-2008. Dr. Davidson is now director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Another example is Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, FACP, who received a YIA in the 1980s and went on to become internationally known for her research on breast cancer genetics. She now directs the University of Chicago’s Cancer Risk Clinic and serves on the U.S. President’s National Cancer Advisory Board.

While it would be an impossible task to name every woman who has contributed to the field of oncology in this limited space, included in this article are just a few to serve as both a nod to those who have pioneered the way and as inspiration for the continued forge ahead. “I want women to pursue their own passions and follow their own strengths and interests. And as a shortage in oncology professionals looms over us—it’s only wise to develop all the talent and nurture all the passion that we can find,” says ASCO President Dr. Swain in her recent Women in Oncology blog series.