Career Journeys: Dr. Richard L. Schilsky, Chief Medical Officer of ASCO

Apr 22, 2016

Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FASCO, has been the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of ASCO since March 2013. Before taking on that role, Dr. Schilsky worked at the University of Chicago Medicine for nearly 30 years, serving, successively, as Director of the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center, Associate Dean for Clinical Research, and Chief of the Section of Hematology/Oncology in the Department of Medicine and Deputy Director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Schilsky served as 2008-2009 President of ASCO, and is a Past Chair (1995-2010) of Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB).

AC: How did you initially choose to become an oncologist?

RLS: I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor, from when I was in grade school. It was only a question of what kind of doctor, and there were a few experiences along the way that led me to oncology. First, when I was in college my grandmother developed breast cancer, and over the course of 5 or 6 years, I watched her go through several breast cancer diagnoses. In those years, around 1968, the treatment was pretty primitive compared to what we have today. So she had a mastectomy and then she had radiation treatment, and then some years later, she developed breast cancer in the other breast and had more surgery and more radiation. In succeeding years, she developed multiple metastases to the bone and brain, and I watched her become more and more debilitated with few treatment options. Observing what she went through was very impactful for me.

The second experience that led me to oncology was during the summer after my first year of medical school at the University of Chicago. I went home to New York City and was able to get a fellowship at the Radiation Department at NYU School of Medicine sponsored by the American College of Radiology. I didn’t really have any clinical training, so there wasn’t much I could do except follow the doctors around. Since I was in the radiation therapy department, all of the patients had cancer. This gave me the opportunity to meet with patients with cancer, talk with them, and gain insight into what it was like for them to go through treatment.

The third pivotal thing is that once I got into doing my clinical rotations, I got to know one of the senior oncologists at the University of Chicago, a man named John E. Ultmann, MD, who was also an ASCO Past President (1981-1982). John was a very charismatic oncologist, a great mentor and teacher, and really impressed me with what I could accomplish by pursuing a career in medical oncology.

AC: What was your first job after fellowship?

RLS: After a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) from 1977 to 1981, my first faculty position was at University of Missouri School of Medicine, in Columbia. And that job almost completely derailed my career! I went to Missouri because my wife and I had a small child and we wanted to get back to small-town, Midwestern living. University of Missouri gave me a nice lab, funding, and equipment to pursue my pharmacology research. But within the first year after arriving on campus, the Chair of the Department of Medicine, who recruited me, was fired by the Dean over a dispute. Then, the Chief of Hematology/Oncology, who was my primary mentor and the person responsible for my career development, left the university as well. I stayed another couple of years, but in winter 1984 I got a call from Harvey M. Golomb, MD, FASCO (1990-1991 ASCO President), offering me a position. I had known Harvey at the University of Chicago and he had just been appointed Chief of Hematology/Oncology and wanted to build a phase I clinical trials program. It took me about a nanosecond to accept to return to my alma mater!

So in summer 1984, we returned to Chicago. And that’s where I stayed until I came to work for ASCO. University of Chicago was a great place to develop my career. I rose in the ranks, from being an Assistant Professor to becoming a tenured Professor and holding various leadership positions.

AC: What was it like transitioning from clinical research to your executive position at ASCO?

RLS: I had already held a number of leadership positions over the years, so being in a leadership role in an organization was not anything that was terribly new to me. Also, I knew ASCO well. I had been an ASCO member since 1980, served on multiple committees, and served as President from 2008 to 2009. I already knew many of the staff at ASCO, including [ASCO CEO] Allen S. Lichter, MD, FASCO, who was a junior faculty member at NCI when I was a fellow there.

There are a number of things that I miss about no longer being in the academic medical center environment. Principally, I don’t have any interactions with trainees or patients anymore, and that was really one of the fun things about being in a medical school.

AC: Can you describe a typical work day?

RLS: I go to lots of meetings! I say that a little tongue in cheek because we all go to a lot of meetings, but to a great extent, my work cuts across all the different ASCO departments so that I never have a typical day. I spend my time with most of the other senior leaders, working on different initiatives. Whether it’s CancerLinQ™, the value initiative, or a new policy position, I’m involved in most everything that ASCO does. In the last year or so, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on our clinical trial, TAPUR, for which I’m the principal investigator, and which I especially enjoy. ASCO has never done a clinical trial before and it’s breaking new ground for the organization as well as addressing an important issue.

What I love about ASCO at this point in my career is that I can bring all of the different experiences I’ve had over the years to bear on my work here.

AC: What kind of person thrives in this professional environment?

RLS: I think people have to be passionate about their work, about trying to improve the outcomes for patients with cancer, and to some extent, they have to be in awe of the science that informs our understanding of cancer. When you sit back and think about the biological complexity of cancer, it’s sort of breathtaking. Also, you have to be emotionally well-balanced since we deal with patients who get very sick, and many of them die. That’s challenging. You have to able to set goals and deliver on those goals. It’s wise to set achievable goals, and as you do achieve them, you gain experience to move onto the next level.

AC: What advice would you give to a young professional beginning their oncology career?

RLS: This is the best time to be in oncology. First, to be a good oncologist, you have to love taking care of patients. Patients with cancer are complex, and oncology challenges your clinical skills, but this is also part of what makes it so interesting and satisfying. Patients are also very dependent upon you as their physician. This can also be very challenging, but again, very rewarding in that you can develop a bond with your patient that, in many cases, is lifelong. Second, the research opportunities in oncology are enormous, whether you work in an academic medical center or a physician-owned practice. Every oncologist can contribute to developing new information about cancer and how to best prevent and treat it. Although we have made a lot of progress in cancer care and have much greater insight into what causes cancer now, we still have a long way to go and still have a lot of unmet medical needs. For people who are starting out and who love the intersection of clinical medicine and science, oncology is where it’s at.

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