Aug 31, 2017
By Amanda B. Narod, ASCO Communications
Monica M. Bertagnolli, MD, FASCO, a long-time member and volunteer, began her term as ASCO president-elect in June 2017; she will serve as 2018-2019 ASCO president. An active ASCO member since 1995, Dr. Bertagnolli is chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, and an associate surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Dr. Bertagnolli has served on the ASCO Board of Directors, the Cancer Prevention Committee, and the Strategic Planning Committee, among other volunteer roles.
Dr. Bertagnolli will be the first ASCO president to serve a 4-year term on the ASCO Board, following bylaws changes that were approved by a member vote in May 2016. She will spend her first year as president-elect, second as president and chair of the Board, third as chair of the Board, and fourth as past president.
In the following interview, Dr. Bertagnolli discusses her career and background, and the role she hopes to play in the ASCO leadership.
What spurred you to run for ASCO president?
MB: I am inspired by our highly engaged members. Their commitment allows ASCO to accomplish its goals and tackle the challenging issues that are important to patients with cancer and the clinicians that care for them. I am incredibly honored and grateful to be a part of the leadership team to help direct those goals and ideas. It is a tremendous honor, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
What would you say to a member who wants to get more involved with ASCO?
MB: We need you! Immediate Past President Dr. Daniel Hayes launched the ASCO Volunteer Corps because, beyond the formal committee structure, ASCO has so many opportunities to get involved. More importantly, we heard directly from the members that they want to do more. I would encourage all members to start there. [Visit volunteer.asco.org to learn more about the Volunteer Corps.]
I cannot stress enough how important ASCO’s members are to its mission and vision. Our work—and what we need to accomplish—cannot be done by a single institution, hospital, practice, oncologist, etc. We need everyone. The best possible way to achieve the goals ASCO is attempting is for our members to roll up their sleeves and get involved.
The world of oncology is multidisciplinary, and our membership reflects that. Surgical, medical, and radiation oncologists, pathologists, primary care clinicians, nurses, advanced practitioners—all are essential to achieve the goal of optimally caring for our patients. It is good to see that ASCO is becoming more diverse, and I am proud to represent the surgical oncology community in this leadership role.
Is there an issue or program that you are particularly passionate about that you are hoping to address as part of your leadership term?
MB: I believe it is crucial that we make significant progress on the issue of access to cancer care, as well as access to clinical trials for underserved populations. We have major challenges in health care in our country right now. Although we have made great progress, and have even achieved a decrease in overall cancer mortality, not all of us see the benefits of new treatments. We must focus on how we are going to take care of our most vulnerable patients with cancer. As an organization, ASCO can be a very powerful voice on this issue, and contribute to solutions and policies that improve access to cancer care.
What are your fondest career memories?
MB: My career was shaped dramatically by becoming involved in clinical trials research. After finishing my residency, I focused my research on the prevention of gastrointestinal cancers, in particular, a rare genetic disease called familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) that is linked to colon cancer. We conducted basic research to understand how the genetic defect caused tumors to form, and if it was possible to prevent colon cancers through pharmacologic intervention. This led to an opportunity to spearhead a large colon cancer prevention trial using selective COX-2 inhibitors. The trial was a partnership between the National Cancer Institute and industry, and it was an incredible experience conducting clinical trial work at that level.
The trial yielded transformative results—not only for cancer prevention, but also for understanding the risks of selective COX-2 inhibitors. The drug was a powerful antitumor agent, but also raised the possibility of cardiovascular toxicity for this class of drugs—which, of course, has broader implications beyond just the field of oncology. Like most good research, we accomplished something important, but also uncovered more questions.
In 2008, I was selected to chair the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB) Cooperative Group, now the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology. Working with the Alliance team has been a wonderful experience—so many talented and dedicated clinical researchers from all aspects of oncology who continually bring new ideas and work very hard to see them through to improve how we care for our patients.
What research presented at the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting were you most excited about?
MB: I came home feeling very energized about our field after seeing Dr. Ethan Basch present his work showing that when patients with cancer can report their symptoms and receive prompt attention to them by a provider, they do better and live longer. This is such a wonderful affirmation of the importance of human interaction in how we care for our patients.
Who has helped mentor you and shape your career?
MB: So many people have helped me, and continue to support me in my career and life in general. It is very difficult to single out specific individuals. Speaking from the position of a female surgeon, however, there is one person who has been a great inspiration: Dr. Patricia Donahoe. Pat is a pediatric surgeon and a very fine scientist. Her laboratory work explores the activity of TGF-beta and related cytokines, which now are being studied as a potential new treatment for ovarian cancer. Pat trained as a surgeon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when there were very few women in surgery. The mountains that she had to climb to be trained as a surgeon and accepted as a scientist were truly formidable. She is an incredible role model and mentor to so many.
What’s something that you’d like members to know about you that can’t be found on your CV?
MB: I grew up on a cattle ranch in central Wyoming, and it is still in my family today. Once or twice a year, when I am feeling the need to be grounded, you can find me there. That includes doing all the gritty jobs that need to happen day-to-day on a working cattle ranch.
How else do you maintain balance in your career and life?
MB: I have deep European roots. Just like my mother and grandmothers before me, I like to cook, and get my family and friends around the table for a good meal. You can find me doing this almost every weekend.
You will be the first president-elect to serve a 4-year (rather than 3-year) term in the ASCO leadership. What effect will this change have on the ASCO leadership?
MB: The 4-year term will prove to be extremely valuable to ASCO and its membership. If the Society is going to tackle big, difficult issues such as access to care, we will need continuity year to year. This extra time is important so that leaders and members can develop and implement plans to achieve important goals.