A Mission to Foster Meaningful Connections for Women in Oncology: A Conversation With Deanna B. van Gestel

Sep 14, 2023

Deanna B. van Gestel volunteers her time as a member of the Board of Directors of Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, and as a member of the Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC) Committee. In 2007, she founded Vaniam Group, a distinguished network of independent health care communication agencies focused on oncology and hematology, where she also serves as CEO. In 2014, Ms. van Gestel founded Women Leaders in Oncology to provide an opportunity for women in the cancer care community to collaborate with and inspire one another. In the interview that follows, she discusses her interest in amplifying and supporting the voices of women leaders in the oncology field.  
What drew you to health care communications work in the field of oncology?  
DVG: Before forming Vaniam Group in 2007, I spent 15 years in the pharmaceutical industry working across commercial and medical affairs departments. In the process, I realized there was a gap within science, medicine, and marketing that persists today, and that the key to filling that gap was through strong connections and clear communications. As a result, I developed a passion for bringing together researchers and oncologists in meaningful ways that fueled their shared goal of advancing cancer care.  
Why do you serve as a Board member for Conquer Cancer?  What drives you to support cancer research and programs?  
DVG: I am inspired by Conquer Cancer’s expansive reach and its ability to accelerate breakthroughs in lifesaving research. Through the years, Conquer Cancer has raised more than half a billion dollars to support research, education, and quality programs, distributing more than 8,000 grants and awards across the world. You don’t have to look hard to see the results; few other medical fields can rival the level of innovation and advancement we’ve seen in the field of oncology over the past two decades. And, like so many other people whose families have been personally touched by cancer, I am forever grateful for the research Conquer Cancer continues to fuel.  
How did you get involved with WWCC?  
DVG: Every day I collaborate with women leaders who inspire me. So, in 2014, I founded Women Leaders in Oncology (WLO) to help foster meaningful connections for women in oncology across the areas of drug development, clinical research, and medical practice. A few years later, we collaborated with Conquer Cancer to establish the WLO Women Who Conquer Cancer Young Investigator Award (YIA). What began as a single event at the ASCO Annual Meeting has now expanded into a comprehensive platform for networking, mentorship, and research funding for women across oncology. I became a Board member of Conquer Cancer in 2021, and I’m honored to sit on the WWCC Committee.  
Do you have a standout memory from supporting a WWCC fundraising initiative?  
DVG: While the literal purpose of a WWCC fundraising event is to increase financial donations, the overarching effect of attending one of these events is much more expansive. It’s impossible to overstate the power of the connections formed, the stories told, and the lives affected. As just one example, I recall the powerful keynote address that my friend and colleague Dr. Sonali Smith provided at last year’s WLO fundraising event for the WWCC YIA. After sharing her personal journey of overcoming career obstacles and workplace biases to become a leader within the oncology community, she stated: “We are blessed to be in a phenomenal group of strong women, and I have had so many people along the way who have taught me … and having this village is one of the most incredible blessings of life.” 
Why is it important to advance equity for women in oncology and cancer research? How can elevating gender equity in research benefit patients?  
DVG: While women are increasingly represented across the oncology industry, a gender imbalance persists at the leadership level. Women are less likely to be the lead author on a peer-reviewed publication, a principal investigator in a clinical trial, or a C-suite executive within a pharmaceutical company or hospital system. We can do better, and we must do better. It’s my sincere belief that establishing a greater leadership balance across this industry will help correct some of the gender disparities we continue to see in clinical trials and patient outcomes.   
What do you want donors and ASCO members to know about the impact of Conquer Cancer’s WWCC program?  
DVG: I am grateful and inspired by the generosity from this community, and I am motivated by the need to do more. Women play a crucial role in the mission to conquer cancer. Your gift will help the next generation of women researchers find new and more effective treatments for every cancer, every patient, everywhere. At the same time, you can help us achieve a more equitable balance across patient outcomes and across leadership levels within the oncology community.  
What makes Conquer Cancer unique?  
DVG: Ultimately, Conquer Cancer may be the most effective and efficient way for individuals and organizations to make a difference in cancer treatment and care. The Foundation has earned a four-star rating on Charity Navigator, platinum status from Candid by GuideStar, and recognition as a Better Business Bureau Accredited Charity. It was established by the foremost oncologists of ASCO to drive advances in the prevention, treatment, and cures of all types of cancer. And its mission touches every single one of us, as any single discovery in this field has the potential to save countless lives.  
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