By Aaron Tallent
A cornerstone of Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation’s mission is to promote equitable access to research funding. In 2013, then ASCO president Sandra Swain, MD, FACP, FASCO, led the launch of Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC) to support women, a population vastly underrepresented in the cancer research field. In the decade that has followed, WWCC has raised nearly $7 million to support annual and endowed awards. From funding a single award in 2014, WWCC has now supported 69 Conquer Cancer grants and awards that included 44 Young Investigator Awards (YIAs), six Career Development Awards (CDAs), six Merit Awards, and 13 Mentorship Awards, totaling more than $3.4 million.
“To see the outpouring of support, not only from women but from men who say, ‘I have a daughter, I have a wife, and I really want to support this endeavor,’ is rewarding. It is especially fulfilling to see the confidence that an award brings to these young women at the beginning of an academic career,” said Dr. Swain, who is a Conquer Cancer Board of Directors member, a professor of medicine and the associate dean for research development at the Georgetown University Medical Center, and the vice president of genetic medicine at MedStar Health.
The work of WWCC has elevated women in oncology and research but will need more support to fill the gap caused by underrepresentation. According to ASCO’s “2022 Snapshot: State of the Oncology Workforce in America
” report, women currently make up only 35.8% of the U.S. oncology workforce, and early-career women cancer researchers receive 30% less research funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health than their male counterparts. A concerted and focused effort must be made to provide more grants to women as they establish their research careers.
“Women are generally not as funded and represented across cancer research, so I think there needs to be more equity in women in cancer research. This program has grown exponentially in supporting women in oncology and we want to keep adding resources to elevate and support the careers of more female researchers,” said Christina Annunziata, MD, PhD, a senior investigator in the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Women’s Malignancies Branch, who has actively volunteered with and dedicated support to the WWCC program for more than eight years.
A Growing Network of Women Researchers
Dr. Swain served as ASCO president from 2012 to 2013 and at the time was the sixth woman in the role out of 49 ASCO past presidents. Having been the lone woman in the room for much of her career, she believed it was critical that future generations of women in oncology experience greater levels of connectivity and support, especially in research.
“Research is basically in my DNA because if we do not do research, then we are not going to make progress against cancer. I felt it was so important to give these young women an opportunity early in their career and the confidence and the strength to continue with it,” she said.
Dr. Swain worked closely with ASCO leadership to get the WWCC program up and running and took a boots-on-the-ground approach to create a network of support to keep it going. She would hold WWCC events at her home in the Washington, DC, area and invite colleagues to learn more about the program and hear from a YIA recipient on its potential impact. Dr. Annunziata was invited to one of these events, having served as a fellow at NCI while Dr. Swain served as the institute’s deputy chief of the Medicine Branch for the Center for Cancer Research, and said she found it inspiring. Dr. Annunziata has since helped to expand WWCC support and awareness among other women leaders and advocates in oncology.
Expanding to Support Researchers Throughout Their Career
The first grants offered by WWCC were YIAs, which provide promising investigators in transition from fellowship to their first year of faculty appointment with $50,000 for a one-year project. The program has expanded to include additional grants that support women in later stages of their research careers.
One such critical addition is the CDA, which is given to clinical investigators who have received their initial faculty appointment, to support them in establishing an independent clinical cancer research program. To date, WWCC has awarded six CDAs, which are three-year grants totaling $200,000 each. According to Dr. Swain and Dr. Annunziata, the CDAs are not only supporting women researchers later in their careers; they are helping to keep them in the field.
“We need to have more applications and fund more CDAs so we can keep these early investigators in the academic setting and give them stability even in uncertain times. Statistics showed that more women dropped out of the workforce during COVID, and I personally saw the pressure some of our junior faculty faced, so the more support we can give, the better,” said Dr. Swain.
The WWCC program has also established the Mentorship Awards recognizing women leaders in oncology. The two recipients for 2022 were S. Gail Eckhardt, MD, FASCO, and Cynthia Villarreal-Garza, MD, DSc. Dr. Eckhardt served as lead mentor for ASCO’s 2018-2019 Leadership Development Program and is the principal investigator on numerous grants related to early-phase clinical research for patients with colorectal cancer. Since 2013, Dr. Villarreal-Garza has mentored medical school junior research fellows, and for seven years has led a breast cancer fellowship program that is the first of its kind in Mexico and one of two programs that currently exist in Latin America.
“The Mentorship Award recognizes a selflessness and understanding that the success of the people around you is really important. The recipients make sure their colleagues have opportunities to give talks or write papers and take a step back to be a guiding light and give them this important experience,” said Dr. Swain.
One such WWCC supporter is Conquer Cancer Board of Directors member Deanna B. van Gestel, founder of Women Leaders in Oncology (WLO). This program, which has directly supported WWCC in several ways, provides women in oncology with vital resources to expand their collaborative networks and cultivate new research ideas. Ms. van Gestel, a WWCC Committee member, is dedicated to elevating and empowering women in the oncology research community and, through WLO, has worked to fund many WWCC grants and awards.
Working Toward a Future of Equitable Research Funding
While tremendous progress has been made, Conquer Cancer is aiming to increase the number of its endowments and endowed awards so more women are funded consistently every year. As WWCC looks to the next 10 years, its leadership will work to fund more YIAs and expand the number of CDAs and other awards that support researchers across the span of their careers.
Providing support later in the careers of women is also critical to WWCC’s goal of equity in cancer research funding. For both Dr. Swain and Dr. Annunziata, increasing the number of CDAs is vital to fostering the current and future generations of young women investigators.