Mayo’s Cancer Director: ‘There’s a Real Altruism in Cancer Medicine’

More than 150,000 people with cancer come to Mayo Clinic each year and find experts with extensive experience in the diagnosis and treatment of virtually every kind of cancer as well as the resources to provide excellent care tailored to their needs.

The Mayo Clinic Cancer Center is designated by the National Cancer Institute as a comprehensive cancer center. This means the clinic's renowned physicians, researchers and scientists carry out team-based, patient-centered research to develop the latest technologies and treatments to address unmet patient needs. As a result, people who come to the clinic for cancer care have access to hundreds of clinical trials in all phases.

In May 2021, Cheryl L. Willman, M.D., was named executive director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. In this role, Dr. Willman is leading the expansion and strategic development of Mayo Clinic Cancer Center sites in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota, as well as newly developing Mayo Clinic global cancer programs in London, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Dr. Willman discusses her thoughts on proton beam therapy, patient navigators, genomics in cancer care and more on the Mayo Clinic Q&A podcast from October 2021. The excerpt highlights below were edited for clarity.

There's a lot of work happening at Mayo Clinic related to cancer care. Can you tell us about your efforts to engage our communities?

There’s a growing awareness in our culture and our society that we have to find ways to disseminate outstanding cancer care to everyone. Mayo Clinic is deeply engaged and is looking at the characteristics of communities in the Upper Midwest, the Southwest and the Southeast. I think the greatest opportunity for me is that our communities and populations are very diverse.

That gives Mayo Clinic a footprint to begin to understand how to implement and disseminate cancer care to very diverse communities in the South; to predominantly Black, Hispanic and indigenous communities in the Southwest; and to more recent immigrant communities.

We have the ability to determine how to best disseminate care and how to conduct research that really affects the people in these communities. That will be a huge part of our strategic effort in the next five years.

What are some research endeavors and cancer clinical trials that people can enroll in?

Cancer clinical trials are essential to advancing our knowledge in cancer care. Over 90% of children 15 and under who have cancer are treated in a cancer clinical trial. That means they're treated under a very detailed protocol to capture all their data and information. We're testing new drugs.

We have improved outcomes in children with cancer so rapidly over the last 20 years because we treat everybody in the context of a clinical trial, or a very regimented protocol and study.

The tragedy today is less than 5% of adults with cancer in America are treated in clinical trials. And then when you start looking at African Americans, American Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, Asians — their rate of participation in cancer clinical trials is even lower. An NCI comprehensive cancer center like Mayo is expected to have a massive cancer clinical trials program.

Mayo Clinic every year does a very large number of cancer clinical trials, but we're actually going to increase that number even greater and coordinate the clinical trials we have going on between medicine, surgery, radiation oncology, medical oncology, pediatrics — and accelerate clinical trials.

Virtually every cancer patient I meet is really altruistic. They want to participate in a trial if you present one to them because they're advancing the science perhaps not only for their well-being but for future patients.

There's a real altruism in cancer medicine. We just need to bring these trials to patients and have them available to participate.

Virtually every cancer patient I meet is really altruistic.

They want to participate in a trial if you present one to them because they're advancing the science perhaps not only for their well-being but for future patients.

CHeryl L. Willman, M.D.
Mayo Clinic Cancer Center

How does philanthropy impact the work of Mayo Clinic Cancer Center?

Philanthropy is absolutely critical to our work. We could not do any of the innovative things in genomic sequencing, in the development of new radiation therapies, in our community outreach engagement, in recruiting the very best faculty, in supporting our education and training programs without our benefactors.

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