Making a Difference Face to Face and Across the Globe With Cancer Policy Efforts

As CEO of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Clifford A. Hudis, MD, is always on the go—and not just between his home in New York and ASCO headquarters in Virginia.

As CEO of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), Clifford A. Hudis, MD, is always on the go—and not just between his home in New York and ASCO headquarters in Virginia.

With his team, he constantly searches for ways to support ASCO’s more than 45,000 members and their practices, ensuring that all patients receive the quality cancer care they deserve, working with elected and appointed officials on public health initiatives, and developing continuing education programs and workshops to keep cancer doctors around the world at the top of their game.

But at least once a month, Hudis will spend a Friday afternoon at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center in New York, New York, where he served as chief of the Division of Breast Cancer Medicine for 18 years. There he meets new patients and manages the care of existing ones, satisfying his desire to be a physician and keeping himself up to date on the evolving challenges doctors face.

“Over the years, I’ve been in rooms where people are discussing and deciding profound policy issues related to clinical care, sometimes they had not, themselves, touched a patient in years or even decades. Given the privilege of representing ASCO’s diverse membership, I always want to retain at least some connection to real-world clinical care,” Hudis said. “Not only is it emotionally and professionally rewarding to sit and talk with patients, but it is also useful for my role at ASCO. I always want to relate to our members as a peer, sharing some of the same day-to-day challenges and representing their needs accurately.”

Hudis took the helm at ASCO in 2016 after more than 30 years as a practicing physician. He had spent most of those years at MSK, first as a fellow, then as a collaborative clinical and translational researcher focused on drug development. This included developing the practical dose-dense adjuvant chemotherapy regimens for breast cancer.

He rose to the rank of attending physician and full member at MSK while becoming a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. There’s a big difference between the clinical work and research that marked the bulk of his career and managing what is functionally a large, nonprofit corporation with multiple connected entities and international reach. Yet Hudis believes a background in medicine can be great preparation for leadership and administration, be it at a business or a nonprofit. AS CEO, he’s asked to make decisions every day that affect thousands of ASCO staff and members.

“This is where practicing medicine is a useful training ground,” he added. “I do think my clinical experience gives me some comfort with decision-making in the face of imperfect information.”

Destined to be a Doctor

Hudis grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother was a public school teacher, and his father built and owned a food distribution business. From a very young age, Hudis remembers, his parents nudged him toward a career in medicine and encouraged his interest in science and math.

Hudis considered specializing in psychiatry until he started his oncology rotation in a clinic run by MCP professors Rosaline R. Joseph, MD, and Emmanuel C. Besa, MD. “The combination of cutting-edge technologies, a reliance on the scientific method, and the strong bond that developed between doctors and their patients greatly appealed to me,” Hudis said.

After medical school, applying for a fellowship at MSK was a no-brainer for Hudis. As a boy, he’d seen the 1971 movie Brian’s Song, which is based on the true story of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo and his battle with an aggressive form of germ cell testicular cancer. Piccolo, who was just 26 when he died in 1970, sought treatment at MSK.

“When I applied to medical oncology fellowships, it was my first choice, and I think that seed was planted by Brian Piccolo’s story,” he said.

At MSK, Hudis was one of the first fellows to work with the legendary Larry Norton, MD, as Norton developed the center’s breast cancer program. Hudis found a lifelong friend and mentor in Norton, who today serves as senior vice president, medical director at the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center, and the Norna S. Sarofim Chair in Clinical Oncology at MSK. Norton, and won a Giants of Cancer Care® award in 2016.

“What that really meant was that all of the academics, the science, the learning, the hard work and study can only make us experts up to a certain point. The life and experience of individuals with cancer is another most critical form of expertise,” Hudis said. “They know the impact the disease has on their lives. They know what they want to achieve with treatment. That’s always stuck with me.”

Hudis said 2 “accidents of history” helped further his career. The first was the early development of filgrastim (Neupogen), a recombinant, nonpegylated human granulocyte colony-stimulating factor analogue that stimulates the growth of white blood cells. MSK helped develop curative breast cancer regimens that incorporated filgrastim.

The second big break also involved a treatment drug, paclitaxel. When the FDA approved the cytotoxic agent in 1992, paclitaxel was the first new conventional chemotherapy introduced in decades found to have broad use and clinical efficacy. Hudis and his colleagues further developed paclitaxel-based chemotherapy into a standard postoperative adjuvant treatment regimen.

“When I started in the oncology clinic at MCP, I could list all of the known effective drugs for the treatment of cancer and, in short form, it would fill only 2 sides of 1 page,” Hudis said. “The subsequent expansion of effective options, which is only growing faster today, is really exciting and is exactly what I hoped to see during my career.”

When ASCO’s CEO position became available in 2016, Hudis had been exploring the links between obesity and breast and other cancers with colleagues at MSK and Weill Cornell Medicine for about 10 years. That research convinced him that public policy and awareness would have to be part of any solutions. ASCO offered the possibility of effective intervention on a global scale.

Hudis steered ASCO as it launched some of its boldest initiatives to date, including CancerLinQ, the only physician-led big data platform in the country. He worked with other research and medical institutions to boost federal support for cancer research, which was stalled for almost a decade.

“I recognized that science was important but so, too, was evidence-based public policy,” he said. “And to engage political leaders in Washington, you have to be there; ideally, backed by strong data.”