Prolific Surgical Oncologist Understands the True Value of Mentorship

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Working to help people in other countries develop robust cancer programs and clinical trial groups helps enrich and connect the world’s oncology community. I’ve found that with proper support and education, places that have very limited resources can improve their cancer care over time.

— Charles M. Balch, MD, FACS, PhD (hc)

Charles M. Balch, MD, FACS, PhD (hc), was born in Milford, Delaware, where his father was a research chemist for DuPont during World War II. “My father was part of the team that developed rayon for parachutes. It was a top priority program because they couldn’t get nylon from the Philippines. After the war, some venture capitalists offered to start a chemical company in Toledo, Ohio, and they attracted the scientists who were on the DuPont project. We moved to Toledo, where my father began work on a project that eventually developed the base material for saccharin. His company was the world’s sole supplier,” said Dr. Balch, adding, “I think I inherited my father’s discovery genes.”

An Indispensible Mentor Paves the Way

Dr. Balch entered the University of Toledo in 1961. “While doing my undergraduate studies, I worked as a surgeon’s assistant at Toledo Hospital, which is where my interest in medicine and surgery started to bloom. With the help of some good mentors and a few good grades I was accepted to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1963,” said Dr. Balch.

He continued, “During the first part of my residency, I was actually interested in cardiovascular surgery, so I went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) where Dr. John Kirklin, one of the legends in cardiac surgery, was Chief of Surgery. Along the way, I did a fellowship in immunology at Scripps Clinic in California, which began to spark my interest in oncology. But it was actually my mentor, ASCO Past President Dr. John Durant, who drew me into the field.”

Dr. Balch was one of the early surgical oncologists to join ASCO, which he attributes to his mentor Dr. Durant. “Working with John, I was the Associate Director for Clinical Studies at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. He taught me how to be an oncologist and also how to be a clinical investigator,” said Dr. Balch. During that period, Dr. Balch was involved in many prospective randomized clinical trials in breast cancer, melanoma, and liver tumors. “When John left to take the lead at Fox Chase, I became the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center’s interim director until they hired an official director. I wasn’t interested in the job as it would take me away from surgery. After 10 years at UAB, I was recruited by MD Anderson and became the cancer center’s Chief of Surgery,” noted Dr. Balch.

During Dr. Durant’s ASCO Presidency, he encouraged Dr. Balch to submit a paper to a journal that was getting ready to launch its inaugural edition—the Journal of Clinical Oncology. “So we had a major paper published in volume 1, issue 2 of JCO. The paper was a multifactorial analysis of stage IV melanoma, and on the Journal’s 25th anniversary, the article was noted as one of JCO’s most cited papers in its first year,” mentioned Dr. Balch.

ASCO Leadership

Dr. Balch was elected to the ASCO Board of Directors in the early 1980s. “When ASCO decided to move toward self-management, I was on the transition committee, which was the group that recruited John Durant as the organization’s first Executive Vice President,” said Dr. Balch.

Later, in 2000, Dr. Balch succeeded Dr. Durant and became ASCO’s second Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer. “During the 5 years that I was Executive Vice President and CEO, ASCO more than doubled its membership up to 28,000 members from 50 different countries. We increased the breadth of the cancer education programs, including starting the Genitourinary and Gastrointestinal Symposia. Our Annual Meeting attendance increased from about 15,000 attendees in 2000 to over 28,000 attendees in 2006. We increased our fundraising from $2 million to $20 million in a 5-year period of time, which allowed us to grow a lot of new programs,” said Dr. Balch.

Contributions to Medical Literature

Dr. Balch is regarded as one of the leading melanoma experts in the world. He is the editor of Cutaneous Melanoma, considered the authoritative textbook on melanoma, which is now in its 5th edition. His contributions to the melanoma literature include over 130 published articles, 6 books, and 152 book chapters or invited educational articles regarding his clinical investigations involving the natural history of melanoma, prognostic factors predicting clinical outcome, and standards of surgical treatment. Overall, he has over 700 publications that have been cited in the literature over 19,000 times.

Dr. Balch is the founding Editor-in-Chief of the Annals of Surgical Oncology, which is recognized as the leading journal in the world in its field, with over 12,000 surgical and library subscribers.

Passion for Teaching

In his current position as Professor of Surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dr. Balch said that his activities center on three components: lecturing, teaching, and mentoring. “After my tenure as Executive Vice President of ASCO, I was recruited to Johns Hopkins by Dr. Julie Freischlag, their Chief of Surgery, and returned to full-time academic surgery. I thought I’d end my career there, but my oldest son Glen became a surgical oncologist. He came to UT Southwestern, where he and others here recruited me to come onto the faculty. So, my office is next to my son’s office,” said Dr. Balch, adding that all of his children have followed in his medical footsteps, in one form or another. “My second son, Alan, was recently appointed as the CEO of the Patient Advocacy Foundation, succeeding Nancy Davenport-Ennis. My daughter is a physician’s assistant in the gastrointestinal medical oncology unit at MD Anderson, and my youngest son is the IT project manager for the VA’s Central Office.”

Dr. Balch’s current passion is teaching young doctors about the principles of oncology and oncology management, especially in the surgically treated cancer patient. “I’m also very passionate about patients being informed partners in their treatment. I helped start a publishing company called Patient Resource Cancer Guides, which is now one of the largest patient education companies in the world. We distributed over one and a half million cancer guides (with 10 different titles) to cancer patients last year, plus we run two websites for cancer patient information,” said Dr. Balch.

Dr. Balch’s lecture hall extends far beyond UT Southwestern. “I lecture all over the world—last year in 17 countries and this year in at least 15. I teach oncology management and about organizing clinical trials. I logged 260,000 flier miles last year,” said Dr. Balch.

Global Lecture Hall

According to Dr. Balch, the extraordinary amount of miles and hours spent throughout the world is time and energy well spent. His global work takes him from challenged areas such as Ethiopia and India to sophisticated health-care systems in China and Japan. “Working to help people in other countries develop robust cancer programs and clinical trial groups helps enrich and connect the world’s oncology community. I’ve found that with proper support and education, places that have very limited resources can improve their cancer care over time, when needed resources are made more available. I helped establish a surgical training program in Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, the sole program in the country for surgeons. I got the surgical chief of that unit to become a member of ASCO,” said Dr. Balch.

What does Dr. Balch do to unwind from his duties at UT Southwestern, his publishing company, and his global lectures and project tours? He uses his frequent-flier miles. “Travel for me is an adventure that I love to share with my family. I’m drawn to places like the Galapagos Islands and Africa. And I always bring a camera; photography is another one of my passions,” said Dr. Balch. ■