The Road to ASCO Presidency, Paved by Education and Persistence

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I feel privileged and energized to be given the opportunity to serve our members. It’s the Society’s 50th anniversary, which in a way makes it even more special for me.

— Clifford A. Hudis, MD

ASCO President Clifford A. Hudis, MD, grew up in northeast Philadelphia in the 1960s, a robust period in U.S. history dominated by American industry and ingenuity. His early memories are of a hard-working blue-collar neighborhood of identical row and semidetached twin houses and of a time of unparalleled optimism when everything seemed ready and freshly built, including his public school.

Pursuing the American Dream

“My parents were focused on education. Schooling and grades took precedence over everything, even sports, which were a big deal in Philadelphia,” said Dr. Hudis. He recalled that the way the connected houses were configured, the corner home—often owned by a doctor or dentist—always seemed larger and more elaborate, like some reachable monument to success.

“Perhaps this had a subliminal effect on my parents, because it got in their heads that the best way to chase the American dream was through a career in medicine,” said Dr. Hudis, adding, “So to some degree I was programmed from a very early age to become a doctor.”

Along with his parent’s intense focus on hitting the books, Dr. Hudis lauded his public education experience, as well as the Quaker one that followed. “Even though I’m not a Quaker, I attended a Quaker high school, which was not unusual in Philadelphia in those days. I received an incredibly personalized education with the Friends,” said Dr. Hudis. He was accepted into a 6-year combined BA/MD program at Lehigh University and the Medical College of Pennsylvania, due, in part, to this opportunity, he noted.

It was 1977; Dr. Hudis observed that even though the Vietnam War was over, the country was still in recovery and young men like him, perhaps leery of being drafted into another conflict, were eager to get into college and graduate school. “When I was offered the opportunity to enroll into medical school right out of high school, I was very excited. Naturally, my parents were thrilled about me becoming a doctor, not to mention that the combined program meant several fewer years of college and tuition,” said Dr. Hudis. “I remember asking my mother, ‘What if I don’t want to become a doctor?’ She replied, ‘After medical school you can do anything you want,’” said Dr. Hudis.

Unique Medical School Experience

Dr. Hudis went to medical school at The Medical College of Pennsylvania, which was originally called the Female (later Woman’s) Medical College of Pennsylvania. Founded by Quakers in 1850, the school broke the gender barrier and became the first college in the world to offer medical education to women. Relishing the irony, Dr. Hudis said, “For a long time, Woman’s Medical College was the primary source of women physicians in America. Around 1969, the school began to accept men.”

The roots of Woman’s Medical College had a long-lasting and positive influence on Dr. Hudis. “In my medical school, the women students had fascinating allure. They were often older with a much wider range of experiences than what we see in the conventional high school through college path to medical school. They were teachers and lawyers and ex-military women, striving to become doctors. And I can only imagine what those worldly, already accomplished women thought about me, a 20-year-old med school freshman without their life experience,” said Dr. Hudis.

As a third-year medical student, Dr. Hudis took a rotation at a major midwestern university medical center. He remembered looking up one day on rounds and asking the attending doctors, quite innocently, “Where are all the women?” His question was never fully answered, but for Dr. Hudis this was a moment that crystalized his understanding of the rich and unusual environment of his own medical schooling.

“It never occurred to the all-male attending doctors that I had come from an environment in which department heads and chairs were women. In fairness to American medicine, it has been transformed in the decades since I graduated. The glass ceiling has certainly been cracked, if not completely shattered,” said Dr. Hudis, mentioning that he came from an experience that was decades ahead of the women’s equality movement in medicine. The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1867–1970) is now Drexel University College of Medicine.

Making a Difference in Medicine

Fast-forward to 2013. Dr. Hudis’s mother’s medical ambitions for her son have been realized in a way that far surpasses the dream of becoming the doctor with the biggest house in the row. Dr. Hudis, Chief of the Breast Cancer Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), has dedicated his career to the treatment of patients with breast cancer. Initially mentored by ASCO Past President Larry Norton, MD, his international collaborations have centered on translational studies that look to develop better hormone therapies, improved chemotherapies, and more effective ways to deliver the newer forms of targeted therapies. For the past decade, with his collaborator Andy Dannenberg, MD, he has focused his scientific efforts toward achieving a greater understanding of the fascinating connections between obesity, inflammation, and cancer.

When asked what a day in the life of Dr. Hudis consists of, he paused and noted that that was a big question needing proper reference.

“In the world that I grew up in, the doctor had office hours Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings, then Thursday and Friday. Plus, he made time to squeeze in house calls. The doctor was also the de facto authority in the neighborhood, one of the very few people who had an advanced degree, or any college degree for that matter. So that was really the only role model I had for medicine,” said Dr. Hudis. He said that early on in his career he became interested in internal medicine because he found the physiology of health and disease interesting, serving as a chief medical resident after completing his initial training.

“However, along the way I became somewhat frustrated in the inner city hospital where I trained, because of problems that plague us today—compliance to care and the socioeconomic results of preventable disease, issues that as a doctor I had no control over. But toward the end of my formal training I was exposed to medical oncology, and, to me, it offered me a more expansive way to truly make a difference in medicine,” said Dr. Hudis. “That brought me to MSKCC, where I had the good fortune to meet a newly hired physician, Larry Norton, within days of his arrival.”

No Such Thing as a Typical Day

“My typical day is far from anything that I ever imagined a doctor’s life would involve. For instance, this morning I was down at ASCO working on the Annual Meeting, then in the early afternoon I took the Metro to the airport, jumped on a shuttle flight back to New York, dealt with patient issues in the cab ride back to Memorial, then got ready for this interview with The ASCO Post. I’ll be working at my desk until late this evening when I will meet my wife for dinner. And that’s a typical day, even if it is not precisely like any other,” said Dr. Hudis.

On top of that exhausting schedule, Dr. Hudis runs one of the largest services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “We have 23 faculty members in breast cancer medicine working full-time within a dedicated facility, The Evelyn H. Lauder Breast and Imaging Center of MSKCC. We also have a large and interesting clinical breast cancer research portfolio. So, describing a typical day ends up sounding like a word salad, my days are so varied,” said Dr. Hudis.

He ended with this observation. “Coming in from the airport, as I was working on my mobile answering patient issues, I thought to myself, what am I really getting paid to do? I realized that although the variety of tasks makes it difficult to quantify, I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid, just because it’s so damn interesting and rewarding,” said Dr. Hudis.

As for his upcoming ASCO Presidency, Dr. Hudis said, “I feel privileged and energized to be given the opportunity to serve our members. It’s the Society’s 50th anniversary, which in a way makes it even more special for me. That said, it is a huge responsibility, but I’m fortunate to be part of a great institution that supports me every step of the way,” said Dr. Hudis.

Asked what an ASCO President does to wind down from an impossibly challenging schedule, Dr. Hudis said that he is an avid cycler, riding every chance he gets. “It goes back to my days as a kid mowing lawns in the neighborhood. I saved up to buy a Schwinn 10-speed SuperSport. It took me about a year,” said Dr. Hudis. That ability to focus on long-term goals and to persevere with patience has served him well. ■