Karnofsky Award Winner Honors Mentors through Gift to Conquer Cancer Foundation

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Kanti R. Rai, MD, and his wife Susan have been loyal donors to the Conquer Cancer Foundation for the past 9 years, but in 2012, a momentous occasion in his career inspired Dr. Rai to make a unique gift.

A Moment of Reflection

In the spring of 2012, Dr. Rai, an internationally recognized expert on adult leukemia, learned that he would receive the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award, ASCO’s highest scientific honor, at the ASCO Annual Meeting. The Karnofsky Award is presented in recognition of innovative clinical research and developments that have changed the way oncologists think about the general practice of oncology.

For Dr. Rai, Chief of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) Research and Treatment Program at North Shore–Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Health System, Joel Finkelstein Cancer Foundation Professor of Medicine at Hofstra North Shore–LIJ School of Medicine, and investigator at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, it was a moment for reflection.

“When I was first notified of the award I felt humbled and honored. I started to reflect upon how I reached where I have reached in my career, and realized that it was important to remember and honor my two mentors,” he said.

For Dr. Rai, that meant finding a way to honor Arthur Sawitsky, MD, and Eugene P. Cronkite, MD. It was Dr. Sawitsky who first taught Dr. Rai “to look at blood and bone marrow under the microscope, diagnose leukemia, and translate that information into caring for the living patient,” and it was Dr. Cronkite who taught Dr. Rai clinical research “step-by-step” and further guided him in his study of CLL.

Invaluable Support

In Dr. Rai’s opinion, it is an important exercise for all oncologists who have obtained any measure of success in their careers to “think back to when we were nobodies, and consider, where would we be without support from our mentor?”

“I was working in awe and admiration of this senior person who took a shine to me for some reason and took me under his umbrella, letting me see how that leader’s mind worked, day-to-day, week-to-week, [and seeing] how that mentor advised me and guided me in my research project, critiquing and providing encouragement without necessarily telling me what to do,” he said.

“At each level the mentee receives guidance from the mentor that you cannot duplicate in a classroom setting,” Dr. Rai continued. “I remember that each of my two mentors did that for me without any sense of obligation. That’s what came naturally to them.”

Dr. Rai chose to pay tribute to the mentors who helped to shape his career by making a donation in their honor to the Conquer Cancer Foundation. “The amount that I contributed may have been larger than I easily could have afforded, but in my mind, it was no match for the unstinted generosity that my mentors provided me in my career,” he said.

Mentorship and the Conquer Cancer Foundation

The Conquer Cancer Foundation has always emphasized the importance and strength of mentoring relationships in its programs.

The Foundation’s flagship Young Investigator Award (YIA) and Career Development Award (CDA) programs have a critical mentorship component—with each recipient pursuing his or her research under the guidance of an experienced mentor. Programs like the International Development and Education Award (IDEA), and the Long-term International Fellowship (LIFe) pair early-career oncologists in developing nations with a U.S. or Canadian mentor. The Gianni Bonnadonna Breast Cancer Award and the Research Professorships are awarded to senior investigators with exemplary mentoring skills who provide mentorship to future researchers. 

“The mentors have an enormous impact on the quality of the proposals we see, as well as the execution of the research projects,” said Eileen Melnick, Director of the Conquer Cancer Foundation Grants & Award Program. “We’re actually at the point in our program’s history when many of our earlier grant recipients are advanced enough in their careers to act as mentors to our current young investigators, and that’s really rewarding to see.”

As Dr. Rai put it, “It comes with a sense of generosity that goes from generation to generation. It is the best way of perpetuating quality clinical investigations and quality science.”

A Fitting Tribute

As a long-time and active ASCO Member, Dr. Rai has had a close-up view of the Foundation’s programs and progress since its inception in 1999. “I was very impressed by the altruism that the Foundation represents in terms of advancing cancer research, helping the right kind of causes in cancer education, and supporting young cancer researchers early in their investigative careers,” he said.

 “In the past few years the Foundation has made itself known for the kind of work it does,” Dr. Rai continued. “At the ASCO meeting, you can see wall after wall of what the Foundation does and stands for.”

A gift to the Conquer Cancer Foundation in support of its mission to fund breakthrough research and share cutting-edge knowledge seemed a fitting tribute to those who had so generously shared their own knowledge early in his career. As he prepared to accept one of the most distinguished awards in oncology, it was important to Dr. Rai to remember that achievements in the field of oncology are always shared team efforts.

Through his gift to the Conquer Cancer Foundation, Dr. Rai found that he could contribute to an overall professional atmosphere of appreciation and generosity, honoring the mentoring relationships that are improving the next generation of cancer care on a daily basis. “If we can recognize and honor our mentors in our own lifetimes,” he said, “it sets an important example to the upcoming younger generation of our colleagues.”

To make a gift in honor of a mentor, colleague, or loved one, visit the Conquer Cancer Foundation online at

© 2012. American Society of Clinical Oncology. All Rights Reserved.