How Carolyn D. Runowicz, MD, FASCO, Is Shaping the Future of Gynecologic Cancers

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Carolyn D. Runowicz, MD, FASCO

I like to think I was always empathetic with patients, but going through cancer gave me another look into what their lives were like.

—Carolyn D. Runowicz, MD, FASCO

Carolyn D. Runowicz, MD, ­FASCO, has worn just about every hat in the field of oncology—clinician, professor, researcher, administrator, and even cancer survivor.  Currently the Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University in Miami, she has held numerous academic and professional leadership positions, conducted research in gynecologic oncology, and helped to blaze trails for other female oncologists.

A native of Willimantic, Connecticut, Dr. Runowicz attended the University of Connecticut and then headed to Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia for her medical degree. The stage for her career in oncology was set in her first year of medical school, when through an American Cancer Society fellowship, she “shadowed” gynecologic oncologist George C. Lewis, MD.

“His passion for what he did was contagious,” said Dr. Runowicz. “He would get in early in the morning and stay until late at night, yet he never seemed tired. Every day was met with enthusiasm and vigor. I thought, wow, if I could find that same passion in my life, I would really be happy.” She also became enamored with the specialty of gynecologic oncology. “It was comprehensive care of women with cancer, from diagnosis to the end of life,” she said.

During her residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, from 1977 to 1981, Dr. Runowicz joined the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, guided by Saul B. Gusberg, MD [then Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine], one of the founding fathers of gynecologic oncology, and completed her fellowship in the specialty. (Also important in her training was fellowship director ­Carmel ­Cohen, MD, Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Medicine at Mount Sinai.)

A few years later, Dr. Runowicz was recruited to join Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center to help develop a Division of Gynecologic Oncology and start a fellowship program. She had also begun conducting clinical trials in gynecologic cancers.

Fortuitous Timing 

It was an exciting time to be in the field. “I was privileged to be at institutions where some of the new drugs were being developed—drugs that changed how cancer was treated,” said Dr. Runowicz. “I was at Mount Sinai when platinum-based chemotherapy came out, then at Einstein when Susan B. Horwitz, PhD, [Distinguished Professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology] began to describe how paclitaxel worked. I had all these patients who had been on platinum-based chemotherapy, and it stopped working. But we put them on paclitaxel and witnessed another miracle.”

Dr. Runowicz was also involved in researching cisplatin for the treatment of ovarian cancer. “It’s been amazing to see how these drugs absolutely changed how we treat cancer,” she said.

By now, Dr. Runowicz had found her own passion, but a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1992 threw her an unexpected curve ball. Because the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, treatment included chemotherapy, radiation, and tamoxifen.

The grueling regimen took 11 months to complete, but Dr. ­Runowicz never stopped working, even as she struggled with nausea and crushing fatigue. “I didn’t realize the cumulative effect [of the treatment]. The first session of chemo was not that bad, the second was a little worse. With each time, it required an additional day to get over. And antinausea medications were almost nonexistent then,” she said. “I like to think I was always empathetic with patients, but going through cancer gave me another look into what their lives were like.”

Hitting Her Stride

In 2002, Dr. Runowicz became the Director of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center to rebuild its cancer program. She had also begun taking leadership roles in several professional societies and accumulating several “firsts.” For instance, she was the first woman to head the traditionally all-male Society of Gynecologic Oncologists. “I had to tread carefully,” she said. “But it was a great experience and ­privilege.”

In 2000, Dr. Runowicz proposed a name change for the group—to the Society of Gynecologic Oncology. “I had a vision of a much larger organization that would no longer be about doctors but about the science,” she said. It took 10 years, but the group was finally renamed in 2011. “It was a name that indicated this was a serious professional organization focused on the science and not the doctors,” said Dr. Runowicz.

Dr. Runowicz was also the first gynecologic oncologist to serve on ­ASCO’s Board of Directors. Her other notable appointments include a term as President of the American Cancer Society from 2005 to 2006. In 2004, she was asked by President George W. Bush to serve as a member of the National Cancer Advisory Board for a 6-year appointment, which included two terms as its Chair.

At the same time, Dr. Runowicz managed to speak regularly on gynecologic cancers, menopause management, and breast cancer; to advocate for women’s health; and to write several books, including To Be Alive: A Woman’s Guide to a Full Life After Cancer (Henry Holt & Co, 1995), and coauthored with her husband ­Sheldon Cherry, MD, Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, The Menopause Book: A Guide to Women’s Health After 40 (Macmillan Publishers, 1994).

Enjoying New Challenges

At Florida International University, Dr. Runowicz is enjoying the challenges and rewards of helping guide the school’s fledgling medical program. The new medical school just graduated its third class. “We’re in the building phase,” said Dr. Runowicz. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm here.”

In addition to Dr. Runowicz’ academic responsibilities at the university, she and her colleagues are investigating a promising novel therapy for ovarian cancer: intraperitoneal delivery of paclitaxel via magnetoelectric nanoparticles, which may enable researchers to overcome some of the barriers to the widespread use of intraperitoneal chemotherapy in ovarian cancer.

“The tumor opens up a pore, and the particle goes in and kills the cell,” she said. “We’ve cured ovarian cancer in a mouse model. That’s a long way from success in humans, but it’s a start.”

Dr. Runowicz also maintains a clinical practice in Miami and feels privileged to have had the opportunity to become an oncologist and to continue to have such a varied career, from taking care of patients and conducting research to being an academician. It is clear from her extraordinary list of past accomplishments in oncology care and her work today, Dr. Runowicz has found the same passion in her career she so admired in the career of her early mentor, Dr. Lewis.

Disclosure: Dr. Runowicz reported no potential conflicts of interest.