Dr. Hudis at the 2018 ASCO annual meeting.
Though Clifford A. Hudis knew from a young age that he would practice medicine, he could not have predicted that he would one day oversee the leading medical society for oncology professionals. As the chief executive officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), he now focuses on improving professional education, cancer policy, and quality for the organization's 45,000 members — essentially shaping the future of his field.
Dr. Hudis grew up in Northeast Philadelphia in what he describes as a middle-class environment. His parents supported his early interest in math and science, and by eighth grade, he was participating in a summer science program at Hahnemann University, working on earthworm muscle biology.
A few years later, he applied to Lehigh University's six-year BA/MD program with the Medical College of Pennsylvania and was admitted. After two years at Lehigh, when he should have been a junior in college, Hudis left Bethlehem for East Falls and commenced medical school at the age of 20.
When he graduated, he stayed at MCP and completed the Internal Medicine Residency program, ultimately becoming the chief medical resident. That meant that he worked not only at MCP Hospital on Henry Avenue but also at the Philadelphia VA and several community hospitals. He had become interested in oncology, and during this time, he was lucky to encounter important mentors who gave his career focus.
Making His Way
"I ended up in oncology because of Drs. Roz Joseph and Manny Besa, who were two of the staff oncologists at MCP when I was a medical resident," he says. Hudis applied for a fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which he viewed as the best place for him to train, and soon found his calling in the breast cancer clinic.
"What makes oncology so attractive to me is that mixture of science and caring. I don't want to suggest that's not true in other fields, but at least in my experience, there can be poignant, rewarding and life-changing interactions in cancer. It satisfied my desire to work in an area of care that was evolving based on evidence and improving based on technology, while helping people confronting what were always perceived as serious problems."
What makes oncology so attractive to me is that mixture of science and caring.
Eventually, Hudis became chief of the breast medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a title he held for 18 years. While there, he was also a professor of medicine at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. In this role he helped develop more effective treatments for all stages of breast cancer while also exploring novel prevention opportunities. He and his team incorporated targeted biologics and small-molecule inhibitors that established several widely used standard adjuvant regimens for high-risk and HER2-positive breast cancer. Later, with multi-institutional collaborators, he focused on the connections between inflammation, obesity and cancer.
To Lead and Serve
During his years in practice and research, Hudis became very involved in ASCO, first as a member, serving on several committees, and then as an elected director and treasurer. After his term as treasurer ended, he was elected president.
In 2016, Hudis was offered the opportunity to take a very unconventional step — moving from peer-elected leadership to hired staff. Yet in many ways this step was a logical extension of the work he'd been doing on the board and, indeed, all along.
"What I've come to love about my role is developing vision and clarity around issues in oncology. At a mature organization like ASCO, the real strategy is set by the board. Our board's job is to know the field, to stay at the highest level, to continually evaluate and map the strategy that the organization must pursue to achieve its mission, and then to charge me with executing that. Of course, it goes two ways. I share my vision and opinions as to how the organization should proceed."
Hudis has particularly enjoyed the fresh challenges of the role. Learning new aspects of leadership and management at this stage of his career has been fun, he says.
"I'm going to be 60 in a couple of months, and the opportunity to contribute to our profession through this role is unique," he says. "Few settings provide these levels of responsibility and authority, autonomy and accountability."
Over the course of his career, Hudis has stayed in close contact with his alma mater, coming back to visit East Falls and to give grand rounds about his breast cancer research. In 2018, he received the Alumni Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his professional accomplishments and stature, and his lasting contributions to his field.
"I have a great affection for MCP, dating to when I was a medical student there. Its rich history as, essentially, the place where American women in medicine got their start is something that should be cherished," he says. "I've sent students to apply as medical school candidates over the years and that's been fun to watch. I've tracked the various interesting developments, the mergers, and the transition to Drexel. And I've been profoundly honored to come back."
At heart he is a clinician, and Hudis continues to practice, albeit in a very limited way. Because of the time constraints of his job with ASCO, he explains, he is not in a position to take care of people with acute illness, so he sees a small number of very stable low-risk patients with breast cancer, who are receiving no more than endocrine (hormone) therapies. "Generally, my patients come to talk about side effects of oral therapies and the long-term consequences of treatment; we're not usually dealing with emergencies or progression of their disease."
Remember the Privilege
Hudis points out that there are not many jobs like his, and in fact a good number of medical societies are run by management professionals, not physicians. Yet his career trajectory has been uniquely well matched to his passions, interests and discoveries. That's why he encourages young people interested in medicine to look beyond the seemingly mundane day-to-day tasks of the work and see the bigger vision of their calling.
"It's a privilege to be able to spend a life in medicine, but it requires perseverance. Yes, the electronic systems are very difficult to use, and yes, we spend a lot of time on things that we shouldn't have to, but in the end, it's a sacred responsibility to be allowed into the lives of patients and families who are anxious, if not scared. We guide them through these rocky times and, in many cases, help them come out the other side healthier and happy. And when it doesn't go well, we ease their suffering. This should be inspiring for every generation of physicians, and to support them, my never-ending quest at ASCO is to empower professionally fulfilled doctors to deliver the highest quality care to their patients."