ORLANDO, FL—Ask Charles M. Balch, MD, for the secret of his success as ASCO's Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer and you'll probably get a modest answer: a top-notch staff, skilled volunteers, and predecessor John R. Durant, MD.
While Dr. Balch is proud of the extraordinary growth and achievements of ASCO in the five years since he has assumed that role, he quickly credits Dr. Durant for laying the groundwork. As ASCO's first EVP, Dr. Durant “laid a tremendous foundation that made ASCO what it is today. And as my mentor during my residency at the University of Alabama, Dr. Durant shaped much of who I am both as an oncologist and an administrator,” Dr. Balch said.
Board-certified in both surgery and oncology, Dr. Balch explained that now-retired Dr. Durant taught him the difference between the two.
“When I say I'm a surgeon and oncologist, on the one hand I'm a cancer surgeon who takes care of patients before, during, and after surgery. But an oncologist thinks differently. The mindset for care is on integration that crosses all disciplines.”
“What's best for patients is not your specialty, but rather the coordination of care. I learned that from John Durant 30 years ago. And it's that understanding of how various disciplines come together for care and research that prepared me for my role at ASCO.”
Dr. Durant, who was Vice President for Health Affairs at the University of Alabama before leading ASCO, now splits his time between Birmingham and North Carolina.
“Charlie's the second EVP that ASCO has had, and he's successfully filled the very large shoes of John Durant,” said Robert J. Mayer, MD, Vice Chair for Academic Affairs and Director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Balch “has had an enormous presence as the face of ASCO at a time the organization has grown enormously. The ASCO Board has hired and nurtured a first-rate executive vice president,” said Dr. Mayer, a past president of ASCO and a member of OT's Editorial Board.
So just what does an EVP of the world's largest cancer organization do?
Everything: “I look at ASCO and help frame it. We provide a home for all specialists worldwide—a place, like a cancer center, where multidisciplinary care and research is a primary responsibility,” Dr. Balch said.
And anything—down to the smallest detail: For example, noted Dr. Mayer, in Orlando at the Annual Meeting, everything from the buses to the program books were his responsibility.
With more and more patients going online, Dr. Balch guided the launch of PeopleLivingWithCancer.org (www.plwc.org), ASCO's award-winning Web site with information on 80 cancer types, as well as Spanish content and medical illustrations.
Dr. Balch remains an active participant in the activities of the site: In June, for example, he co-hosted a live chat to answer questions on melanoma and skin cancer. It's one of the most rewarding parts of the job, he said: “In addition to shaping cancer policy, we also provide a community for people living with cancer.”
In addition to overseeing the annual meeting, there was the launch of ASCO's increasingly popular “small meetings”—the first Multidisciplinary Prostate Cancer and GI Cancer Symposia, the Doctor-Patient Communications Course, and the End of Life Care for Oncologists Meeting.
Also noteworthy: the funding of 10 training programs in geriatrics oncology, and initiation of a grant program for oncologists from underdeveloped countries to travel to the annual meeting.
ASCO Staff Now Numbers Almost 200
None of the achievements, he said, would be possible without the nearly 200 persons on the ASCO staff. Ticking off name after name, Dr. Balch said, “I recruited most of them and am proud of their dedication efforts. We work together horizontally across departments.”
Nor are the volunteers overlooked: Dr. Balch credits both “for their considerable devotion of time and talent.”
Dr. Balch said he works closely with the President, the President-Elect, and the Immediate Past President. “We partner together so we can blend our perspectives and experiences on behalf of our membership. All of us share a common outlook, really believing that informed, up-to-date oncologists will provide the best cancer care and help their patients cope better with the uncertainty of their disease,” he said.
Dr. Balch estimated that he spends about 50 to 60 hours a week working for ASCO headquarters in Alexandria, VA, and another 10 hours a week treating patients as Professor of Surgery and Oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.
He interrupts his chain of thought briefly to talk about a 15 year-old with melanoma on whom he is scheduled to operate in the morning: “Melanoma is hitting younger and younger people,” he said. “We really have to keep up the educational efforts.”
Biggest Challenge: ASCO's Big Growth
His biggest challenge, he said, is managing “the stunning growth” of an organization that has added 2,000 new members each year for the past five years.
“We have to meet the needs of our very diverse membership, by tailoring our products and services to the specific needs of each of our constituent groups,” Dr. Balch said.
From NY to Texas to LA— Then Back East Again
Dr. Balch was already an ASCO member for 19 years when he took over its top executive post on March 1, 2000. Prior to moving back east, he served as Professor of Surgery at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, and before that, as President and Chief Executive Officer of City of Hope Medical Center and Research Institute.
From 1985 to 1996, he held various positions at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, including Executive Vice President for Health Affairs and Chairman of the Department of Surgical Oncology.
Dr. Balch did his surgical and oncology training at Duke Medical Center and the University of Alabama, after earning his medical degree from Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He also held an immunology fellowship at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation and worked at the NIH's General Clinical Research Centers Branch.
He has authored or coauthored more than 500 publications and founded two medical journals, the Annals of Surgical Oncology and Breast Diseases: A Year Book Quarterly.
As EVP, Dr. Balch serves ex-officio on the ASCO Board of Directors and either chairs or sits as an ex-officio member on all the committees.
“There is a joy in doing this,” he said. “There's so much value that we can bring to the oncology community and on behalf of people living with cancer that it's worth all the effort.”
ASCO Growth, 2000–2005
Training grants (in dollars)$1.6 million $3.7 million
Number of practice guidelines published 9 17
Annual meeting attendance 23,77229,600
Annual meeting abstract submissions 2,847 3,806