Will Susan G. Komen's new President and CEO, Judith A. Salerno, MD, MS, be the cure for what's been ailing the breast cancer organization since it became enmeshed in the controversy over funding for Planned Parenthood in early 2012?
Salerno began her new position in September, a full year after former President Liz Thompson officially resigned and Komen Founder Nancy G. Brinker announced she would be stepping down as CEO once a successor was named.
Brinker, who remains one of the 10 members of Komen's Board of Directors, also serves as the organization's Chair of Global Strategy, a position reporting to Salerno, who in turn reports to the Board of Directors.
Salerno was most recently the Leonard D. Schaeffer Executive Officer of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies, serving as its Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer for six years, with responsibility for directing the IOM's research and policy programs, guiding the Institute's operations on a daily basis, and overseeing the National Cancer Policy Forum. She also came to know many other members of the cancer community working on various cancer-related IOM reports.
She previously had a long career in government service as Deputy Director of the National Institute on Aging, where she served as senior geriatrician overseeing research on aging including Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. She also had leadership positions with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where she directed geriatrics and extended care programs and launched national initiatives for pain management and end-of-life care.
She co-founded the Washington D.C. Area Geriatric Education Center Consortium, a collaboration of some 160 educational and community organizations within the Baltimore-Washington region.
Although she was named as incoming President and CEO of Komen in June, she needed to finish her work at IOM before heading west in September.
I spoke with Salerno by phone just a few days into October, the official month for breast cancer awareness, about how her career trajectory brought her to Komen and what challenges she is facing as head of the world's largest nongovernmental funder of breast cancer research.
A native of Newark, N.J., and a professed baseball fan, Salerno, who had spent most of her professional life in Boston and Washington, had just moved to Dallas, a requirement for her new position, which in the past had a number of previous leaders maintaining residences in other parts of the country.
She said she was also getting her Texas driver's license and hoped to apply for a Texas medical license since the state didn't offer reciprocity with Washington D.C. and Virginia.
This was notable because Salerno, a board-certified internist and gerontologist, said she very much would like to keep her hand in medicine by volunteering at a free clinic. Still, she doesn't expect to schedule regular clinic time since she probably wouldn't be easily available to her elderly patients given her new day-job schedule.
She also had experience with younger patients at the VA and when she volunteered at a human rights clinic in D.C., submitting medical affidavits documenting physical abuse as a requirement for those seeking asylum in the U.S.
“I think I was destined to become a physician, even though I didn't know it until my late-20s,” she said, adding that when she was a girl she had read about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S., and had developed an interest in medicine.
Fascinated by science, she was attracted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but said she was dissuaded from applying by the nuns at her high school, who recommended instead Stonehill College, a small Roman Catholic liberal arts school south of Boston, where she was granted a full scholarship. Early on, however, she switched her major to history when she realized she didn't have the disposition to get up early enough to attend science classes.
An oral history project involving interviewing older patients at a local nursing home helped kindle her interest in geriatrics, and after graduating she became a reporter at nearby weekly newspaper, where she wrote about health and consumer issues among other things.
Next stop was Harvard School of Public Health, where she was a member of the 1976 inaugural class receiving MS degrees in the nascent area of health policy and management. Her advisor there was Harvey V. Fineman, MD, PhD, the current President of the IOM, for whom she would work years later.
She was then offered a job as a policy analyst on a national health insurance initiative by Karen Davis, PhD, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health during the Carter administration.
“We were sitting there and making policy without understanding the implications for clinical practice and I thought wouldn't it be cool to be a doctor and take care of patients while studying policy?”
That brought her back to Boston, where she graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1985, doing the Boston-Washington commute for four years. She also had two daughters and one son during her residency and fellowship training—an experience, she said, that helped her overcome her former reluctance to start the day early.
Salerno said that with Fineman's second and final term as IOM President approaching, she began thinking about other opportunities, and it was the call from a headhunter earlier this year that piqued her interest in Komen.
Involved with Komen Races and Walks Since the 1990s
She said that she had been involved in Komen races and walks since the 1990s, originally as a member of the VA team, and she noted that shortly before she had any idea she'd be working for the organization, her daughter called with the news that she had become involved in the first Komen race in Wilmington, N.C.
“It was a natural for me to come here. It enabled me to take all my passion about policy, research, science, and patients and put it all in a single package focusing on key health issues. The brand may be a little tarnished, but it's still stellar, with an incredible grassroots network and top scientists involved.”
Salerno's job description includes responsibility for day-to-day operation of the organization and setting Komen's strategic vision. She said she has spent the past month taking stock of the organization and getting to know its current staff. There are some positions that have to be filled, she said, and there will be some organizational structure shifting to increase efficiencies in the organization's commitment to research, community health, advocacy, and global programs.
Salerno said that Komen will approach its mission comprehensively with its chapters and that she would be visiting as many local chapters as she could before the end of the year. She's also met with Komen's Scientific Advisory Board, and plans to grow the organization's research portfolio, continue supporting young investigators, providing access to women in underserved communities, and looking at the environmental issues related to breast cancer risk.
She's also especially proud of the recently announced collaboration of Komen, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, and the Young Survival Coalition to Document the Collateral Damage of Breast Cancer—and hopes the effort will serve as an example of future collaborations with advocates and researchers.
“Komen is a family committed to seeing an end to breast cancer by doing everything we can,” she said. “We're all in this together and we want to take things to the next level by investing most wisely to prevent breast cancer.”
Next Acts in Oncology
Part of a continuing series of profiles of prominent clinicians and researchers making significant, and often surprising, latter-stage career changes to seek new challenges that continue their contributions to the cancer and overall medical communities.