First Female CEO for 107-Year-Old Cancer Organization

Nick Mulcahy

April 13, 2021

Oncology researcher and administrator Karen Knudsen, MBA, PhD will be the next chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society (ACS) and its advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), starting in June. 

The hiring of a female CEO "signals a new era" for the American Cancer Society, which was founded in 1913, according to a press statement from the organization.

Dr Karen Knudsen

All of the group's past top leaders have been men, even though the organization in its early years had benefited greatly from the efforts of one of its divisions, the Women's Field Army. In 1935, the society had about 15,000 volunteers providing information to the public; over the next 3 years, the Army, which was launched in 1936, helped swell those volunteer ranks to 150,000. The American Society for the Control of Cancer, as the organization was known then, specifically recruited women "because the types of cancer that strike women hardest — cancer of the uterus and breast — may be cured in seventy per cent of the cases if taken in time."  

Notably, Knudsen will also be the first scientific and oncology researcher to head the organization in the modern era, according to the ACS. She has a bachelor's degree in biology from the George Washington University; a PhD in biological sciences from the University of California San Diego; and an MBA from Temple University Fox School of Business. 

Knudsen is currently the executive vice president of oncology services at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia and enterprise director of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated center of excellence.

"As director of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Health, I've experienced firsthand how the American Cancer Society improves the lives of cancer patients and their families through discovery, advocacy, and direct patient support," Knudsen said in the press statement.

"Dr Knudsen is exactly what the American Cancer Society needs right now," said John Alfonso, CPA, chair of the American Cancer Society Board of Directors. "She is an accomplished researcher, innovative healthcare executive, dynamic leader of a prestigious cancer center, and true thought leader in the fight against cancer nationwide." 

Knudsen is credited as an author on multiple recently published scientific papers, including PARP-1 Regulates DNA Repair Factor Availability; Implementation of Germline Testing for Prostate Cancer: Philadelphia Prostate Cancer Consensus Conference 2019; and Cancer and the Circadian Clock.

She is also president, Association of American Cancer Institutes, a member of the board of directors for the American Association of Cancer Research, and is on the board of advisors for the National Cancer Institute. Knudsen is active in committees for the American Society for Clinical Oncology.

Knudsen's appointment and the change in leadership comes about two and a half years after the resignation of its high-profile chief medical officer Otis Brawley, MD, reportedly over "his dismay over some commercial partnerships" that the society entered into, according to an article in The New York Times.

At that time, the newspaper noted that commercial partnerships, including one with Herbalife International, a controversial supplements company, "have become more important in recent years as the organization's fund-raising has declined." Fundraising generated just over $1 billion in 2007, but in 2017, the amount fell to $736 million.

In 2019, according to the latest annual report online, the ACS indicated it publicly fundraised $710 million.

Nick Mulcahy is an  award-winning  senior journalist for Medscape, focusing on oncology, and can be reached at  nmulcahy@medscape.net and on Twitter:   @MulcahyNick

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