Ellie Guardino, MD, Battled Others' Cancer but Has Lost to Her Own

Kate Johnson

April 26, 2021

The oncology community is mourning the loss of Ellie Guardino, MD, PhD, a compassionate physician-scientist who fought through her own diagnosis of metastatic melanoma while contributing to important advances in breast cancer treatment.

Dr Ellie Guardino Alamy



Guardino passed away on April 21 after living 13 years with the disease. She was 55 and is survived by her husband, Jeff Guardino, MD, and three children.

Family, friends, and colleagues have remarked that Guardino's diagnosis did not change her approach to life. If anything, it solidified her vision.

"Ellie was born to do something. Ellie was born to help people survive illnesses…to help better the world," said her oncologist, Charlotte Jacobs, MD, the Ben and A. Jess Shenson Professor of Medicine (Emerita) at Stanford University in a video Stanford tribute to Guardino.

After the diagnosis, "I had a chance to reevaluate whether I was doing everything I wanted to be doing, and the answer was yes, I wouldn't have done anything differently," said Guardino in a podcast interview a few months before her death

She described her purpose as being "to serve others and be impactful" and her passion "for making a difference and wanting to find curative therapies, or a way to prevent cancer altogether" as the driving force through her career.

"I do believe that in our lifetimes, we could in fact see the cures for all cancers," she said on NBC's Today Show last summer. "Cancer is a pandemic, just as COVID is a pandemic, and if we view it that way, we can accelerate the research."

When she was diagnosed with melanoma, Guardino was on the faculty at Stanford University, but 2 years later, she moved to Genentech as vice president and global head of personalized healthcare oncology. The move helped her maintain a practice but also fast-track her "higher purpose" of moving drugs through phase 3 trials and making them available for patients. At Genentech, she was responsible for the global filing of the company's T-DM1 (Kadcyla) and also worked on pertuzumab (Perjeta) and trastuzumab (Herceptin).

Maintaining her clinical work was extremely important to Guardino, who felt her patients helped her through her own cancer journey and vice versa. "One thing I often hear from my patients is this overwhelming sense of anxiety and stress...and I try to explain that to them that if you worry about tomorrow, you can't be present and enjoy your today.... No one is without fear, but getting to a place where you can manage it and live every day to the fullest is crucial.... I've taught my patients how to do that, and now it was real for me," she said.

For her, "faith over fear" was the way out of the dark places, and it helped her be a better patient.

"We have to embrace our community and our faith to be able to be successful. I don't think I'd be alive if it wasn't for all those people supporting me. I think that is as important as any medicine we get," said Guardino. "But I have faith that it's going to be okay no matter what. If there is a greater need or a plan that God has, I am with it."

In the end, a life with a mission, including service, buoyed Guardino.

"It's been an incredible life for me," she said, describing the privilege she felt to have contributed to advances in cancer treatment. "The biggest thing for all of us in this world is to feel we have had a purposeful life and opportunities to serve others in some way."

Guardino wanted her children to "always know you can achieve what you want to achieve or, like me, be open to other paths and other dreams as well...." She further advised them: "Wake up in the morning, look and see what you can do, what you can give, and enjoy the day."

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