Former ASCO CEO Allen S. Lichter Wins Distinguished Achievement Award

Former ASCO CEO Allen S. Lichter Wins Distinguished Achievement Award

Dr. Allen S. Lichter, credit Mark Finkenstaedt
Allen S. Lichter, MD, FASCO, was involved with countless initiatives and received many accolades during his celebrated career in oncology. His leadership roles include a 10-year tenure as ASCO CEO and serving as dean of the University of Michigan Medical School. But he said that being named the recipient of ASCO’s 2017 Distinguished Achievement Award feels like “a wonderful and unexpected surprise.”

“I feel I have been honored beyond any expectation that I ever had,” said Dr. Lichter, who is now retired and divides his time between Michigan and Florida.

The Distinguished Achievement Award recognizes leadership or mentorship in any subspecialty of oncology that has helped ASCO members and/or their patients.

“To me, the reward of being CEO of ASCO was, in fact, the chance to be the CEO of ASCO. To help advance the organization and work with the excellent staff—the rest was icing on the cake,” Dr. Lichter said.

His accomplishments at ASCO include growing membership, establishing new programs, and the creation of ASCO’s electronic health information database, CancerLinQ. Through his long career as a clinician, he witnessed the transformation of cancer treatment from chemotherapy, which affects growth of every cell—cancerous or not—into personalized, targeted therapies. Oncologists have made advances that clinicians in years past had only dreamed about, he said. But such progress takes much collaboration, dedication, and effort.

“It takes a long time to become an overnight sensation,” Dr. Lichter said. “It takes a long time for it all to come together to do something important.”

Watching Oncology Evolve

Such insight comes from decades of collective research, study, and clinical care.

“Oncology is the embodiment of a team, with the ability to bring multiple specialties and talents together, because cancer affects every organ in the body,” Dr. Lichter said. “Over the years, we have come to understand the complexity of cancer in the sense that it is dozens, if not hundreds, of diseases with different causes.”

As one example, Dr. Lichter cites the growth of immunotherapy adding to traditional chemotherapy to better target and eradicate cancer cells based on their makeup and location.

Dr. Lichter speaking at the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting.
“[This progress] really shows the importance of basic research and the tenacity it takes to develop enough knowledge and insight to become useful in patients,” he said. “This is work that has been going on for probably 100 years, and then progressing over time to the point where immunotherapy has taken its place as one of the therapeutic modalities we use.”

Learning From Patients

Throughout his career, Dr. Lichter taught many budding oncologists, medical residents, peers, and colleagues about medicine, oncology, and radiotherapy.

He earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees from the University of Michigan and studied radiation oncology at the University of California, San Francisco, before becoming a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. Later, he worked as the director of the Radiation Therapy Section of the National Cancer Institute’s Radiation Oncology Branch before returning to the University of Michigan to become a professor and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology in 1984, and later the dean of the Medical School in 1998. He became CEO of ASCO in 2006 before stepping down in 2016.

But with all of these clinical, teaching, and leadership experiences, it’s been his patients who have taught him the most.

“One thing you learn over time is to calibrate when to move ahead aggressively and when to back off,” Dr. Lichter said. “The decision not to treat is much more complex and fraught with difficulty than the decision to treat. The decision is delicate, and it takes deep understanding that develops over time.”

That lesson has also helped him understand how to best support patients at the end of their lives, he said.

Dr. Lichter with his wife, Evie, at a Conquer Cancer Foundation event in 2016.
“Knowing how to allow patients to enjoy as much pleasure from their remaining days as possible versus treating aggressively right until the last second [are important distinctions]. These decisions are far from easy, but I think we have to embrace the possibility more and to entertain these other options for our patients,” Dr. Lichter said.

The Flourishing Medical Society

Just as Dr. Lichter has done much for oncology and ASCO, he said that ASCO has done much for cancer care. It’s remarkable considering the Society began in 1964 and oncology board certification launched only a few short years later in the early 1970s.

“[ASCO is] a young Society, especially compared with surgery or general internal medicine, but the impetus that ASCO and other oncology professional societies have given to this field for the last 50 years has been extremely important,” Dr. Lichter said. “Setting practice guidelines, journals, and meetings; supporting the field; and in general enhancing the field of oncology so that our patients and their families can benefit—[these things have] been deeply gratifying.”

The Society’s inclusive membership has been important too, he said.

“ASCO is the only professional organization that has a home for every oncology practitioner. In that respect, it is a reflection of the multidisciplinary team aspect of cancer care itself,” Dr. Lichter said.

That team aspect is also a reflection of how Dr. Lichter has achieved so much throughout his career—by working together with others to do so much for so many, both his patients and peers. And such efforts are the hallmark of this year’s winner of ASCO’s Distinguished Achievement Award.

—Cheryl Alkon