Promoting Mentorship for Women in Oncology: A Q&A With Dr. Carolyn Runowicz

Dr. Carolyn Runowicz smiling facing forward in a clinical setting. She is wearing a white coat and pearl necklace.

When Carolyn Runowicz, MD, FASCO, was a medical student in the 1970s, women had very few avenues for accessing research mentorship and advancing in the field of medicine—oncology included. Today, however, her career is a testament to how times have changed.

Now a globally recognized leader in gynecologic cancer, Dr. Runowicz is tenured professor at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine Florida International University in Miami, Florida, and a role model for faculty, residents, and students. In 2023, she received the Hologic, Inc. Endowed Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC) Mentorship Award from Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation. But reaching these career milestones and mentorship roles took a lot of tenacity and perseverance.

In the following Q&A, Dr. Runowicz talks about the enduring impact of mentorship for early-career researchers and what drives her to continue pursuing treatment breakthroughs for patients with gynecologic cancers.

CR: What motivated you to spend your career advancing research and care for patients with gynecologic cancers? 

When I was a medical student, we had the first two summers off to explore career paths and shadow physician-scientists. I received funding support to work in oncology. During my training, I met Dr. George Lewis, a giant in the field of gynecologic oncology. He was my first mentor in medical school. Dr. Lewis’ enthusiasm was contagious. He loved providing care for patients with cancer. He started a group that united gynecologic oncologists across the country in pursuing clinical trials. His mentorship encouraged me to do my residency in obstetrics and gynecology so that I could pursue gynecologic oncology.

Later, after two years of fellowship, I stayed on as a young attending physician at Mount Sinai in New York, where I met another one of my mentors, Dr. Jim Holland. At the time, many patients with ovarian cancer were dying, and those who lived were facing a lot of abdominal pain. Dr. Holland and his colleagues were leading a clinical trial to use the drug cisplatin, which went on to revolutionize the care of patients with ovarian cancer.

Although cisplatin didn't cure ovarian cancer, it gave patients a much better quality of life and helped to significantly extend their lives. In cancer research, you don't hit a home run every time, but I was present for the introduction and launch of very impactful treatments. Witnessing these milestones really opened my eyes to the importance of clinical trials.

CR: How did you first find yourself mentoring early career oncology professionals and cancer researchers, and why was it so important for you to do so? 

After two years of fellowship at my initial institution, I felt ready to start a division. The chairman believed in me, and so I did it. We formed a division of gynecology/oncology and got a board-approved gynecology/oncology fellowship.

When you start a fellowship program, you automatically take on the role of mentor, and I had already learned so much from amazing role models and mentors. That's how I got into the business of mentoring. As I advanced in my own clinical and research careers, I wanted to serve as a guide for emerging oncology professionals and help them conquer some of the hurdles that I overcame.

CR: Why is it particularly important to mentor and support women in cancer research? 

In 1973, when I was starting medical school, there were only 15 women out of more than 200 students in my class. A male professor delivered one of the introductory speeches (I don't know if he was really a professor, but when you're a first-year medical student, everybody looks like a professor, right?). He looked at the 15 women—we were scattered about the audience—and he said, rather sarcastically, “You are taking up a male seat. I hope you have spectacular careers.”

I was struck by those words. Why would he single out the women? It became very clear to me that women in medicine needed extra support. In the late 70s and early 80s, it was important that women had mentors. Most of my mentors were men because there weren't a lot of women in medicine at the time.

CR: How does mentoring the next generation of oncology professionals ultimately help to advance research and care for patients? 

I think training the next generation of oncology professionals is among the biggest contributions that one can make to advancing cancer care. We encourage newer physician-scientists to ask key questions, have an inquiring mind, and be willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard in the lab and clinic. Mentors help to ensure that early-career oncologists provide the best possible care to patients, encourage more patients to enroll in clinical trials, and enable clinical and translational research to continue in the long term.

About Dr. Carolyn Runowicz
The author of more than 200 scientific articles, Dr. Runowicz has launched and led many innovative clinical trials in the development of novel therapies for gynecologic cancers. Through the years, her research has focused on clinical trials for patients with gynecologic cancers and in the advancement of cancer prevention. Additionally, Dr. Runowicz has served in leadership roles at several major cancer organizations: She was the first gynecologic oncologist to serve on the Board of Directors of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (2011–2015); the first woman president of the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists (2000); president of the American Cancer Society (2005); and chair on the National Cancer Advisory Board (2006–2010).