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Face to Face with Dr. Cheryl Willman

Dr. Cheryl Willman

Editor’s note: Dr. Cheryl Willman has announced she is stepping down as director of the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center to take charge of cancer programs at the Mayo Clinic. She took time to talk about growing up as a small-town girl in the Midwest and her work in New Mexico, which she says will always be her “spiritual home.”


Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Marguerite Clamme Willman needn’t have worried.

Cheryl Willman at medical school graduation with maternal grandmother Marguerite Clamme Willman. (Courtesy of Cheryl Willman)

Her eldest granddaughter, Cheryl, did turn out to be a “real” doctor – as well as a scientist on the front lines of cancer research and care.

Dr. Cheryl Willman, who led the transformation of the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center from a tiny operation into a world-class facility serving more than 13,000 patients annually during her 20-plus years as director, says it was her grandmother – a strong-willed, intense and wonderful woman – who influenced her to pursue medical school. But she had some reservations about her granddaughter’s career choice after that.

“She came to my Mayo Medical School graduation. They were so proud of me, but they thought what a really great doctor did was come back to that little town and deliver babies and set bones. My grandmother couldn’t figure out what I was doing in this research academic thing, and when I went off to National Institutes of Health to train, she was like … ‘I thought you were going to be a real doctor.’ ”

She was, but at the forefront of a new breed of physician scientists.

Willman was in her second year at Mayo Medical School when she was accepted at the National Institutes of Health’s medical science training program. “Mayo allowed me to step out of medical school for six months to go to NIH. I had two mentors there, and one of them was Anthony Fauci.”

A native of Hartford City, Indiana, and a graduate of Bettendorf High School in Iowa and St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Willman says she was “scared to death” when she started the program.

“I thought, ‘I’m just this Midwestern girl, and I’m with all these people from great medical schools like Harvard and Yale.’ But it was an amazing experience. My first patient with Dr. Fauci was an 8-year-old boy who had multi-system inflammatory disease – the same disease we’ve seen in kids with COVID. We called it Kawasaki’s disease at the time, and who knows what kind of virus caused this child’s disease?”

Willman said the program “had this huge clinic treating immune disorders, and that’s what I did my training in – laboratory science. After that, I was going to be a physician scientist. No question.

Building a great program

Asked about highs and lows of her time in New Mexico, Willman spends a lot more time talking about the upside.

“I like being around our purpose every day. Building a great program. Providing high-quality care to all regardless of ability to pay.” She goes out of her way to praise physicians and others who provide that direct care.

She also cites working with tribal patients and having close relations with tribal leaders.

Her participation in the Rev. Richard Rohr’s Living School for Action and Contemplation has helped bring the meaning of her work into focus and helped her decide to make the jump to Mayo.

Rohr, an Albuquerque priest of the Franciscan order, also is known for his daily meditations and has been described by PBS as “one of the most popular spirituality authors and speakers in the world.”

“I don’t go to church, but I’m deeply religious,” Willman said. “I have a very strong faith. It’s too tough to do the work I do in cancer without that. You have to believe there is a greater purpose in the world and that there is an afterlife.

“What you have to understand is that it is your job to make this a healing path. You can’t control whether someone lives or dies. That’s God’s determination, and it’s that person’s path. It’s your job to make that path beautiful. Give them the benefit of all the modern medical tools and psychological well-being to allow them to go peacefully into survivorship or death in a beautiful way.”

As for the hardest part of the job?

“University politics. I don’t want to be negative, and I’m not going to be, and it’s not just here. If you talk to any cancer director in the U.S., we all commiserate it’s the academic politics that are no fun. You have to create a moat around your program and work to defend it – kind of a warrior defending what you built.”

Serving everyone

That empathy is illustrated by an incident during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The pandemic affected everyone and has been a special challenge for health facilities like the Cancer Center, which was still screening all visitors earlier this month. Willman, who said with a hint of pride that there have been no known cases of confirmed transmission of the virus in the facility, recalled the special hardship for the period when patients were not allowed to have anyone from the outside with them.

“I argued that we had really sick patients who needed someone. Mostly we were allowed to do that, but there were a few weeks where we couldn’t.

“One morning, there was this man who was getting the screening that you just had inside the radiation and oncology entrance when he started vomiting. I helped clean up. He was embarrassed and ashamed – he shouldn’t have been – and I saw his wife standing outside, distraught because she couldn’t be there to help him. So I went outside and told her to come in. She said, ‘I’m not allowed to.’

“I told her that, ‘I’ll sign. I’m breaking the rules today. If they want to fire me, they can fire me, but your husband needs you.

Going pre-med

Willman’s family was living in Hartford City, Indiana, when her father was offered the job as head of finance for the Lutheran Church in America. “We moved to Davenport, Iowa, when I was in middle school. In high school, I was a little wild. The Vietnam War was going, and I thought maybe I would go to law school and be an activist. Fix the world’s problems and be a civil rights lawyer. Then I started college and took a science class, and that was that.

“My dad had pushed me to go to a good church school, and I got a good scholarship at St. Olaf,” a small Lutheran college in Minnesota that was fairly close to home. “The science facilities and programs were great. I did math and science all the way through and ended up going pre-med, which kind of disappointed my advisers, because they wanted me to do ‘hard science.’ ”

Willman was accepted into several medical schools, but “growing up in the Midwest, when I got into Mayo, my family said (that I) wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

Physician scientist

Willman did residency training at UNM but also had been accepted as one of the first 28 NIH physician scientists.

She saw patients and made rounds but also developed UNM’s first molecular diagnostics lab as she focused on leukemia as an area of expertise. Later, she taught at the medical school and developed several courses. Her curriculum vitae is 37 pages. She has written about 250 papers, received numerous awards and holds 11 patents.

“I loved the science, and as I went along I did less clinical. Today, I don’t do any direct clinical care. But I do a lot of consulting and referrals from around the country and probably seven to eight calls a week with people here in town (dealing with cancer).”

It was her work taking a small cancer center at UNM to a world-class facility in a decade that stands out as a signature achievement. She was appointed in 1999, and during her tenure the center has gone from a team of 12 physicians and $7 million in annual cancer research funding to 143 physicians and more than 100 cancer scientists who receive more than $50 million a year in research money.

The center moved into a specially designed new building in 2009 and in 2015 received the coveted National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers classification, a federal designation awarded to just 3% of cancer centers nationally. That designation is on track for another five-year renewal.

At Mayo, Willman will oversee the entire cancer mission in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida, along with programs in England and the United Arab Emirates.

And she drove a bargain: Mayo has committed to work on providing treatment to all cancer patients, either directly or through partnership and collaboration. “It was the ethical thing to do,” she said, and the CEO at Mayo is enthusiastic about it.

“In our discussions, I told them that in New Mexico we were able to treat the richest and poorest and don’t turn anyone away. I said I can’t be running a cancer program at Mayo where the access bar is so high you aren’t providing care for everyone. If you’re not willing to do that, I’m just not the right person. So they’ve made a huge commitment.”

She also turned down the job until she could take care of some unfinished business here.

First, there was the coveted renewal of the federal designation. And, there was a $20 million grant request pending to do genetic analysis of cancers on Native Americans and Hispanics aimed at finding possible environmental factors in causing cancer. Finally, there was pending legislation in Santa Fe to fund an expansion that will allow new technologies such as cyberknives and bone marrow transplants to be added to the Cancer Center’s repertoire. She said it passed unanimously.

With those checked off the list, and Mayo’s promise to offer care to previously underserved communities, Willman accepted the offer.

Passionate

Willman is high-energy and passionate about most everything she does, from cancer care to gourmet cooking. She sleeps five to six hours a night, often nodding off at 9 p.m. and getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning. (She sent a text response for this story at 2:19 a.m.) She doesn’t hold back in conversation and admonishes herself for occasionally dropping the “f-bomb.”

She is a self-described “blue dog” Democrat – “I am not a progressive” – who has voted for presidential candidates of both major parties.

Willman is married to Ross Zumwalt, who headed the Office of Medical Investigator here. They have three children, David, Christopher and Tenley Ann. They all live here, as do her parents.

She and her husband met shortly after she had an attractive offer at a renowned cancer center.

“I had met Ross two weeks earlier,” she said. “It was instant.”

They married in 1988.

Zumwalt, who she said has trained 15% of the pathologists in the United States and who wants to build a joint UNM/Mayo program in forensics, is part of the reason Willman never left Albuquerque.

Her favorite hobby – again, from her grandmother – is gourmet cooking. She’s done cooking schools here and abroad. Her best dish? “French Asian fusion with fish. It’s fabulous.”

She has done cycling, was a runner until the knees said stop and shares golf as a hobby with her husband. “Ross is a good golfer. The deal we made when we got married is he would learn to ski if I would learn to play golf.”

She prefers playing at a course in Santa Fe where we “can get away and where I don’t know people so I’m not talking about cancer on the ninth hole.”

‘Spiritual home’

Willman will be spending time at Mayo operations in other states, but the family will keep its residence here.

“I told them I didn’t want to move to Rochester, and they said, ‘Not a problem.’ ”

Willman considers New Mexico her “spiritual home.”

“The first time I visited it was winter of 1980 – and colder than hell in Minnesota. I got off the plane and looked at the blue sky. The air hit me. I got a rental car and headed north and had this huge reaction that this is where I’m supposed to be. I still feel that way. I just feel such a connection to the physical beauty and the people here, and I won’t ever lose that.”

At this point in her career, she has come to terms with what she does and the inevitable outcome for some cancer patients.

Reduced to the simplest terms, Willman believes her purpose is to build a system that gives patients the best treatment possible so they have the physical ability to deal with the spiritual aspect of their cancer. Her personal goal: to live in a world of love and do good works.

It’s that vision that has guided her here, and that she is taking from Albuquerque to run the cancer program in one of the world’s renowned medical institutions.


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