May 8, 2017 - While she always knew that she wanted to be a physician, Worta McCaskill-Stevens (M’85), MD, MS, did not start medical school until age 30. But having that goal allowed her to take her time and take advantage of different opportunities that presented themselves along the way.
Now a nationally known medical oncologist at the National Cancer Institute with expertise in leading clinical trials in the community, McCaskill-Stevens is preparing to share those lessons with graduates from her alma mater at the School of Medicine commencement ceremony on May 21. She will also receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree at the ceremony.
Before enrolling at the School of Medicine, McCaskill-Stevens worked as an intern at Time magazine, and was a medical editor at Marcel Dekker and the Alan Guttmacher Institute. “I was trying to learn everything I could about medicine,” she says.
At Georgetown, she soaked up the spirit of cura personalis. During the days when her son was dropped off after school at the Pre-Clinical Science Building, where he waited for her to complete her classes in biochemistry and physiology, McCaskill-Stevens was already looking for ways to implement her new knowledge. At a dinner organized by the American Medical Student Association, she met a faculty member who would help shape her career path.
“At Georgetown, It Was All People and Opportunities”
McCaskill-Stevens was seated with a doctor who was leading the breast cancer program at GUMC. “He was so passionate about understanding and treating breast cancer,” she remembers. “He allowed me to round with him. And we wrote a grant together to look at the adolescence of breast cancer patients. We got a little money for the study and I was so excited.”
McCaskill-Stevens says her path became clear. “At Georgetown, I saw people who were committed and I saw the passion. I felt the Georgetown community was very strong and despite having a full plate, I took advantage of a lot of activities that were instrumental to where I went. I also learned the importance of a diverse workforce in medicine and how to think about responsibilities within your profession and to underserved communities and populations.”
After graduating from the School of Medicine, completing a residency program in internal medicine at Georgetown and a medical oncology fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, McCaskill-Stevens took a position at Indiana University Cancer Center as co-director of the Breast Care and Research Center.
Encouraging minority communities to participate in clinical trials
Then, opportunity embraced McCaskill-Stevens again.
“Clinical trials had become important to me because it is from clinical trials that we develop standards of care, where we answer questions for which there are significant research gaps,” she says. “And then, in my field, I was called to participate in strategies to enhance minorities to participate in clinical trials.”
She moved to the NCI in 1998 and became program director for the Study of Tamoxifen and Raloxifene (STAR), one of the largest breast cancer prevention studies ever undertaken. In the trial, conducted at 500 centers in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, both drugs greatly reduced the risk of developing invasive breast cancer in women at high risk.
McCaskill-Stevens also assumed responsibilities for breast cancer prevention and is now director of the NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP), a community-based clinical trials network launched in 2014.
NCORP provides access to clinical trials to individuals in the communities where they live. Investigators, cancer care providers, academic institutions and other organizations conduct multi-site cancer clinical trials and studies in diverse populations in health care systems across the US and Puerto Rico. Of the 46 community sites comprising NCORP, 12 are minority/underserved community sites.
Pursuing her passions
Through NCORP, McCaskill-Stevens pursues her research passions: breast cancer; cancer clinical trials, including increasing the participation of minorities and other underserved populations; global cancer disparities; and to support molecular research to identify those who will best benefit from cancer prevention interventions.
Curiosity and opportunity are fundamental to passion, she says. “When one matches curiosity and opportunity with hard work, training and a great mentor, the possible contributions to your communities, to the world and to yourself, are endless.”