Apr 21 • 8 min read

“Be bold and think differently. Anticipate the needs of patients and their families as they navigate an increasingly complex healthcare journey.”

Karen Knudsen, EMBA ’19, CEO of the American Cancer Society
Courtesy of American Cancer Society

Karen E. Knudsen, PhD, EMBA ’19, is passionate when talking about her role as CEO of the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the work being done every day to improve the lives of people with cancer and their families.

Her rich, deep history as both a cancer researcher and executive leader of cancer treatment centers, including at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Health, has brought a next-level energy to the fight against cancer.

“We’ve had intervention advances across the spectrum, everything from prevention and early detection, all the way through treatment mechanisms for cancers that had previously been thought to be lethal disease,” she says.

Most recently, Dr. Knudsen met with President Biden to discuss his administration’s Cancer Moonshot program which seeks to reduce the cancer death rate by 50% over the next 25 years and improve the experience of people living with and surviving cancer.

“We see ourselves as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the President and the nation in our ability to affect change,” she says. “We know that that will require a multifaceted approach and ACS is already very deep in execution.”

In addition to her MBA from the Fox School of Business at Temple University, Dr. Knudsen has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the George Washington University and a PhD in biological sciences from the University of California San Diego.

Founded in 1913, ACS has a presence in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, and actively advocates for local, state and national policies that enhance access to care.

You are coming up on the one-year mark as the first woman CEO of ACS. How has it felt to take the reins of this organization? Is there a specific part of the organization’s history that inspires you?

It’s hard to believe that I’m close to the one-year mark. I am the first woman CEO of the organization, but I’m also the first to come from oncology, so I bring an entirely different perspective.

I have long admired the impact of the American Cancer Society on reducing the burden of cancer across the country. Our organization has a long history of funding cancer research. We’re the largest funder of cancer research outside the US government. That research has funded 49 Nobel laureates and directly contributed to the 32% reduction in cancer mortality that we’re seeing now as a nation.

We still have a lot of work to do, but this organization has had such an impact. ACS was a wonderful partner for me and everything that I did as a cancer center director and head of the cancer service line at Jefferson and I know that’s true at Temple Health, the Fox Chase Cancer Center and at Penn Medicine.

In your role as a leading healthcare executive, how do you create and enact plans that alleviate the burdens cancer patients and their families face today? In what ways are these advocacy efforts making an impact on their lives?

It’s a great question and it’s actually the question. It comes back to why we exist.

At ACS, we exist because the burden of cancer is unacceptably high in this country. Our goal is to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, and we do so through a tripartite strategy.

We believe that the end to the 200 diseases we call cancer is through a combination of research, advocacy and direct patient support. Research gives us those breakthroughs in prevention, detection and cure. Advocacy then allows access. That has to do with things that people don’t think about every day, like access to cancer care, including but not limited to insurance coverage.

The third component is patient support. Our patient support pillar works in 5,000 communities across the country, providing transportation to cancer treatment, lodging near cancer centers, patient education, cancer screening and prevention programs as well as patient navigation, which helps cancer patients physically through their cancer care journey.

What recent innovations in cancer treatment and research do you believe have been most influential in moving the needle forward?

We’ve seen a number of advances, even in the last year. For example, imaging strategies for cancers are really quite important to treat early prostate cancer, and MRI imaging has come into play for early detection in men.

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death for men in this country, and when caught early, has a high expectation to cure versus metastatic disease, for which we have no durable cure. So, this is a really important one.

I also want to call out all the interventions that have come as associated with lung cancer. Research has enabled effective tobacco cessation programs, which has made a difference. We also now have effective screening mechanisms for early detection of lung cancer, which is a game-changer. We’re working to ensure that there’s enhanced access to lung cancer screening, especially for those who have been smokers throughout their lifetime.

We know that 50% of the new advances for lung cancer require or recommend what we call biomarker testing. This is when you take a little bit of the tumor, assess it, and then match the patient to the therapy that’s right for them.

We had our first advocacy win on biomarker testing in Illinois—the state is now required to pay for biomarker testing for patients with lung cancer. We’re taking that and moving it forward to 22 states this year.

Thinking about your time at the Fox School of Business, how has your EMBA education made an impact on you and your role at ACS?

The Fox Executive MBA program for me was just a phenomenal experience in every possible way.

When I decided to go seek my EMBA, I was already a healthcare executive, leading a large business across two states, heading research and healthcare for all of oncology for Jefferson Health. It was a unique time at Jefferson, which was engaging in a significant amount of merger and acquisitions.

The way that academic medicine does merger and acquisition is one way, but I couldn’t help but to think that I could benefit from learning from other disciplines. What does merger and acquisition look like in banking? What does it look like in a sales environment? What are the things that I might learn and bring back to my own team? That was my mindset going into the EMBA program and was actually the major driver.

What I did not expect was that even in areas where business was going incredibly well, there was something I had learned or experienced through either the didactic learning or interaction with my peers who were other executives in different disciplines that I could bring back to my own business. There were foundational things that I had not fully considered.

So as Jefferson went from three hospitals to 16—and now 18 since I left to lead ACS, there was much learning along the way. Having that EMBA behind me to think differently and bring new concepts at the executive level was really great.

One of the things that attracted me to the CEO role at ACS was something I recognized very well—merger that was not finished. Up until recently, ACS was 12 separate 501c3 organizations, each with its own leader, strategy and financial plan.

I inherited an organization that had gone through the beginnings of merger, but had not completed it from a strategic standpoint or from a cultural standpoint. This intrigued me and I felt empowered by both my experiences at Jefferson and what I learned at Temple’s EMBA program to take on that national challenge.

What skills did the EMBA teach you that you believe would benefit employees like yours who are working in healthcare?

I think there’s so much that could be learned in the EMBA program. If I go back and think about my time at Jefferson Health, even within my own cancer program, I recognized the need to provide support in strategic planning. It’s not something taught in academic medicine.

Leaders benefit from gaining competency in how to use a framework for strategic planning, how to tie that to a financial plan and to set metrics of success. That integrated strategic and financial planning core competency is something that I look for in my own executives at ACS, and I have brought integrated strategic and financial planning to the organization.

Finally, what advice do you have for the future healthcare leaders of tomorrow?

I would extend the guidance of something we believed at Jefferson Health, and that also inspires us at ACS: Be bold and think differently. Anticipate the needs of patients and their families as they navigate an increasingly complex healthcare journey.

It’s a little too easy in healthcare to get into a room and make decisions about what you think a patient wants and what you think their experience will be like in a new initiative you’re planning.

But engaging the community and the patients and families themselves in decision making, in my opinion, is critical for success.

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