Cheryl Willman, M.D. has been named Executive Director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and Director of Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center. Mayo Clinic is the nation’s top-ranked health care delivery system and hospital.
In her new role, Dr. Willman will have full authority and responsibility for Mayo Clinic’s cancer mission (clinical cancer care delivery, research, education and training, and community outreach and partnerships) and will lead the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center programs in Minnesota (Rochester), Arizona (Phoenix/Scottsdale), and Florida (Jacksonville), as well as newly developing Mayo Clinic global cancer programs in London, England and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
"Dr. Willman has an outstanding track record of innovation and success as the architect and leader of a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, serving the needs of the diverse population of New Mexico," says Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., President and CEO of Mayo Clinic. "Her accomplishments, experience, and outstanding reputation in the national cancer community make her the right choice to lead Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center."
Dr. Willman will join Mayo Clinic in August 2021 from The University of New Mexico, where she has served as the Director and CEO of the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center for 20 years. Under Dr. Willman's leadership, the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center has become one of the most preeminent National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation.
“Dr. Willman has been a pioneer in cancer care and research, making an incredible impact here at UNM and throughout New Mexico,” said Doug Ziedonis, UNM EVP for UNM Health Sciences and CEO of the UNM Health System. “She is well poised to lead the Mayo Cancer Center to new heights. I am confident in the outstanding leaders at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center who will continue the great work that has been achieved under her leadership and help UNM continue a legacy of top-tier patient care, education, research, and community outreach.” Dr. Willman and her husband, Dr. Ross Zumwalt, a forensic pathologist and former Chief of the State Office of the Medical Investigator, will maintain faculty appointments and affiliation with UNM and the UNM Health Sciences Center as they transition to their new roles at Mayo Clinic.
In Service to New Mexico
“My leadership skills have grown through the most enriching experience and challenge in my life: the opportunity to successfully develop a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center at UNM from “the ground up” in just 15 years,” said Dr. Willman. “With tremendous support from UNM, the State of New Mexico, and the communities we serve, we built the cancer center with a clear purpose and an ethical imperative: to assure that all New Mexicans would have access to state-of-the-art cancer treatment and the opportunity to participate in advances in cancer research conducted in a collaborative respectful way, right here in their home state, surrounded by family and friends who love and support them.”
Willman and her team’s strategy took advantage of New Mexico’s opportunities and challenges including access to the nation’s most advanced science and technology and the challenge of addressing and overcoming overwhelming cancer health disparities in urban and rural communities and Tribal Nations. “In our science, we focused on discovering the causes and developing the cures and means to prevent cancers that disproportionately affect the people of New Mexico. Our clinical mission was to not only develop state of the art cancer diagnosis and treatment facilities at UNM in Albuquerque, but also a statewide collaborative network in partnership with community-based health care systems and cancer practices.” In education, we sought to provide opportunities to train members of all of our communities in cancer medicine, research, and public health.”
One of the most preeminent NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation
When Willman and her team started in 2000, the UNM Cancer Center had 12 cancer physicians in various oncology specialties and $7 million in cancer research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, and other agencies. Today, the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center has 143 board-certified medical, surgical, radiation, gynecologic, and pediatric cancer physicians, and 106 cancer scientists who are awarded over $50 million annually in federal funding for cancer research. Under Willman’s leadership, the UNM Cancer Center achieved designation and federal funding from the National Cancer Institute in 2005, and in 2015, was designated as one of the nation’s pre-eminent National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, the highest federal designation status awarded to only the top 3% of cancer centers in the nation.
“Cheryl Willman is truly a visionary leader and has been a significant agent of change for not only the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center, but also for our University and the entire state of New Mexico,” said UNM President Garnett S. Stokes. “Her contributions and those of the incredible team she has brought together have helped to shape the world-class cancer care our patients experience today.”
Leading in World-Class Quality Patient Care, Innovative Cancer Research and Education
“The UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center has an outstanding leadership team, and I am confident that they will lead the center to new heights and will continue to have a tremendous impact on the people of New Mexico,” said Dr. Willman. Alan Tomkinson, Ph.D., will assume the role of Interim Director of the Cancer Center and as Principal Investigator of the Center’s NCI Cancer Center Support Grant. Carolyn Muller, M.D., currently Associate Director for Clinical Research, will serve as Interim Deputy Director of the Center’s NCI Cancer Center Support Grant. Zoneddy Dayao, M.D., will continue in her role as Deputy Director for Clinical Affairs and Chief Medical Officer, in charge of the center’s cancer care delivery mission.
Dr. Willman is a pioneer in the field of cancer precision medicine. Her own research focuses on the use of genomic, next-generation genome sequencing and computational technologies to discover novel cancer-causing genomic mutations that can be translated to better cancer diagnostics and therapeutics. She co-led the National Cancer Institute's Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments Project, also known as TARGET. A component of the NCI Cancer Genome Atlas Project (TCGA), TARGET focused on genomic sequencing of high-risk leukemias in children and adults. Through these studies, she and her collaborators discovered novel leukemia-causing mutations more frequently seen in Hispanics and American Indians, providing insights into why these groups had historically failed to respond to treatments developed primarily through studies of non-Hispanic Whites. These discoveries have been translated to several national clinical trials for leukemia sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, leading to significant improvements in patient outcomes.
Dr. Willman, her colleagues at the University of New Mexico, and collaborators from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen; AZ) and the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health (Rapid City, SD and Window Rock, AZ) are now leading one of the nation's National Cancer Institute Participant Engagement-Cancer Genome Sequencing Research Centers. Through collaboration and partnerships with Tribal Nations in New Mexico and Arizona, they are focused on discovering the genomic, environmental, and behavioral mechanisms underlying cancers that disproportionately affect American Indians and Hispanics, leading to disparities in incidence and outcome. Through culturally respectful community engagement and real-time return of clinical genomic sequencing results to American Indian patients and engagement of communities, they seek to assure beneficence of this work and to improve patient lives. Dr. Willman will continue to lead and expand this initiative here at UNM as she transitions to her new role at Mayo Clinic.
About Dr. Cheryl Willman
Dr. Willman has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for more than 30 years. She is a highly cited physician-scientist who has published over 250 papers, reporting her work in the highest-quality medical and scientific journals. She also holds 11 patents or patents pending.
She has received numerous awards from the National Cancer Institute, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and W.M. Keck Foundation, among others. She also was a co-founder and president of the Association for Molecular Pathology and is a member of the Department of Energy Women in Science Hall of Fame.
Dr. Willman serves on the National Cancer Institute's Board of Scientific Advisors, the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, the National Cancer Institute-Department of Energy Collaborative Working Group, and the scientific advisory boards of 10 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers. She has received several distinguished public service awards, including the 16th Governor's Award for Outstanding New Mexico Women in 2001; the New Mexico Distinguished Public Service Award, 2005; the New Mexico La Estrella Award, 2013; and the New Mexico Humanitarian Award, 2014. In 2017, she was elected as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.
Dr. Willman received her medical degree in 1981 from Mayo Medical School, now Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, in Rochester. She received one of the first Physician-Scientist Awards in 1984 from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Willman completed her residency and postdoctoral training in pathology and cancer research at Mayo Clinic, the University of New Mexico and University of Washington.