National Cancer Institute director shares cancer diagnosis: ‘I am truly in this together with you’

In a town hall, Monica Bertagnolli said she has breast cancer. She said her prognosis is good and she will remain in her post.

Just about two months after taking over as director of the National Cancer Institute, Monica Bertagnolli said she has breast cancer.

Bertagnolli disclosed her diagnosis in a town hall with staff, she said earlier this week.

“I was very recently diagnosed with early breast cancer,” she said in a statement. “The prognosis is very favorable.”

Bertagnolli said the cancer is “hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer” and appears to be confined to the breast. She said she will need surgery and possible additional treatment.

“Having been an oncologist my entire career, it was always - and still is - all about the patients and survivors,” she said. “It’s one thing to know about cancer as a physician, but it is another to experience it firsthand as a patient as well. To anyone with cancer today: I am truly in this together with you.”

Bertagnolli said she plans to remain in her post leading the NCI, part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government’s primary source of aid for medical research. She said she would take leave as needed with “extra support” of the cancer institute’s leadership team.

“I am thankful to be receiving excellent care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where I worked as a surgical oncologist for many years before coming to NCI in October,” she said in the statement.

She said she’s also enrolled in a clinical trial focused on cancer diagnosis, and is looking to contribute to studies of cancer that could lead to better treatment.

“I am grateful that I had access to effective screening and caught this early,” Bertagnolli said.

Bertagnolli is the 16th director of the National Cancer Institute, and she’s the first woman to hold the post. She’s one of a host of women in key health and federal research posts in President Biden’s administration. She succeeded Norman E. Sharpless, who stepped down in April 2022.

After taking the post in October, she wrote on Twitter, "Put simply, I hate cancer."

"The pain of lost patients and devastated families drives me to improve how we develop interventions and deliver #CancerCare for all. We must challenge conventional thinking and remove arbitrary restrictions."

President Biden has placed healthcare and medical research high atop his list of priorities, most notably with his “cancer moonshot.” Biden lost his son, Beau, to cancer, and has said he wants to end cancer as we know it, and see it become a treatable disease.

Bertagnolli joined the National Cancer Institute from Harvard Medical School, where she served as a professor in the field of surgical oncology. She also was a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a member of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment and Sarcoma Centers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

When she became director of the NCI, she outlined her top priorities.

“I see our work as aimed at three broad goals: understanding how cancer arises and what biological processes it disrupts; developing and testing new prevention and therapy approaches; and partnering with patients to develop ways for all people to receive the care that best meets their needs and, if they wish, to participate in research,” she said in a statement.

After sharing her cancer diagnosis, healthcare leaders shared their best wishes for a full recovery and praised her for helping others see the value of screening and detection.

Karen E. Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said, “We stand with her as she embarks on her own cancer journey.”

“Dr. Bertagnolli’s announcement is yet another reminder of the importance of breast cancer screening,” Knudsen said in a statement. “Breast cancer screening saves lives and is safe and effective. Screening tests can detect cancer before it starts or catch cancer early when it may be easier to treat.”

“Thank you for sharing your story to raise awareness of the importance of #breastcancer screening & the value of #clinicaltrials,” Tatiana Prowell, an oncologist, wrote on Twitter.

Fewer women have been getting breast cancer screenings in the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare leaders say. Some have delayed or postponed screenings and have had more advanced cancers when they did get checked out. In a poignant essay, Katie Couric disclosed she has breast cancer and was six months late for her screening, and she said she was grateful she didn’t wait longer.

While expressing optimism about her prognosis, Bertagnolli said she is in a waiting period and “there are things we don’t know.” But she said she is confident that answers about the right course of treatment will come in time, in part due to the research supported by the National Cancer Institute.

“I want everyone with cancer to know that they are not alone,” she said in the statement. “NCI is doing everything we can to work together—with all of society—to help more people with cancer live the full and active lives they deserve.”