Worta McCaskill-Stevens, M.D.: An Appreciation for a Driving Force in Cancer Prevention and Addressing Cancer Disparities

Date Posted

Worta McCaskill-Stevens, M.D., M.S.

Worta McCaskill-Stevens, M.D., a medical oncologist, former director of the NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP), and a tireless champion of addressing cancer disparities, passed away peacefully on November 15, 2023. We share our deep condolences with her family, friends, colleagues, and those she impacted in her accomplished and inspirational career.

“Worta held a lifelong commitment to advancing knowledge through clinical cancer research and the inclusion of minorities and underserved people in that research. She demonstrated this commitment in personal and professional avenues and was a role model and mentor to young investigators,” said Leslie Ford, M.D., Associate Director for Clinical Research for the NCI Division of Cancer Prevention. “Her leadership of the NCI Community Oncology Research Program, that emphasized those priorities, is the legacy she leaves behind.”

Dr. McCaskill-Stevens was a driving force in cancer prevention, detection, and symptom management clinical trials research on behalf of NCI for 25 years, and she was a true champion for the inclusion of those in racial and ethnic minority groups and underserved communities as both participants and researchers in these trials.

In August, then NCI Director Monica Bertagnolli, M.D. (now NIH Director), announced the creation of the NCI Worta McCaskill-Stevens Career Development Award for Community Oncology and Prevention Research (K12) at the 2023 NCORP Annual Meeting. In remarks there, Dr. Bertagnolli said, “She is a leader and visionary in designing clinical oncology research to help all populations benefit from its advances. Throughout her career, Worta’s passion and commitment to follow the road less traveled have truly changed the trajectory of community cancer research and have inspired others to follow in her footsteps.”

A message from First Lady Dr. Jill Biden presented at the meeting congratulated Dr. McCaskill-Stevens on this “well-deserved honor.” She wrote, “As First Lady, I have seen how the NCORP network you have built is making a difference for people in communities across our country. With this new fellowship, more people will follow the path you have pioneered—ensuring everyone can benefit from cancer research.”

Early Career

In 1985, Dr. McCaskill-Stevens graduated from Georgetown University Medical School, where she received the Sarah E. Steward Award for Leadership in Medicine and the Kaiser Family Fund Award for Excellence in Academic Achievement. She trained in internal medicine at Georgetown and completed her medical oncology fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in 1991.

Dr. McCaskill-Stevens worked as a breast cancer oncologist before joining NCI in 1998 as a Medical Officer to facilitate research within what was then called the Community Clinical Oncology Program (CCOP), for which she planned and managed a portfolio of research activities with an emphasis on the design, development, implementation, and oversight of phase II and III cancer clinical trials. With her extensive experience and expertise in the biology of breast cancer and the full spectrum of clinical care for persons at risk and people with breast cancer, she worked on the Study of Tamoxifen and Raloxifene (STAR), a study of nearly 20,000 postmenopausal women at increased risk of breast cancer.

As part of an innovative strategy to increase patient enrollment, Dr. McCaskill-Stevens initiated the first corporate site for STAR participation at General Motors. This approach has been the model for other corporate collaborations since. She also mentored and recruited STAR sites that served ethnic and racial minority groups, executing the important process of building trust between academic institutions, federal agencies, and communities.

In 2008, Dr. McCaskill-Stevens was invited to the Jules Bordet Institute in Belgium as a visiting scholar to conduct a new analysis of disease-free survival according to amplification of the HER2 protein in patients enrolled in the international HERA trial. This project stemmed from controversy in clinical response to the now common biological agent trastuzumab. She initiated the project, worked with the international team, and published results in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2009.

Also in 2009, she went on to chair the NIH State-of-the-Science Conference on ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) because of her expertise in breast cancer prevention and treatment. She was able to bring key investigators together to discuss the important issues and provided a compassionate approach to understanding the medical, psychological, and health care issues specific to DCIS.

A New Community Oncology Program

She then turned her efforts toward creating a new community oncology research program, combining aspects of the 30 years of experience from the CCOP and the newer NCI Community Cancer Centers Program (NCCCP), and establishing a single community-based program. Her vision provided the blueprint to bring these two strongly individualistic programs into a comprehensive approach to community clinical research. Her dedication to assuring equal access to state-of-the-art cancer care led to a special emphasis on minority and underserved populations in the new program, including rural populations.

The new NCORP debuted in 2014 and was renewed in 2018. The national network now brings cancer clinical trials and care delivery studies to people in their own communities through more than 1,000 medical practices at diverse, community-based hospitals and practices.

In addition to numerous publications in high-impact medical journals, her expertise has been sought by many national cancer organizations, including the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). The latter recognized Dr. McCaskill-Stevens’ clinical trials leadership and focus on minority inclusion in 2016 by awarding her the Jane Cooke Wright Memorial Lectureship, which recognizes an outstanding scientist who has made meritorious contributions to the field of cancer research, and who has, through leadership or by example, furthered the advancement of minority investigators in cancer research.

A Lasting Legacy

In 2017, her alma mater, Georgetown University, awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Science as a distinguished alumna. Dr. McCaskill-Stevens was also the recipient of the 2020 ACCC David King Community Clinical Scientist Award from The Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC).

Her commitment to women getting the best care recently included the creation of the Tomosynthesis Mammographic Imaging Screening Trial (TMIST), an ongoing, international breast cancer screening trial of nearly 130,000 women ages 45 to 74. In 2019, she wrote a commentary in The Cancer Letter about why she chose to enroll in the trial after helping to plan it. Dr. McCaskill-Stevens wrote, “By participating in TMIST, women will now have the opportunity to help fill in the gaps in knowledge about the benefits and harms from the two [breast cancer] screening modalities. I am one of these women.”

When NIH had a call-to-action to ensure a robust research portfolio to address disparities, a representative workforce, and a community diverse in thought, NCI created an NCI Equity Council and Working Groups. Dr. McCaskill-Stevens was called to co-chair the Working Group focused on Enhancing Research to Address Cancer Health Disparities.

Her far-reaching accomplishments have had an impact on cancer disparities, the management of comorbidities within clinical trials, and molecular research to identify individuals who will benefit most from cancer prevention interventions. However, it was her care and compassion for patients and families that best exemplified her focus. Her work transformed how the full spectrum of cancer care—from screening and prevention, to treatment, to symptom management and palliative care—is delivered to people in their own communities.

Dr. McCaskill-Stevens retired from NCI on October 31, eliciting tributes, kind words, and remembrances from her many colleagues and friends, noting her courage and strength, her dedication and commitment, and the huge impact she had on so many careers and lives.