April 13, 2021
Karen Knudsen, a cancer researcher who ascended to serve as an executive at Jefferson Health, has been tapped to head the American Cancer Society.
Knudsen will become the first female CEO in the organization's 107-year history when she begins her role on June 1. She also will be the first cancer scientist to hold the position in modern times.
Knudsen has served as the executive vice president of oncology services and enterprise director for Jefferson's Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center since 2015.
She has worked at Jefferson since 2008, beginning as an associate professor in the cancer biology department. Along the way, she served as director of research of the medical oncology department, vice provost of Thomas Jefferson University and chair of the cancer biology department.
"Dr. Knudsen is exactly what the American Cancer Society needs right now," said John Alfonso, chair of the American Cancer Society's board of directors. "She is an accomplished researcher, innovative health care executive, dynamic leader of a prestigious cancer center and true thought leader in the fight against cancer nationwide."
At the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, Knudsen oversees all aspects of cancer research and cancer patient care at its 13 sites in the Philadelphia region. Under her leadership, the center has been ranked one of the top cancer centers in the country by U.S. News & World Report.
Her research has focused on developing new ways to treat advanced cancers, including understanding cell cycle, hormonal and DNA repair alterations that contribute to disease progression. She also holds joint appointments in the departments of urology, medical oncology and radiation oncology.
Knudsen will take the reins from Gary Reedy, who has served as the American Cancer Society's CEO since 2015. Reedy, who is retiring, previously was a business executive at Johnson & Johnson.
Knudsen also will serve as CEO of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the organization's advocacy arm.
Knudsen said she plans on working with American Cancer Society stakeholders, staff and volunteers to help shape the future of the American Cancer Society.
"As director of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Health, I've experienced firsthand how the American Cancer Society improves the lives of cancer patients and their families through discovery, advocacy and direct patient support," Knudsen said in a statement.
"I share the board of director's vision to ensure that ACS's impact benefits all people throughout the nation. With creativity, innovation and novel partnerships, we will accelerate the mission and save lives."
Knudsen is joining the American Cancer Society at a time when financial support for the organization continues to decline. Public support eclipsed $1 billion in 2007; now that support is about $500 million, according to The Cancer Letter.
In an interview with The Cancer Letter, Knudsen said the American Cancer Society has had an "incredibly positive impact" on the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. Despite the organization's challenges, Knudsen said she is joining because she shares its vision that lives can be improved through cancer research, direct patient support and advocacy efforts.
"I also think there's a sense of urgency that's going to help ACS in this next phase, as we start to emerge from the pandemic, we hope," Knudsen said. "We know that there are thousands of individuals in the U.S. who skipped screenings that are going to present."
She added, "We're starting to see this now — patients presenting with more advanced disease. ACS has a long history of promoting patient education as part of their support mission, and promoting screening events."
As CEO of the American Cancer Society Action Network, Knudsen also will be advocating for public policy change to ensure that cancer is a priority for the U.S. government. It is a role she knows. As president of The Association of American Cancer Institutes, she has advocated for research funding and patient access to research innovations.
Knudsen is also the president of the Association of American Cancer Institutes and serves on the board of directors for the American Association of Cancer Research, where she focused on diversity and inclusion.
She also is actively involved with the National Cancer Institute and the American Society for Clinical Oncology — and has served as a contributor for PhillyVoice, sharing important information about cancer prevention and treatment.
Prior to joining Jefferson, Knudsen spent time at the University of Cincinnati. She received her bachelor's degree in biology from the George Washington University, her Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of California, San Diego and an MBA from Temple University.