First Lady Jill Biden Visits Columbia Cancer

First Lady Jill Biden and Queen Letizia of Spain Visit Columbia Cancer Ahead of World Cancer Research Day

The First Lady and Queen Letizia celebrate Columbia’s strides in addressing health inequities and in forward-thinking cancer research

September 21, 2022

Columbia cancer researchers, clinicians, community partners and local students gathered in upper Manhattan today for a visit from First Lady Jill Biden, ED.D.

Queen Letizia of Spain and First Lady Jill Biden

Queen Letizia of Spain and First Lady Jill Biden during the tour at Columbia Cancer (Credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

The First Lady, joined by Queen Letizia of Spain, stopped at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) to learn about cutting-edge research at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and the center’s  collaborations to transform care, improve diversity and access in clinical trials and promote diversity and inclusion in science and medicine. The meetings were held at Columbia’s School of Nursing.

Anil K. Rustgi, MD, director of the HICCC and Irving Professor of Medicine at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S), delivered brief introductory remarks to a small audience of media and invited guests. He underscored Columbia’s dedication to research and comprehensive care.

“Our commitment to our patients, families, caregivers and the communities in which they reside is of paramount importance and is our north star,” said Dr. Rustgi, who was joined by Katrina Armstrong, MD,  dean of VP&S and chief executive of CUIMC, Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia University President and Steven J. Corwin, MD, president and CEO of NewYork-Presbyterian.

With the reignition of the Biden Administration’s Cancer Moonshot and just days ahead of World Cancer Research Day, held each year on Sept. 24, Dr. Biden and Queen Letizia highlighted the importance of patient-centered care and how community and international collaborations are critical in making strides toward a cure.

First Lady Jill Biden highlighted the HICCC’s ongoing work in addressing health inequities and breaking down barriers to state-of-the-art care, including access to cancer clinical trials. She shared the story of Mario Sambula, a patient enrolled in a clinical trial at the HICCC, and how his care team and clinical trials nurse navigator, Brianne Bodin, BSN, RN, has helped guide him each step of the way.

“It's stories like [Mario’s], about putting patients in the center of their care, that make the Columbia Cancer Center so special,” she said. “This cancer center is addressing the deep disparities in care that we've seen just far too often. When it comes to clinical trials, too many people get left behind but this cancer center is changing that.”

Sambula, 85, from Bronx, NY, shared his experience with the First Lady and the Queen as part of the visit at Columbia. Sambula, who came to the U.S. from Honduras when he was 25, was diagnosed with prostate cancer shortly after his retirement in 2002 as a fabric cutter in New York City's garment district. After his cancer diagnosis, he completed treatment and felt well, but a few years later, the cancer returned and had spread. Faced with few options for treatment, Sambula enrolled in a cancer clinical trial at Columbia, which stabilized his disease, now four years and counting.

At the Columbia tour, left to right: First Lady Jill Biden and Queen Letizia with Dr. Andy Lassman, Brianne Bodin, Mario Sambula and Dr. Anil Rustgi (Credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

Dr. Biden and Queen Letizia, who serves as Honorary President of the Spanish Association Against Cancer, share an interest and commitment in fighting cancer and the crucial need for scientific cross-collaborations.

“Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less," said Queen Letizia. "That is precisely why we are here, to vindicate the transformative role of science and to enhance our collective approach so that we may double our necessary efforts and therefore generate much more shared knowledge worldwide."

The visit with the HICCC included meetings with Columbia cancer researchers co-leading global collaborations, with partnerships in Spain and the Dominican Republic.

Raul Rabadan, PhD, professor of systems biology and of biomedical informatics at VP&S, discussed his collaboration with the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), to apply computational approaches to identify high-risk factors for pancreatic cancer, a project supported by Stand Up to Cancer and Lustgarten Foundation. Chin Hur, MD, professor of medicine, who specializes in cancer screening and prevention for gastrointestinal cancers, shared details about the HICCC’s partnership with several hospitals in the Dominican Republic to address the increasing rates of cancer deaths in that country.

The First Lady and the Queen also met with Mary Beth Terry, PhD, professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, who directs the  Community Outreach and Engagement office at the HICCC. Dr. Terry showcased the cancer center’s  National Cancer Institute-funded YES in THE HEIGHTS Program,  a summer internship for high school and undergraduate students that aims to increase the pool of underrepresented and under-resourced youth entering STEM fields. Before their remarks, the First Lady and the Queen met with a group of high school and undergraduate students, from across the five boroughs, who have all participated in YES.

The Queen of Spain and the First Lady meet with Dr. Mary Beth Terry (second in from far right) and YES in the HEIGHTS students. (Credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

The problem of underrepresentation and lack of diversity in clinical trials was another topic of discussion for Dr. Biden and Queen Letizia on their Columbia tour. Speaking to Andrew Lassman, MD, associate dean of clinical trials at Columbia and chief of neuro-oncology, they learned about the HICCC’s efforts to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in clinical trials and among clinical researchers. They discussed the importance of diversity among clinical trial participants as a critical step toward reducing racial and ethnic health disparities.

Bodin, who is Sambula’s nurse navigator and oncology research nurse manager in the HICCC’s Clinical Trials Office, emphasized the critical role nurse navigators  play in healthcare and in helping to ensure the research at the cancer center  is representative of its community. 

“We aim to make the process of finding and enrolling in a clinical trial as seamless as possible, while also being a source of compassionate, human connection that patients need and deserve,” said Bodin.

Today’s visit echoed President Joe Biden’s expansion of Cancer Moonshot, with new goals set to reduce the death rate from cancer by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years, and improve the experience of people and their families living with and surviving cancer.

Recognizing this as an ambitious goal, Dr. Biden said, “None of us can beat cancer alone. It takes all of us, sharing our best ideas and practices, working together to ease the burden on patients and their families, and creating the kind of care that saves lives ... Together, we can give our people the future they deserve, no matter where they call home.”