by Karen Halvorsen Schreck '84
Last February when I first telephoned Dr. William C. Wood ’62, I began our conversation, as best I could, by saying thank you.
I said how glad I was that Bill is the recipient of the Alumni Association’s 2012 Distinguished Service to Society Award, how privileged I was to be involved in honoring his work. My mother died of breast cancer, I said. Like many women, I’ve carried concern that I might face the disease. Thank you for your commitment to medical advocacy, your compassionate service in the field of surgical oncology. I also wanted to say something along these lines: Thank you for extending hope and possibility to cancer survivors and their families. Thank you, as your colleague, medical oncologist Dr. Kathy Albain ’74 has said, for providing a service to society that is “broad and deep, with long-lasting impact worldwide.”
But before I could fully articulate my thoughts, Bill, with the quiet resonance of one practiced at being fully present for others, said, “I’m sorry.”
For my loss, he meant.
In that moment, I experienced the compassion that has anchored and distinguished Bill as a surgeon, academic, and researcher. Recognized for his contributions to cancer therapy, and for his influence on the design and interpretation of national clinical cancer trials, which have greatly advanced the fight against breast cancer, Bill is also known for his gentle, prayerful presence. As his longtime friend Dr. John Huffman ’62, who served for 31 years as senior pastor at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in California, puts it: “Bill’s ministry is truly holistic.” John first met Bill at Wheaton Academy, and the two remained fast friends over the years, so much so that Bill was one of the first whom John called when his own daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
Throughout his daughter’s 18-month losing battle with Hodgkin’s disease, John says, “Bill was not just a friend and medical advisor, but also a pastoral presence for my family and me.” And he notes that over the years, Bill has provided the same care for many others.
Bill was born in 1940 in a small Illinois town. His father was a minister; his mother, a partner in pastoral ministry. The couple lived what Bill calls a “transparent life,” nurturing in their four children an understanding of God’s Word and loving presence, and a desire to live informed lives of service.
After attending Wheaton Academy, Bill entered Wheaton College in 1958, majoring in chemistry. During his senior year, Bill met Judy Lindsell ’65. The two fell in love, even as Bill graduated and headed for Harvard Medical School. Judy completed her Wheaton studies in three years, and in 1964 the couple married. They began their life together—which Bill has called an “absolute and true partnership”—as he began his residency.
Upon graduating from Harvard in 1966, Bill was selected to train in surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). His surgical training included a two-year clinical and research fellowship at the surgery branch of the National Cancer Institute. After his oncology fellowship, Bill was then selected to be chief resident at MGH. He joined the faculty there in 1975, became the clinical director of the MGH Cancer Center and chief of surgical oncology, and taught surgery at Harvard Medical School as an associate professor.
In 1991, after 28 years at Harvard, Bill accepted a new appointment as the Joseph Brown Whitehead Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Emory University School of Medicine. There he promoted a new standard of excellence in clinical care, education, and research.
“There are three procedures that I learned to do in my surgical oncology fellowship that seemed profoundly wrong to me,” he says, naming radical mastectomy among them. “I was convinced there must be a better way,” he notes. Over 30 years, with the help of colleagues, he says, “We have had the privilege of virtually eliminating all three of these procedures as the standard of care.”
During his tenure at Harvard and Emory universities, Bill wrote more than 270 full-length scientific articles, more than 35 book chapters, and edited or co-edited seven books, including the three-volume Oxford Textbook of Surgery, 2nd Edition. Since 1999, he has served as editor-in-chief of Oncology, the nation’s most widely read cancer review journal. In 2000, his lead article in the New England Journal of Medicine was selected by a jury as reporting one of the ten most significant clinical trials in breast cancer in the last century. In Dr. Albain’s words: “Bill has applied his God-given skills of leadership and consensus-building to develop and guide an international network of breast cancer experts to more successfully move the field forward.”
Bill’s many honors and awards include the 2007 Statesman Award of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and honorary fellowships from the Royal College of Surgeons in England, and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, Scotland. A long-standing member of the board of trustees of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, Bill has also served for 36 years on the board of trustees of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Having retired from chairing Emory’s Department of Surgery in 2009, Bill has turned his attention to meeting medical needs in developing countries, most specifically in Africa, where he says most women with breast cancer cannot afford the 25 cents a day for Tamoxifen, today’s most common drug treatment for breast cancer worldwide. In fact, he notes, Africa accounts for only one percent of the dollars spent on healthcare worldwide. “Working to develop affordable healthcare—and encouraging society to provide this care—is a major challenge.”
As he begins to envision and plan for sustainable cancer care around the globe, Bill also cherishes studying and teaching God’s Word, and time spent with Judy, his three children (Kris, Lindsay, and Billy) and his grandchildren—his family, whom he considers his greatest ministry and blessing.