By Jeff Tucker

Putting it all Together

Colleen McCormick, MD, has a broad range of interests that led her to gynecologic oncology and the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center

Colleen McCormick, MD, likes to take seemingly different things and put them together.

Because of her broad interests, McCormick, who recently joined The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center as a gynecologic oncologist, never thought a career in surgery would fill the bill.

Originally, even medicine wasn’t on the horizon. She was looking for something that could draw a line through her disparate interests in biochemistry, politics and economics.

“I thought maybe something in food development or urban planning or international work,” she said. “Then I did a program with the World Health Organization in Zimbabwe on missed opportunities for vaccination – we looked at which kids had different vaccinations rates – and it really made me feel like medicine was a possible combination. There was the social justice work and actual day-to-day things helping people, but on a scientific level.”

McCormick was so convinced that international public health was her path that she decided to get surgery out of the way first during her medical school rotations at Johns Hopkins University.

“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I’m someone who really likes getting stuff done and I like doing stuff with my hands. I was drawn to the immediacy of it.”

But her newfound love of surgery offered a new pattern for the intricate tapestry McCormick was trying to weave in her career. She knew she wanted to do surgery, but she also wanted to have an impact on patients over a longer period of time.

“Gynecologic oncology fit perfectly with what I wanted to do,” she said. “I’m able to operate on people and I get to use my hands, and also I help patients from the entirety of our diagnosis.”

Gynecologic oncologists focus on just women’s reproductive cancers. Unlike most other cancer doctors, they perform surgery, give chemotherapy, and manage a patient’s cancer journey from diagnosis into survivorship.

McCormick found her way to Portland, Ore., where anther interest began to take hold, one that would eventually draw her to New Mexico.

“I was in Portland for about 12 years and worked in a very busy private practice and hospital,” she said. “While I was there, I very much enjoyed being a busy clinician. But I started getting involved in a lot of clinical research and I ended up building and developing a clinical trials program in Portland. I felt like I needed to take the next step and be in an academic environment where those things are more valued.”

The UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center’s research mission and its robust clinical trials program made a great fit for McCormick’s expanding interests. She was also friends with Sarah Adams, MD, who serves as associate director of Translational Research in addition to seeing patients regularly at the Cancer Center’s clinic.


One of the other things really important to me is health equity and diversity, especially in the clinical trials realm. We really need to increase the inclusion and diversity of clinical trials. Given that those are long-standing passions of mine, this is a perfect place for that.

Colleen McCormick, MD

McCormick said the opportunity to work with Adams on clinical trials and other research was a significant factor in her decision to join UNM. UNM Cancer Center physicians and scientists conduct research and also initiate clinical trials based on their own research. The UNM Cancer Center’s comprehensive designation from the National Cancer Institute also underscores its commitment to research.

“One of the other things really important to me is health equity and diversity, especially in the clinical trials realm,” she said. “We really need to increase the inclusion and diversity of clinical trials. Given that those are long-standing passions of mine, this is a perfect place for that.”

McCormick said she has already began working on a project that is looking into what barriers prevent some patients from participating in clinical trials. Having a diversity of patients in clinical trials helps scientists clarify how these treatments apply to a broader patient base.

McCormick said that her ultimate goal is to provide the best possible care to each of her patients. That can include difficult conversations.

“Sometimes I get to give great news and I get to tell patients they don’t have cancer,” she said. “Other times, I’m taking care of patient for a really long time and sometimes I help them with their transition to hospice. Helping them through the death and dying process is a real privilege for me.”

McCormick said her interest in palliative care emerged during medical school and her residencies, and she later pursued a certification in palliative care. Having lost loved ones to cancer and prolonged illness she knows the conversations, however difficult, are a profound and crucial part of care.

“Nobody wants to say they love having a death-and-dying conversation with patients. But that part is very important to me – the conversations about what a patient’s goals are, how can we get them there,” she said. “’How can we do our best to make sure you’re able to make Christmas cookies with your granddaughter one last time? Those kinds of conversations and that kind of relationship and focusing on quality of life are important to me.”

McCormick said she is thrilled to join the gynecologic oncology division at UNM. In addition to clinical trials, UNM offers opportunities as a NCORP (National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program) minority/underserved community site. She is also especially excited to be able to teach fellows; the Gynecologic Oncology Fellowship program at UNM is one of fewer than 60 programs in the country.

“Being part of a great team, where everyone is working to provide the best care for our patients and our community, is exhilarating,” she said.

UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in a 500-mile radius.

Its more than 120 board-certified oncology specialty physicians include cancer surgeons in every specialty (abdominal, thoracic, bone and soft tissue, neurosurgery, genitourinary, gynecology, and head and neck cancers), adult and pediatric hematologists/medical oncologists, gynecologic oncologists, and radiation oncologists. They, along with more than 600 other cancer healthcare professionals (nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, navigators, psychologists and social workers), provide treatment to 65% of New Mexico's cancer patients from all across the state and partner with community health systems statewide to provide cancer care closer to home. They treated approximately 14,000 patients in about 100,000 ambulatory clinic visits in addition to in-patient hospitalizations at UNM Hospital.

A total of nearly 400 patients participated in cancer clinical trials testing new cancer treatments that include tests of novel cancer prevention strategies and cancer genome sequencing.

The more than 100 cancer research scientists affiliated with the UNMCCC were awarded $35.7 million in federal and private grants and contracts for cancer research projects. Since 2015, they have published nearly 1000 manuscripts, and promoting economic development, they filed 136 new patents and launched 10 new biotechnology start-up companies.

Finally, the physicians, scientists and staff have provided education and training experiences to more than 500 high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellowship students in cancer research and cancer health care delivery.

Categories: Comprehensive Cancer Center