MSK’s Vickers: “We’ve been seen as exclusive and selected. I want to broaden that aperture for the organization.”

Selwyn M. Vickers wants Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to become better known in Harlem, Coney Island, and other parts of New York City where the elite institution he now leads is not a go-to place. 

“I can go to Harlem, and my barber has never heard of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I can go to Coney Island, and there are people there who’ve never heard of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center,” Vickers, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said to The Cancer Letter. “Now, I can’t drop a dime without somebody on the Upper East Side of New York knowing about it. But the reality is that there are worlds in the spectrum of what we call New York that don’t know us.” 

In a conversation with Robert A. Winn, director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center and senior associate dean for cancer innovation and professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at VCU School of Medicine, Vickers said he feels a responsibility to expand access to MSK. Winn is guest editor of The Cancer Letter and the Cancer History Project during Black History Month. 

“Being stewards of the resources that this organization has been blessed to have comes with a responsibility to give others access to it. I think that’s the grand opportunity through partnerships and collaborations,” Vickers said. 

Vickers started his job at MSK on Sept. 19, 2022. He is one of three Black directors of NCI-designated cancer centers. Until 2022, Vickers was senior vice president for medicine and dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine. He was also CEO of both the UAB Health System and the UAB/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance. 

Vickers said his path to surgery can be traced to a patient he treated while on surgical rotation in medical school. The patient was an elderly Black man with peripheral vascular disease, resulting in a necrotic big toe. 

“I would go by, wake him up, allow him to get a chance to get a cigarette in his mouth, because I was going to debride his foot,” Vickers said to The Cancer Letter. “No lidocaine, no numbing, it was dead tissue I was taking off. He would wince in pain as I cleaned it up and got dead tissue removed so that when my attending would come by at 5:30, I would’ve had that done.” 

He cared for this man for five weeks, through the rotation. When he moved on, Vickers received a call from one of the surgery attending physicians asking him to come to the clinic.  

“The nurse came on the phone and said, ‘There’s a patient here who won’t leave until he sees you,’” he said. “So, I go down to that surgery clinic, and there’s that man sitting there. He said, ‘I wanted to see my doctor,’ and that was me.

“He wouldn’t go until I came to see him, because his foot was healed. The pain I put him through—he knew I didn’t intend it—and he knew I did it for his good. After that experience, I had the sense that I could do surgery and still build the relationships with patients that I wanted to have. I could still have a career and a passion in an area that fit me as a person.”

Health disparities are inseparable from a broad range of social and economic problems, many of which are rooted in this country’s legacy of slavery.

“What drove me was the legacy of the challenge that this country’s been dealing with since 1865 when there was an abolition [freeing] three million Black slaves,” he said. “We’re still struggling with how to integrate them in our society. We had an opportunity, and we created a surrogate slave system and caste system that continually created the second class citizenry for people of color. That’s been pervasive in several areas that we deal with across the landscape of economics, education, and certainly not the least of them, health care.”   

A system based on unequal access, creating haves and have-nots, does harm to the entire society. Conversely, equitable access provides an all-around—society-wide—benefit, Vickers said.

“When you resolve those issues related to access, targeted therapy, inclusion, you make the system better for everybody,” he said. “Because we framed this as a zero-sum game—somebody wins and somebody loses—we often struggle to take this on at the core of who we are. Because the reality is, if we actually can achieve it, we make it better for everybody. It improves the care for our country, not just for one segment.”  

Growing up in Alabama, Vickers took inspiration from his grandmother, who sought out education later in life, and his uncle, who was a doctor. 

In seventh grade, his grandmother was told she didn’t need any additional education—but she badly wanted to graduate college. She attended Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, a segregated school and the only place where Black people could get a high school degree in that part of Alabama. 

“What I saw in her was a woman who overcame all odds,” he said. “But then taking that to commit her life to teaching, raising a family, and then going 10 summers to get her college degree.” 

Had her circumstances been different, his grandmother would have earned a PhD. 

“She had a tremendous impact on me to believe education was the great equalizer. Independent of her color, it defined her ability to speak cogently and boldly to anybody no matter who they were,” Vickers said. “It was all because of what she had learned and the dignity of which she carried herself in her role.” 

Vickers notes that his story is not unique. “Every person, particularly in this country, who’s achieved, stands on the shoulders—and particularly every person of color—stands on the shoulders of individuals who’ve sacrificed in some significant way,” he said.  

A transcript of their conversation is available in The Cancer Letter: