Dr. Julie Gralow once said: “Cancer isn’t about dying, it’s about living.” A cancer diagnosis, she says, can be a call to cut out obligations and old routines and focus on living a satisfying life.

Dr. Gralow walks her talk. Her professional life is rich and full of human connection, travel, and adventure. Some examples: For her 50th birthday, she summited Mt. Kilimanjaro. This year, for her 60th, she goes trekking with friends in Bhutan. Next year, she will climb Mt. Kenya with the Kenya Cancer Society.
Dr. Gralow is a clinician, researcher, teacher, advocate, author, policymaker, mentor, and humanitarian. She is also SWOG Cancer Research Network’s executive officer for the breast and lung committees. She is the director of breast medical oncology at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, a member of the clinical research division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Jill Bennett Endowed Professor in Breast Cancer and adjunct professor of global health at University of Washington. She founded Team Survivor Northwest and the Women’s Empowerment Cancer Advocacy Network (WE CAN); authored nearly 200 peer-reviewed journal articles; and co-authored the 2000 book: “Breast Fitness: An Optimal Exercise and Health Plan for Reducing Your Risk of Breast Cancer.”
A hallmark of Dr. Gralow’s leadership is that it’s both all-in and hands-on. Back in 1995, Dr. Gralow helped launch Team Survivor Northwest, a nonprofit which improves the lives of breast cancer survivors through fitness. The organization includes women in all stages of recovery, and offers walking, hiking, Pilates, Dragon Boat racing, and triathlon training. At one meeting, not long after the group formed, members gathered to talk about a triathlon happening the next day. As the medical director, Dr. Gralow said she’d be there to cheer everyone on. A patient asked why she wasn’t in the race. “OK,” she said, “I’ll join.” She bought swim googles that night and completed the race with her team. Since then, she has climbed all the volcanic peaks in the Pacific Northwest with Team Survivor members.
“I am big on setting fitness goals, and often encourage other women to set them, too,” she says. “It’s clear through research, and my own clinical practice, that exercise helps breast cancer survivors manage the side effects of treatment - anxiety and depression, joint aches, weight gain. One early study, in a nursing journal, showed that if physicians recommend exercise, patients are more likely to do it. That stuck with me. I think it’s important to encourage patients to exercise – and show them you do it, too. If your doctor is exercising, no one can say they’re too busy.”

Gralow founded WE CAN in 2003 to help low- and middle-income countries address breast and cervical cancer by organizing education, outreach, and advocacy summits that bring together leaders from the worlds of medicine, government, and patient advocacy. The group has held summits in Rwanda, Kenya, Romania, Tanzania, Zambia, Georgia, Uganda, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. In February, they will make their first foray into the Middle East, with a meeting in Lebanon. Gralow said the benefits of WE CAN are many – breaking taboos, funding survivor programs, sparking research projects, and forging long-standing relationships between patients and physicians, medical experts and policymakers.

All this work helped Gralow earn an ASCO Statesman Award in 2011 and an ASCO Humanitarian Award in 2018. Gralow joined SWOG over 20 years ago, thanks to an introduction from her mentor, Dr. Bob Livingston. She stays because she respects the group.

“SWOG does studies that won’t be done by anyone else – at the highest levels and without bias,” she said. “I’m loyal to SWOG because of how the group works with patient advocates and for their support for community sites. It’s good work.” Nice words from a true SWOG leader.