The effort to defeat cancer is a visceral need for each of us, fueled by the memories of the myriad of special individuals we cared for who passed from this earth due to this terrible disease.
Indeed, the inescapable impact of cancer was felt deeply this week across North Carolina and the cancer world as William Blackstock, MD, died from his long battle with prostate cancer.
William died on June 18. He was 60.
We deeply mourn his passing across our integrated Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center (now across legacy Wake Forest Baptist and legacy Levine Cancer Institute) that William directly helped build as valued member, investigator, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, and a deeply impactful interim director of the integrating cancer center from 2022-2023.
William’s passion for his work and his unwavering dedication to the cancer center, even in the face of his own battle with cancer, will continue to inspire us all. He was devoted to his field, to his department, to his center, to mentorship, to health equity, and to his family—daughters Jessica, Ansley, and granddaughter, Bryn.
Since his passing, we have been deeply moved by the notes we have received from around our center, our state, and our field on the breadth and depth of William’s impact as a mentor, as a teacher, as a researcher, as an advocate for health equity and justice, and as a friend.
William led a deeply impactful life, a life of meaning and consequence.
“William was a thoughtful and strategic leader. He understood that innovative leadership requires the need to occasionally take risks,” said Karen Winkfield, a radiation oncologist specializing in the treatment of hematologic and breast malignancies who now serves as the executive director of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance. “He took risks on people, processes, and research that others might avoid. He was not afraid to press the boundaries. This was most evident in the types of research being supported in the department of radiation oncology, ranging from clinical research resulting in patented product development to basic research in physics and biology garnering millions in grant funding. Perhaps the greatest risk he took was to support a clinician whose research focus was community engagement.
“It was his ability to understand who you are as a person and researcher, and envision what success might look like, that allowed him to lend support when and where needed.”
William received his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University and his medical degree from the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. He completed his residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before joining the faculty at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, where he worked until a week before his death.
He was one of the first African Americans to chair a department of radiation oncology.
William was pivotal in advancing the care for our cancer patients, advancing clinical trials, and training the next generation of clinicians and researchers.
Throughout his career, William published more than 100 journal articles and book chapters on clinical radiation oncology, radiation therapy, and cancer management. He was a national expert in the radiotherapeutic management of cancers, with a primary focus on gastrointestinal cancer treatment. His seminal work on esophageal cancer and the prognostic value of PET-based response changed the standard of care in how response is assessed in this disease.
Also, he was an early pioneer in the use of novel agents as radiation sensitizers for lung cancer. William led or co-led multiple high impact trials, including the E2204 Intergroup Adjuvant Pancreas Trial, which is a groundbreaking clinical trial that has the potential to change the standard of care for pancreatic cancer patients.
He served on the NCI-designated Pancreatic Task Force and the Gastrointestinal Steering Committee for the institute. Additionally for the NCI, he served on the crucial Cancer Centers Study Section (A), participated as a valued reviewer for many NCI cancer center site visits, and was deeply valued on many cancer center external advisory boards.
“Dr. William Blackstock was a member of the Cancer Center Study Section (A) for the past four years,” said Shamala K. Srinivas, associate director, of the Office of Referral, Review, and Program Coordination, at the NCI Division of Extramural Activities.
“He participated in several Cancer Center site visits each year without missing a single meeting. He was very thoughtful in his deliberations of every grant application and appreciated differences of scientific opinions. He was meticulous and thorough in all his evaluations. The committee was honored to have William as a member, and he will be deeply missed.”
In 2022, knowing his prognosis with advanced prostate cancer, William selflessly and courageously stepped in to serve as interim director to lead us through a difficult period of transition.Ruben A. Mesa and Jenny Kim
Shari Campbell, a scientific review officer at the Resources and Training Review Branch at the NCI Division of Extramural Activities, noted William’s ability to immediately focus on the issues relevant to review.
“I will remember Dr. Blackstock for his humor and the words of encouragement he shared each time we worked together. I admired his clinical expertise and his gift for getting right to the heart of the matter,” Campbell said. “Beyond all this, he made a point of asking how I was doing; particularly so, after he learned I was a cancer survivor. I always appreciated that kindness.”
“I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with him on cancer center site visits and I will cherish these memories,” said Caterina Bianco, chief of the Resources and Training Review Branch.
William had been a member of the ASTRO Subcommittee on Educational Sessions and on the editorial boards for numerous journals.
William was deeply committed to advancing the efforts in cancer through crucial cancer organizations, like ASCO, where he was very active. In addition to serving on ASCO board of directors from 2018-2022, he was very active since joining in 1999 on the Grants Selection Committee, the Cancer Communications Committee, the Health Disparities Advisory Group, on the editorial board of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, as track leader for the ASCO Annual Meeting Program Committee, and as chair of the Membership Committee, among numerous roles.
A committed mentor, he participated in mock interviews to support trainee and early-career oncologists. During his tenure on the ASCO board of the directors, William was the board liaison to the Health Equity Committee. At the time of his passing, he served on the Joint Special Awards Selection Committee.
He was honored for his volunteer contributions with the Fellow of ASCO designation in 2018.
In 2022, knowing his prognosis with advanced prostate cancer, William selflessly and courageously stepped in to serve as interim director to lead us through a difficult period of transition.
He was fervently committed to the importance of the NCI and the essential role our center plays each day to make a difference in the lives of the people of our community.
William was passionate about tackling the cancer burden of a diverse and expanded catchment area through innovative, relevant cancer research, increasing access to high quality cancer care and clinical trials, trustworthy engagement and outreach, and meaningful pipeline programs that foster workforce diversity, equity, and inclusion.
His lifelong contributions to the care and treatment for patients laid the groundwork for our unified cancer center to continue to advance health equity and fight the disease that took him from us.
William was the essence of kindness, genuine humanity, and professionalism and will be deeply missed by our Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist family and many others.
Ruben A. Mesa, MD, is the executive director of the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center & President Atrium Health Levine Cancer.
Jenny Kim, MBA, is the associate director of administration, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center.