When a prominent and highly published medical oncologist left the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 2018, there were no details as to why. Axel Grothey, MD, a specialist in gastrointestinal cancers, “has decided to leave,” the institution told its staff in an email.
It’s only now, 3 years later, that details have emerged of unethical sexual relationships that he had with two women — an oncology fellow and a junior faculty member.
A timeline of the events was reported in detail by The Cancer Letter, a newsletter for oncologists in academia.
The inappropriate sexual relationships with mentees only came to light once medical licensure boards in three states reprimanded him last year, events first triggered by additional women at Mayo filing their grievances with the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, causing related documentation to be made public.
The Cancer Letter notes that the GI oncologist was reported to Mayo’s human resources department, which conducted an internal investigation. This found that Grothey’s “pattern of conduct demonstrated a failure on his part to establish and maintain appropriate professional boundaries with people who viewed him as a mentor.”
However, this finding was not made public, and Grothey was given a choice between resigning and being terminated, the newsletter reported.
Grothey chose to resign, and he moved to the West Cancer Center, which has fellowship and residency programs in Germantown, Tennessee, as director of GI cancer research. He was also appointed medical director of OneOncology Research Network’s clinical trial site management organization.
Until last week, he also retained his position as co-chair of a National Cancer Institute steering committee, which influences which clinical trials in GI oncology get funded. However, he was removed from that position May 27, with NCI director Ned Sharpless, MD, stating: “We cannot and will not tolerate sexual harassment within the agency, at research organizations that receive NIH funding, or anywhere else NIH-funded activities are conducted.”
The Oncoalert Network, a global network of oncology professionals, said it has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or abuse and acted immediately after double-checking facts and allegations, removing Grothey from the network on May 1.
Fight CRC, an advocacy group for colorectal cancer patients, also removed Grothey from its medical advisory board, it announced last week.
Grothey did not respond to a request for comment.
Charanjit S. Rihal, MD, chair of Mayo Clinic’s personnel committee, said in a statement to Medscape Medical News that “all instances of sexual harassment are reported to the board of medical practice…” and that it also “provides truthful information about corrective action taken when references are requested and credentialing inquiries occur…”
The revelations triggered a stream of social media responses.
Some suggested that this behavior is common. Shruti Patel, MD, an incoming oncology fellow at Stanford University and former resident at Mayo Clinic, tweeted: “#MedTwitter If you think this hasn’t happened at your institution, you are [probably] wrong.”
Sarah Temkin, MD, an oncologist at GBMC HealthCare in Baltimore, Maryland tweeted: “Off the top of my head I can think of a half dozen nearly identical stories. All the perpetrators are still working. Many of the victims are not. If our professional calling is supposed to be ‘do no harm,’ we ought to clean up the house of medicine.”
Off the top of my head I can think of a half dozen nearly identical stories. All the perpetrators are still working. Many of the victims are not. If our professional calling is supposed to be "do no harm," we ought to clean up the house of medicine. #MedTwitter
— Sarah Temkin (@temkins) May 30, 2021
Another medical oncologist said rumors about Grothey were longstanding. “Heard from many colleagues that this behavior was known in the field and went on for years. Years,” tweeted Charu Aggarwal, MD, MPH, from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. However, Aggarwal also said she was “shocked” by the news, as did others.
Estela Rodriguez, MD, of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami, Florida, asked oncologists to contemplate harassment and abuse of power in the workplace. “Medical training is so long that you witness a lot of inappropriate abuse of power, sexual harassment, racism, bullying. Mentor-mentee, doctor-nurse, resident-resident. If anything, take this time to reflect on your part,” she tweeted.
Sexual Harassment in Oncology
The public airing of Grothey’s story comes at the same time that a new study of sexual harassment in oncology has been released as an abstract as part of the run-up to the 2021 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, which starts later this week.
In the previous 12 months, 70% of American oncologists reported sexual harassment from peers and/or supervisors, according to the survey of 271 full-time clinicians.
Women oncologists had a higher incidence than men (80% vs 56%), a difference that was statistically significant (P < .0001).
The investigators queried respondents about three types of sexual harassment (gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion), as defined in a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The survey results are “sobering,” lead author Ishwaria Subbiah, MD, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told Medscape Medical News. The full study will be presented as an oral presentation at ASCO.
“Sadly, both timely and timeless,” tweeted medical oncologist Tatiana Prowell, MD, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, about the new study.
The Grothey news triggered multiple examples of public storytelling by women who have endured harassment.
Martina Murphy, MD, a medical gynecological oncologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, posted on Twitter a germane story: “I was sexually harassed as a resident by an attending, something I learned was repeated behavior. I complained despite fearing jeopardizing my chance to match in fellowship. He was ultimately fired — when another man revealed his research misconduct.”
Sangeetha Kolluri, DO, a breast surgeon at Austin Cancer Centers in Texas, responded to Murphy. “You were braver than I was. I did not report sexually harassing behavior by a prominent surgical oncologist until after I completed my breast surgery match and my program director was…unsupportive. I was labeled manipulative at my exit interview.”