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A journey of hope: Two alumni discuss their life-saving work

Two alumni ‘lead from behind’ to raise awareness of an underfunded – and largely preventable – cancer.
Image of John Woerner and Lee Dranikoff
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Lee Dranikoff (NYO 96-03) and John Woerner (NYO, LON 95-05) have both been deeply affected by one disease: colorectal cancer. Lee lost his wife to it in 2016, and John, who is a survivor, was diagnosed in 2018.

Despite being the second-leading cause of cancer death, colorectal cancer research is vastly underfunded. Together, Lee and John are working to raise awareness of the disease, as well as help prevent, treat, and one day cure it through their work with the nonprofit Colorectal Cancer Alliance (CCA).

We spoke with them about their personal journeys, the strides they are making to save lives, and how McKinsey has supported their efforts.


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You’ve both been doing incredible work with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. Please tell us about it and how you got involved.

Lee Dranikoff: This all started when I was talking with former McKinsey colleagues about colon cancer. My wife was diagnosed with colon cancer and died of it in 2016.

What’s unique about colon cancer is that it is largely a preventable disease. We can save lives by encouraging people to get screened. We have the technology; we just have to get people to do it – so it felt a bit like a marketing problem.

We had this notion that we could save lives on an unprecedented scale if we could figure out a way to get the word out, but we didn't have a plan to do it. McKinsey agreed to do a pro bono project.

The McKinsey team proved in a study that colorectal cancer screening investment was the most effective way to save lives in cancer: it's cost-effective and it's very doable. They laid out that plan and the Colorectal Cancer Alliance adopted it. I joined the Board of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance then, and we've spent years effectively implementing the plan.

One of the things that McKinsey suggested is that we needed to do this on a city-by-city basis, and, based on their analysis, Philadelphia should be the first city.

So we built a whole screening program in Philadelphia that we're now rolling out across the country.


Image of Colorectal Cancer Alliance logo
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John Woerner: In 2018 I was diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer and went through surgeries and chemotherapy. But then in 2020 they found some metastases in my lungs, and so I was then Stage IV.

Along that journey, I was reaching out to everyone I knew to better inform myself and connect with what my best treatment approaches could be. Through that, I was reconnected with Lee on the Board of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, and they helped me. Unfortunately, after six months of intensive chemotherapy, and surgeries on each lung, a few more metastases showed up. At that point my doctor recommended that I look into clinical trials, preferably one involving a cancer vaccine and immunotherapy.

I then fully realized how much falls on the patient to figure out their own care plan when it comes to trials. Finding open trials involved countless database searches, phone calls, and travel to about half a dozen NCI cancer centers in a 6-week time frame during the pandemic. I navigated through that with the help of CCA, and thankfully, over the course of that trial and some more treatment, I got to the point cancer patients dream of – clean scans and what they call "no evidence of disease."

One issue is that the recommended start of colonoscopy screening is age 50, and I was diagnosed at age 49. I was part of the rising incidence of young-onset colorectal cancer. Screening does save lives, but there is also a need for better treatment and a cure.

I have been very involved with the CCA Board, specifically working on helping others advance what's going on with trials, trial navigation, and helping patients identify the best trial for them.

One of the first initiatives in the trial space we undertook after I joined was a Clinical Trials Think Tank and Summit, which involved experts from across pharma, providers, NIH, FDA, and McKinsey’s Cancer Center to prioritize the most actionable areas for CCA to help improve clinical trial engagement. White House Cancer Moonshot Coordinator Dr. Danielle Carnival was the keynote speaker at the summit, where we laid out a gameplan for how to dramatically improve patient engagement in clinical trials.

Another alum is involved with CCA as well – Ariel Carmeli (NYO 14-19), who helped with the pro bono project, is now an observer on our Board. He’s helped with some projects to keep things moving.


What has been the impact of your efforts?

Lee: Nationally, we run screening and awareness programs where tens of thousands of people are incrementally screened each year who wouldn't have been otherwise. We now also do awareness campaigns under the banner "Lead From Behind,” which has led to measurable upticks in colonoscopy appointments across the country.

There are thousands of people who don't even know that we saved their lives. CCA had a direct impact on preventing people from getting cancer.

It was an incredibly valuable project. How many opportunities do we as businesspeople get to save lives on a scale like this? There just aren't that many ways to do it, and this is arguably the most cost-effective way to do it.

John: The Alliance has long had a patient navigation service, which helps them discover approved standard of care therapies, but we have now raised funds to expand that to more deeply address clinical trials. We’re soon adding a nurse-oncologist who patients can call, speak to, figure out the best trial shortlist to review with their oncologist and care team, and get a gameplan.


How has your experience at McKinsey helped you in your work with the CCA?

John: The mission at McKinsey is to make positive and lasting change, and that guides what I try to do in the colorectal cancer community. A cure is the most positive and lasting change one can aspire to in this disease, and so many of my efforts are focused on trials and research for a cure. I talk to a new Stage IV patient each week, helping them navigate their options one-on-one. That's rewarding and directly impactful – and hopefully has a lasting impact for them as well as others, as the path to a cure is accelerated by more participation and acceleration of human trials.

And on the bigger scale, all these efforts we're talking about making will have a profound impact on people who are either prevented from getting colorectal cancer through screening and early detection or are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. That ability to think big, and step back from the problem and see what changes you can make in the infrastructure around it, comes from my McKinsey training.

Lee: I'd echo everything John said and add that managing a nonprofit is something that I think a lot of people in business underestimate the complexity of. In many ways, managing a nonprofit is harder than a business. Every year, you have to raise all the money that you spend, you start from zero each time, and though you have clear outcomes you are trying to accomplish, it can be difficult to measure.

We all try to run the Colorectal Cancer Alliance as though a McKinsey team were advising it on how to run it: using fact-based decision making and very clear strategic goals backed up by metrics. And that's how we're going to beat this.


What are some future efforts you’re working on?

Lee: No one has ever taken an end-to-end view of how we fix a big problem that we have in colorectal cancer: that we’re not deriving more drugs at the rate that other cancers are. The reasons are plentiful – from how we recruit people into clinical trials to how doctors get incentivized to work on these things.

John: The Alliance held an unprecedented gathering in December, where a benefactor helped us bring together 80 of the world's leading scientists in GI oncology, research, pharma, and academia – it's called "Project Cure CRC [colorectal cancer]," to really catalyze the next push to a cure. The initiative reflects the Alliance’s effort to fund tens of millions of dollars in research over the next two years. The goal is to create major breakthroughs in colorectal cancer diagnosis, treatment, metastasis, and survivorship.

There are many actionable learnings coming out of that as to what's most needed – from accelerating specific therapies that are currently in preclinical or clinical testing phases, to strengthening major elements of the research infrastructure in colorectal cancer. For example, some other diseases have publicly sharable biobanks of tumor tissues and blood from patients. We need greater access to this in colorectal cancer.

Having a sharable biobank leads to more investigator-led work that has demonstrably led to an acceleration of treatments in other diseases. That’s an example of a pinch point that we could accelerate. I am privileged to be able to support and assist in this effort and bring my McKinsey strategic problem-solving to help.


Is there anything else you would like alumni to know about your work with CCA?

Lee: If any of our alumni are dealing with colon cancer, we want to help. Please get in touch.

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