Marquette trailblazer receives American Association for Radiation Oncology’s highest honor

Dr. Colleen Lawton, Arts ’79, honored at 2021 ASTRO Annual meeting in Chicago

“Dr. Colleen Lawton is an inspiring servant leader and renowned expert in her field. She has devoted her career to improving the lives of others while advancing world-class medicine. Dr. Lawton continues to Be The Difference in medical circles throughout our region and around the world. On behalf of the Marquette community, I wish her sincere congratulations on receiving this prestigious honor.”
— President Michael R. Lovell

Republished, with permission
By Diane Kean, Communications Manager, ASTRO

Each year, the American Association for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) awards its highest honor to radiation oncologists who have made significant impacts to the field of radiation oncology. The ASTRO Gold Medal winners represent a select class of leaders who have contributed to the field through their clinical patient care, research, teaching, mentorship and service. Congratulations to the 2021 ASTRO Gold Medal recipients, Colleen A.F. Lawton, MD, FASTRO, and Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASTRO, who join the revered class in receiving ASTRO’s highest honor.

“I am honored and thrilled to present the Gold Medal to two colleagues who have dedicated their careers to improving the lives of cancer patients and advancing the field of radiation oncology through their selfless commitment to collaboration and education at all levels, but especially their mentorship of residents and junior faculty,” said ASTRO Chair Thomas Eichler, MD, FASTRO.

“This award recognizes the profound impact of their life’s work that goes well beyond the clinic and the lab, leaving a rich legacy that will resonate within the specialty forever.”

Colleen A.F. Lawton, MD, FASTRO, is a professor and vice chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). A prominent teacher, mentor, researcher and leader, Dr. Lawton has spent her career in Milwaukee at the Medical College of Wisconsin, impacting the lives of countless cancer patients locally, nationally and internationally, thanks to the long-felt impacts of her research in prostate cancer and total body radiation therapy and her contributions to the field of radiation oncology and resident education.

Dr. Lawton received her undergraduate degree from Marquette University and her medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she completed her internship and residency in radiation oncology. When she entered medical school, she was planning to become a general practitioner, but could not quite find her niche. It wasn’t until her GYN rotation where she encountered a patient with cervix cancer being treated with radiation that the interest formed. “It was exactly what I wanted, which was caring for patients, walking with them side by side over a period of time and yet still being able to use the physics, math and science background that I was good at. It fit for me,” said Dr. Lawton.

After completing her residency in the late 1980s, Dr. Lawton joined the faculty at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she has excelled. In 2002, Dr. Lawton became a tenured professor and in 2011 she was appointed vice chair of the department. Through the decades, she has focused her clinical research and care on two key areas: total body radiation therapy for stem cell transplant patients, and later, when an opportunity arose, pivoting to prostate cancer.

The research conducted on total body irradiation established treatments that are now widely used in bone marrow transplant programs. Dr. Lawton is credited with defining late renal toxicity in adults following total body irradiation and then designing selective renal shielding systems to eliminate that toxicity. Dr. Lawton’s research in prostate cancer focused on organ-confined and lymph node positive stages.

As stated by a peer, “Ask any resident what the numbers 85–31, 92–02, 94–10, 94–13 and 98–05 mean and they will tell you immediately that these are the RTOG studies that defined contemporary practice [in treating prostate cancer].” Dr. Lawton led the development of the contouring atlas, with her GU radiation oncology colleagues, “to define the areas that you need to treat to properly radiate regional lymph nodes for high-risk prostate cancer.” The atlas has been used in multiple clinical trials and has helped to prove that there is a survival benefit to treating the lymph nodes in post-operative patients. When discussing this research, Dr. Lawton reflected, “I can’t understate how meaningful that work is to me. The advances we’ve made for prostate cancer patients, improving their lives and improving the quality of their lives through this work.”

Dr. Lawton serves as a role model for many, “giving inspiration and a practical approach for excelling in the field.” And this theme has been present in every stage of her career. Dr. Lawton served as the program director of the MCW Radiation Oncology Residency Program for 25 years and was instrumental in the creation of the Association for Directors of Radiation Oncology Programs (ADROP). She ran the in-training exam program through the ACR, encouraging leaders of the field to write questions for the exams, all to improve resident education. Dr. Lawton chaired the Radiation Oncology Resident Review Committee of the ACGME and was pivotal in building strong relationships between ASTRO and ARRO, encouraging residents to become more involved in their society. “Resident education is a really big deal to me. As time passes, these residents become colleagues, allowing me to mentor them further. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this, especially my mentoring of women,” said Dr. Lawton. She has been recognized for these efforts, including receiving ARRO’s Educator of the Year award and ABR’s Lifetime Service Award among many others.

Always with an eye to the future of the field, Dr. Lawton is also credited as leading the charge to create ASTRO’s research foundation, the Radiation Oncology Institute (ROI). Dr. Lawton was pivotal in growing the ROI from the ground up to raise money for radiation oncology research and has proudly served in various leadership roles within the ROI. She is the current vice president and next year will serve as president of the foundation. Under her guidance and leadership, the ROI has raised over $16 million, securing funding for future research to advance the field. “Through the important fundraising work, the ROI allows us to invest in leaders for the future and research for the future that continues to improve the lives of our patients,” stated Dr. Lawton.

Dr. Lawton’s service to the profession and ASTRO, as well as many other professional societies, is unparalleled. As one letter of support stated, “She has given thousands of hours of voluntary time to almost every [ASTRO] committee…almost four dozen of them, and to multiple task forces.” From the Annual Meeting Program Committee, to founding ADROP and the ROI, Dr. Lawton’s impacts are felt in every aspect of the Society and field. From 2011–2014, she was elected and served as president-elect, president and chair of ASTRO and has been actively involved in committees ranging from finance to guidelines development. Dr. Lawton currently serves as vice-chair of the Ethics Committee.

In addition to her contributions in research, her dedication to professional organizations and residents, Dr. Lawton has served as a beacon throughout her career for women in medicine. As noted in a letter of support, “…through her ability to organize, prioritize and prevail, she was a true role model in balancing life’s competing priorities and excelling in radiation oncology.

“If you put your nose to the grindstone, work hard and do it in an honest, forthright way, you can do important things,” said Dr. Lawton. When reflecting on receiving the Gold Medal, Dr. Lawton said, “You can’t even believe you’ve won. It’s so overwhelming. It’s so humbling. It’s so wonderful. I don’t know what it’s like to win an Academy Award, but it’s probably a similar feeling. Incredible.”