Greg Simon was on his way to visit a friend in San Francisco in 2014 when he called his doctor to get the results of a long-overdue physical. Your cholesterol and PSA tests are fine, his doctor said. But, he added, you have leukemia.
On Friday, Simon, 64, was named by Vice President Biden to lead the Obama administration's cancer "moonshot" effort.
In an interview, he said he learned from his illness that "you have no idea what kind of patient you are going to be. I always thought I would be a prostate cancer patient or have high cholesterol, but they weren't the problem."
As executive director of the new Cancer Moonshot Task Force, he will oversee a group of government agencies charged with making recommendations on how to advance understanding of cancer, speed up treatments and improve patient care. "We're going to try to figure out what we can achieve in 10 years, and then how to achieve it in five, literally, and not just through money," but also through collaborations and a change in cultures, he said.
The big question now is how much he can accomplish in the administration's remaining time in office.
Simon has focused for years in the public and private sectors on issues involving science and medical innovation. He worked for former vice president Al Gore, both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, held a high-ranking position at drug giant Pfizer and co-founded FasterCures, a nonprofit backed by philanthropist Michael Milken that works to accelerate the development of promising therapies.
Most recently, he was chief executive of Poliwogg, a New York-based financial company that works to increase investment in health care.
Ellen Sigal, chairperson and founder of the nonprofit Friends of Cancer Research, praised his selection. "I think he has all of the credibility needed to make moonshot a reality," she said.
In a statement, Biden said Simon "will bring an invaluable knowledge of the health care landscape to the task force."
The vice president first called for a "moonshot" effort last fall, months after his son Beau died from brain cancer. President Obama endorsed the idea during his State of the Union address. The administration has asked Congress for $755 million for the effort; that's on top of $195 million going for moonshot activities this year.
The increased funding would boost spending on immunotherapy, a promising treatment in which the immune system is harnessed to fight cancer; and on research into early detection and genetic changes in cancer cells, as well as efforts to increase data sharing, the administration says.
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where Simon was treated for leukemia, doctors delayed chemotherapy until last summer when his red blood cells started to plummet.
"Normally you would expect [chronic lymphocytic leukemia] to come back," he said. "But in my case, because of the strength of my response and the fact that I didn't get sick from the chemo, my doctors say I might not have to face it again."
While Simon was hospitalized, one thing stood out: "There were a lot of people in the chemo world younger than me and not doing as well as I was."