Nelson Ambrogio had Pearl Jam cued up in his headphones in Hopkinton, Mass., when he took off across the Boston Marathon starting line in April. As a charity runner, the 11:15 a.m. start time was later than he was accustomed to running. But he was ready, fueled by coffee and toast, the electric crowd, the beautiful weather, and of course, his reason for running: His brother Daniel, who died of a rare cancer four years ago.
He'd barely started the race when the connection in his headphones stopped working. No music. And he wasn't going to stop running to fix it. Instead, he listened in awe to the half-million people who lined the 26.2 mile-course.
"I was listening to the crowd the whole time, especially at the end,” Ambrogio says. “That was something that I had never experienced. I hadn't heard such a loud crowd before."
The cheering was even louder in the last mile, as people packed Boylston Street to encourage every runner who passed. And when Ambrogio crossed the finish line, it was with tears in his eyes. His brother's son and his children were there waiting for him.
"That made it even more emotional and more special," Ambrogio says.
As senior vice president and general manager of U.S. oncology at Bayer, Ambrogio knows the toll that cancer takes on patients and their families. And he knows what that toll looks like up close, too.
"My brother was diagnosed with a rare cancer called cholangiocarcinoma, and then he passed away actually, shortly after the diagnosis," he says.
From there, everything happened fast.
"There was not even, unfortunately, an opportunity to have time for a biopsy," Ambrogio says.
Ambrogio not only ran in his brother's memory, but to raise money and awareness for rare cancers on behalf of the TargetCancer Foundation, which works with Bayer and funds innovative research, fosters collaborations, and raises awareness among scientists, clinicians and patients.
The long run
Ambrogio has worked in healthcare and pharma for more than 20 years and took on the role of general manager of U.S. oncology in 2021. He always works with patients like his brother in mind.
"Fully dedicating myself to oncology was something that I really, really wanted to do. I believe that there's so much that can be done," he says. "There's still so much unmet need and I'm inspired by all the progress that is being done and now, even more inspired and privileged to able to contribute to that progress."
Bayer is increasingly focusing its work on precision oncology, an area that Ambrogio says he finds exciting and innovative. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to cancer treatment, precision medicine is targeted to the individual. Less than a week before the Boston Marathon, in fact, Bayer announced that it was one of the founding members of the new Precision Cancer Consortium, along with GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Roche. The consortium aims to increase patient access to precision diagnostics.
"There's still so much unmet need and I'm inspired by all the progress that is being done and now, even more inspired and privileged to able to contribute to that progress."
Senior Vice President and General Manager of U.S. Oncology at Bayer
This promise in precision oncology, especially for treating rare cancers, is why Ambrogio wanted to run in support of the TargetCancer Foundation. Ambrogio had originally set a minimum fundraising goal of $7,500, but in his heart, he really wanted to raise more than $10,000. He ended up smashing through both goals, raising $12,800 for the charity.
"It was really humbling to see how much support I got from friends, family and colleagues as well, and also the very generous matching program from Bayer," he says.
He hopes that running the Boston Marathon will have raised not only money, but awareness of this promising new frontier in cancer treatment.
"We are on the verge of a paradigm shift with a tumor-agnostic approach to treatment where we are developing medicines to treat patients based on the genomic profile of their tumors and not the organ where the tumor is," he says. "And that helps healthcare providers select the best treatment for their patients, but ultimately will benefit so many patients in an area with such a huge unmet need."
Miles to go
Now that they're on the precipice of something so profound in cancer testing and treatment, it's easy for Ambrogio to slide into "what ifs" when it comes to his brother's cancer diagnosis.
"I often ask myself, what would have happened if he would have been tested? And maybe there would have been genomic makeup results that that could have indicated that some treatment would have worked. But you know, unfortunately, that was not possible at the time," he says. "So, that's something that really drives me currently in the age of precision medicine: That cancer is defined by the genomic makeup and that has a profound impact on what doctors can learn about the patient's diagnosis, and then more importantly, how it can be treated."
Ambrogio crossed the finish line with a time of four hours and 25 minutes, shaving four minutes off his personal best. The race was fun, but hard, with the wind blowing toward the runners instead of at their backs. Ambrogio felt the race getting harder at mile 20, known as Heartbreak Hill in the marathon for its steep half-mile incline, and the wind seemed to be blowing even more strongly. He was struggling and digging deep, and there were still six miles to go. But anytime the race felt like a battle, he thought of his brother.
It's what pushed him forward in the race, and what continues to motivate his work with Bayer and in the oncology space.
"It was in the moments where I struggled that I reminded myself of why I was doing what I was doing," he says. "And that kept me going."