2023 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Eric J. “Rocky” Feuer

Built a sophisticated system using statistical analysis to better understand and interpret national cancer trends, leading to significant prevention, screening and treatment options that have saved countless lives.

During almost four decades at the National Cancer Institute, Eric “Rocky” Feuer has used data and statistical analysis to help the public, policymakers and researchers understand the impact of cancer in the U.S. population, as well as how a host of new prevention, screening and treatment options could reduce cancer rates.  

“Rocky is a national treasure and his accomplishments have impacted and benefited millions of American lives,” said Katrina Goddard, director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences. “He created statistical models that didn’t exist before, shedding light on cancer data that has led to changes in policy and improved public health outcomes.”   

Early in his career, Feuer developed new methods to estimate the chances of individuals being diagnosed with cancer at different times during their lives. These methods found that one in eight women would be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, a striking statistic that helped galvanize women’s health advocacy groups to urge more awareness and spending on this disease, eventually leading to long-term declines in the death rates.  

Shedding light on prostate cancer 

Feuer also developed a tool for researchers to analyze cancer trends, finding that, at peak rates, one in six men would be diagnosed with prostate cancer and that one in 20 Black men would die from the disease. This data led to new advocacy efforts for prostate cancer screening and treatment, and a nationwide dialogue about both the potential harms and benefits of prostate cancer screening.  

“Rocky has helped us understand population health measures for all types of cancers,” said Dr. John Wong of the Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute. “His work affects public health and has helped people live longer and healthier lives.” 

In the 1990s, Feuer realized that characterizing cancer trends was not enough. The institute needed to be able to explain these trends to better understand which cancer control efforts were working for prevention, screening and treatment.  

Feuer knew this effort would require innovation in population disease modeling—the analysis of disease dynamics and prediction of outcomes for specific cancer control strategies. But modeling was not always a reliable scientific method because different models frequently produced divergent results.  

Creating a national cancer surveillance modeling network 

This mission led Feuer to create the Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network, or CISNET, in 2000, where groups of statisticians and scientists address critical questions collaboratively. 

During the past two decades, CISNET changed the way national guidelines for cancer screening are established, supporting the medical community in making important and updated evidence-based recommendations about screening for breast, colorectal, lung and cervical cancers.  

This surveillance network, for example, assisted national experts in recommending lowering the age to start colon cancer screening to 45. The network also called for broadening lung cancer screening eligibility to include lighter smokers starting at age 50 and concluded that human papillomavirus testing for cervical cancer can be substituted for PAP smears for women aged 30 to 65. 

“Rocky has changed how we think about and analyze data, and has had a tremendous impact,” Wong said. “With CISNET, he demonstrated that both screening and clinical therapy impact cancer mortality rates.” 

Today CISNET is the leading body of cancer modelers in the world, consisting of more than 200 scientists at over 30 institutions. Goddard said Feuer’s leadership skills and collaborative manner have had a profound impact. 

“Rocky continues to shepherd this diverse group, guiding them to focus on key questions while working personally with each to ensure the highest standards of rigor and transparency,” Goddard said. “His remarkable leadership and commitment to public service have transformed competitors into collaborators for the common good.” 

Feuer said the statistical analysis he has engaged in for decades is “backbencher type of work,” but added it has helped “move people to action” and improve public health. 

“I feel grateful and honored to have the opportunity to do this work,” Feuer said.