Many know Cheri Canon, M.D., Professor and Witten-Stanley Endowed Chair of Radiology at UAB, not only as an exceptional leader and clinician, but as tireless advocate for the advancement of women and minorities who are under-represented in medicine. But her advocacy wasn’t always part of her career vision. 

canon19“For the first half of my career, I didn’t think about gender at all,” Canon said. “I actually thought we should be agnostic to gender. But then I came to realize that we can’t do that. If we’re going to get the equity and diversity that we all know we need, we’re going to have to be a lot more intentional.”

Born and raised in Texas, the younger of two children, Canon described herself as a “tomboy” who “didn’t even think of myself as a girl.” Her parents were always supportive of her ambitions, which settled on medicine as a teenager. As a child, she had other helping professions in mind. She recalled an art project in second grade in which she proclaimed she wanted to be a veterinarian, make $3 an hour, “cook and clean,” and live in “Floradu.” 

As an adolescent with a strong aptitude for science, she was taken under the wing of the local family practitioner, who went out of his way to mentor promising young people. Canon started working in his office in a clerical role, filing and answering phones. After a while, the doctor started pulling her into patient visits, and then brought her along when he made rounds at the hospital. It was during her time shadowing that she began to cultivate her lifelong love of medicine. 

After completing undergraduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, Canon began medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She enjoyed parts of the potential career path in medicine, and felt a particular affinity for surgery. When she decided on orthopedic surgery as a specialty, she took a radiology elective to further this goal.

It was in that radiology elective that she experienced an epiphany: radiology was, in her words, a “perfect fit.” She characterized her determination to pivot toward this specialty as an easy decision. 

This decision, however, rested less easily with her extended family, who questioned the suitability of radiology. They felt it would not be sufficiently patient-facing for their people-loving relative; faulty perceptions of the specialty played an important role. Canon’s career direction caused family rifts that were long in healing. 

Her choice in where to complete her residency was also a factor in these family divisions. As she neared the end of medical school, Canon began looking into residency programs throughout the Southeast. There were many elements to consider: the institutional culture, the quality of the program, the city, and its proximity to where Malcolm Nelson, the man who would become her husband, was training in emergency medicine in Baton Rouge. 

Nelson judiciously avoided trying to influence her decision. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told her. “You do what you need to do, and then we’ll be back together at some point.”

Canon originally hadn’t planned on interviewing in Alabama. But her career advisor in Galveston encouraged her to take a look, assuring her, “It’s a great program.” She didn’t know anyone in the state; she was leaning toward Vanderbilt. But in the course of her interview, everything changed. 

“I was impressed with everyone I met,” she remembered. “When I came here, to UAB, it was just like when I decided on radiology: I just knew.”

Canon chose UAB School of Medicine; at the time she had no idea that this would serve as her professional home moving forward. She formed a nearly immediate collegial relationship with a man who would serve as her mentor: program director Robert Koehler, M.D. Koehler, along with other members of the radiology department, offered her opportunities to serve on key committees and to become involved in enterprises that would advance her career.

Canon recalled one interaction with Koehler that took place in his office. She had developed an interest in helping lead the residency program. When Koehler asked where she wanted to be in five years, Canon indicated where Koehler himself was seated behind his desk, and said, “Sitting in that chair.” Instead of seeing her as a threat, Koehler did everything in his power to ensure she reached that goal – which she did.

She had the opportunity to learn more about operations, which led to her becoming vice-chair of operations. Through this experience, she came to realize her enjoyment of problem-solving and of leading a team. 

After that, Canon said, “Everything just unfolded. You see things that you think you can make better, and you step in and you try to do it.” She says that in this way, people are drawn into work that they’re passionate about, which helps them achieve superior performance. 

Canon’s superior performance led to her being named interim chair with the departure of the former chair, Reginald Munden, M.D., in 2010. Ultimately, after extended discussion with the faculty in the Department of Radiology, Ray Watts., M.D., then the dean of the UAB School of Medicine and senior vice president for medicine, asked Canon to assume the role of chair permanently – on February 14, 2011.

Canon’s accolades are numerous: She was the UAB School of Medicine Curriculum Committee Chair when an organ-based curriculum was implemented. She sat on the UAB Health Services Foundation Board of Directors and currently the UAB Medicine Joint Operating Leadership Council. Her national presence is no less remarkable: she served as an oral examiner for the American Board of Radiology (ABR) for 11 years, and was a member of the ABR Exam Committee for GI, chaired the GI Committer for the ABR Certifying and Maintenance of Certification Examinations. She received the ABR Lifetime Service Award in 2013, and was appointed to the ABR Board of Trustees in 2016. She now serves on its Board of Governors. Canon was vice president of the American College of Radiology (ACR), chancellor on the board, and previously served as chair of the ACR Commission on Education and the ACR 2015 and 2016 Program Committees. She has also assumed the role of President-elect  for the Society of Chairs of Academic Radiology Departments and will serve as only its second women President in 2020. Additionally, she sits on the boards of directors for the Association of University Radiologists, the Society of Abdominal Radiology, and the Academy of Radiology Research..

However, she hopes her legacy will expand beyond radiology. She wants, she says, to leave behind a thriving academic radiology department and wonderful team, but also to be able to see as many women radiology chairs as men across the United States. The ideal, she said, is to work yourself out of a job where advocacy for diverse representation is concerned. 

The issue of women’s advancement isn’t theoretical for Canon – it involves practical steps, intentionality, and deep analysis. It is also personal. In the course of her medical education, she experienced overt sexual harassment that left her deeply shaken. She confided in a woman colleague, who reported it to leadership. A male leader assumed responsibility for handling the situation, assured Canon that none of it was her fault, and dealt with the offender publicly and decisively. At the time, when sexual harassment was perceived as a “non-issue,” leadership’s response to the situation was particularly meaningful and courageous. She sees this incident as a pivot point in her career – the shame and misery that accompanied the initial event, and the effectiveness of how it was ultimately handled. 

“Even now, it’s pivotal for me,” she said. “I try to remind myself of the feelings I had then.” She noted that while 50% of women in medicine report having been subjected to sexual harassment, the actual numbers are far higher.

Early in her career, she said, she ignored the small micro-aggressions. In hindsight, she realized, this was a missed opportunity to let someone know their behavior was unacceptable. “Many do not realize their micro-aggressions are a manifestation of their implicit bias. I think it’s an opportunity to educate. I didn’t usually take those opportunities. I do now.”

When she realized a few years ago she was too busy, Canon began delegating and unloading responsibilities. However, she decided that she would retain any responsibilities pertaining to the advancement of women. Both leadership, staff and faculty must be involved and committed, she believes, for efforts toward equity to succeed. She pointed to her own department, which drastically improved the recruitment of qualified diverse residents in its most recent match cycle. She credits this improvement to the resident leadership team who changed recruitment and interview procedures, and implemented deliberate, ongoing efforts to create dialogue with medical students. 

Canon stressed that her success is due not only to her own efforts, but also that of the individuals with which she’s been fortunate to work over the years – not only her mentors and sponsors, but her current team in the Department of Radiology. 

And there’s one team player that Canon insists be acknowledged: her husband, Malcolm Nelson, M.D. “I can’t imagine doing my job and having these convictions without an incredibly supportive husband,” she said. “It would not have worked. He is beyond supportive. He is the main caregiver for our children . . . The first half of our marriage, I raised the family, and then it flipped. He’s been the one who for the last 10 years has been getting the kids to school, to doctor’s appointments. He’s the household organizer; he keeps the kids when I travel.”

Canon is now looking toward not only today’s projects, but toward her ultimate contribution to her field and to her work on behalf of women. To any young women considering following in her footsteps, Canon advised: “Do what you love. Be fearless. Make those big decisions and don’t be afraid to fail.”