Patients know that choosing a world-class institution means they’ll be treated by world-class doctors. That’s why they choose MD Anderson. It’s where the next generation of outstanding physicians is caring for cancer patients today. Five of the institution’s best young physicians share what motivates them, why they chose to work in oncology and how they are constantly inspired by their patients.
Van Morris, M.D.
Assistant professor of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology
During his residency, Van Morris noticed a unique quality about cancer patients that drew him to pursue a career as a medical oncologist.
“When patients first hear the word cancer, the mask of who they want you, as their doctor, to see comes off. From that point, the doors open to form an authentic doctor-patient relationship. And as a clinician, that’s most gratifying to me.”
The quickly evolving field of molecular oncology offers Morris a chance to work as part of a team in what he calls the most fascinating science in medicine. He was drawn to MD Anderson’s Fellowship Program because of its combined emphasis on high-quality patient care and patient-centered research.
Under the guidance of Scott Kopetz, M.D., associate professor of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, Morris secured multiple grants and wrote a clinical trial of colon cancer that’s driven by a mutation in the BRAF gene. Five to 10% of all colon cancer patients carry this mutation, which is associated with particularly poor outcomes. Under Cathy Eng, M.D., professor of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, Morris wrote and developed the first-ever Phase II clinical trial of the drug nivolumab for the treatment of anal cancer that spreads and resists treatment — a collaboration with MD Anderson’s immunotherapy platform.
These types of high-caliber mentorship opportunities for hematology and oncology fellows and junior faculty aren’t available elsewhere, he says.
Isabella Glitza Oliva, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant professor of Melanoma Medical Oncology
Without a doubt, Isabella Glitza Oliva is a high-energy adventurer. She’s an avid world traveler who, so far, has pins in 49 countries on the map. She’s a car and motorcycle enthusiast and is passionate about diving. She’s also a gourmet cook who doesn’t have the patience for baking.
But when it comes to caring for patients, she knows how to gear down when the time is right.
“I tell them cancer is a journey that comes with fast as well as slow passages,” says Glitza Oliva. “I’ll always let them drive, but I’ll be in the passenger seat with the map in my hand to help navigate the way.”
A melanoma medical oncologist, Glitza Oliva chose her specialty because of the mentorship she received as a fellow at MD Anderson and rapid developments in the field of immunotherapy, where new drugs and therapies that boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer are being designed and used.
Glitza Oliva is particularly interested in leptomeningeal disease, or LMD — a complication that arises when melanoma spreads to the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. MD Anderson has been a leader in the treatment of this rare condition, using an immunotherapy approach that involves injections directly into the spinal fluid.
“Ultimately, I’m driven by my passion to help people. By choosing this field, I hope to offer long-term care, and that’s very important to me.”
Nishin Bhadkamkar, M.D.
Assistant professor of General Oncology
Nishin Bhadkamkar is a second-generation contributor to MD Anderson’s mission. His mom, Viju, has been involved in clinical research for more than 25 years.
“We talked about cancer at the dinner table. Obviously as a kid, I didn’t fully understand it, but it piqued my interest in medicine.”
It was an MD Anderson summer program during college, working alongside physicians who would become his mentors, that solidified his interest in oncology.
Bhadkamkar calls oncology a great fit for his personality.
“Intellectually, it’s an interesting and satisfying specialty; there’s always new research on the horizon. There’s also the human aspect and chance to develop meaningful relationships with patients. That’s very important to me.”
As an MD Anderson fellow, Bhadkamkar enjoyed his work at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, where MD Anderson doctors provide cancer care to underserved patients.
At LBJ, Bhadkamkar also is training MD Anderson’s hematology and oncology fellows.
Delivering MD Anderson-quality care to those in need is a responsibility he and his LBJ colleagues take very seriously. He hopes to make MD Anderson’s therapeutic clinical trials more accessible to LBJ patients.
Terri Woodard, M.D.
Assistant professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine
Terri Woodard was groomed to be a geriatrician before she switched her focus to obstetrics and gynecology, and then reproductive endocrinology. She began seeing a number of cancer patients who were struggling with fertility issues, and found it rewarding to counsel them about their options for having children.
“There was this huge quality of life issue that was not being adequately addressed in the cancer population. I realized I could make a difference in these women’s lives.”
As MD Anderson’s first reproductive oncologist, Woodard has helped build the institution’s onco-fertility service — making patients aware of fertility options before and after cancer treatment.
Much like oncology, it’s an exciting time in reproductive endocrinology, says Woodard. Just four years ago, freezing a woman’s eggs was still considered experimental.
“We also have the possibility of freezing ovarian tissue and will soon open a research protocol,” she says. “If a young woman or girl needs chemotherapy right away, we can harvest ovarian tissue and place it back into her body if she has ovarian failure. In the future, we’ll be able to get immature eggs from the tissue and mature them in the lab.”
After three years at MD Anderson, Woodard is now beginning to see patients who’ve completed cancer treatment and are going on to have children, using the eggs or embryos they froze before treatment. Others have used gestational carriers, or even donor eggs.
Jianjun Zhang, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant professor of Thoracic Head and Neck Oncology
Physician scientist Jianjun Zhang was always fascinated with physics and biology, but he turned his interest to cancer science after his father died of the disease when Zhang was still in high school. Following training in China, he traveled to the United States to continue his education, which included an oncology fellowship at MD Anderson.
“Although many new drugs have been approved during the past several years, the help we can offer our patients, especially in lung cancer, is still very modest,” he says. “That’s why we need more research.”
To maximize his impact, Zhang balances a career in both the clinic and lab.
“I have to see patients so that I know I’m helping them. But I also feel it’s our obligation to conduct research to advance the field so we can potentially help even more patients,” he says.
Zhang’s research involves genomic profiling of specific subsets of lung cancers. He’s focused on understanding patients’ response to therapy, with the goal of finding better approaches to improve treatments. He’s also interested in immuno-genomics — applying genomic technologies to understand the immune system.
“We know the genomic profiles of cancers may be related to response to immunotherapy,” he explains. “We’re trying to use that as a tool to look at both the genomic profile of the cancer and the genomic profile of the immune cells to understand that relationship — and how to improve treatment efficacy.”