Abenaa Brewster's career in medicine is the perfect blend of challenge and compassion.
As a professor of Clinical Cancer Prevention and Epidemiology, she cares for breast cancer patients and conducts research to determine how factors like genetics, ethnicity and obesity influence a woman's risk and survival.
Brewster's desire to be challenged in high school drew her into the chemistry lab in her native Guyana, a country on the northeastern corner of South America. She planned to become a chemist after graduation, she says, but a teacher told her she had “too much personality” to be stuck in a lab.
"My older sister was going into medicine," she says, “so I decided to investigate a medical career as well.”
The two girls and their brother are close in age and competitive in spirit. All three knew they would be professionals — their parents ingrained that determination and drive at an early age.
“My family stressed the importance of education from the time we were born,” Brewster says.
Her father, a lawyer, made it clear that his children were all going to attend college. Not going wasn't an option.
“He insisted that we take our education seriously and excel in whatever we studied,” says Brewster, who earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Stanford University, a master's in cancer epidemiology from John Hopkins, and a medical degree from Harvard Medical School.
As a medical student, Brewster took a year off to work on a research project with Judy Garber, M.D., a Harvard breast oncologist.
“She taught me the benefits of breast cancer prevention over treatment,” Brewster says. “It was a whole new perspective for me. I was sold.”
At Johns Hopkins, she found “what my passion was and what I wanted to do” while studying with oncology professor Kathy Helzlsouer, M.D., who piqued Brewster’s interest in cancer epidemiology — the study of the distribution and determinants of cancer in defined populations — or as Brewster explains, “the study of where on the map people get cancer, and why they get it.”
Although Brewster says she's had some "amazing" mentors, her parents influenced her more than anyone.
“My father always told us to do our best. My mother, who died of cancer four years ago, taught me how scary a cancer diagnosis can be for patients. Because of her, I changed how I approach my own patients.”
The lessons she learned from her mother are simple, but profound.
For example, when Brewster first started practicing medicine, she’d enter the exam room to find a patient waiting for her, already in a gown. Without meaning to, Brewster’s mom changed that practice.
“My mom knew what it was like to be waiting for the oncologist with that fear, anxiety and expectation,” Brewster says. “It made me realize that’s not the time for a patient to be sitting in a gown, because it makes them feel even more vulnerable.”
Now, when Brewster meets a new patient or has a consultation, she asks her nurse to keep the patient dressed in street clothes.
“I want to meet them as an individual, and have that interaction in a very respectful manner,” she says. “It brings down their anxiety level.”
Today, Brewster offers advice to young doctors about communicating with patients.
“I tell them, 'patients are picking up on everything about you, from the time you walk into that exam room. Everything about your body language conveys a message,’” she says.
“So, no matter what’s going on in your personal life, when you open that door, you’ve become a partner to that patient. And in doing that, you have to enter with a positive attitude.”
She strives to strike a balance between work and activities outside the hospital, and is an avid traveler and scuba diver. One of her favorite underwater destinations is Belize’s Blue Hole, a sinkhole caused by the collapse of a cavern formed during the glacial ages tens of thousands of years ago. A perfectly circular expanse of sapphire blue water measuring almost a thousand feet across and just over 400 feet deep, Blue Hole is home to a variety of marine life and is considered one of the 10 best dive spots on the planet.
Brewster also is something of a foodie.
She loves Houston’s diverse restaurant scene and exploring new eateries with friends. She also walks almost every day to relieve stress.
And it’s an exciting time to be a breast cancer researcher, she says.
“We have so many new drugs for HER2 and estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer,” she says. “We’re still struggling with triple negative breast cancer, but tremendous amounts of resources are being spent to optimize treatment for this type of cancer.”
And Brewster wants to be there for all the victories.