Early Exposure to Medicine Inspired Committed Careers

By their early 20s, two of Yale’s most prominent cancer experts had each been immersed in healthcare battles for many years. Few people would have been surprised if they chose careers outside of healthcare. Instead, Drs. Eric Winer and Patricia LoRusso chose to pursue cancer care and research as their work. Both are now leaders of two of the country’s most prestigious organizations for cancer professionals.

Winer, director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of the Smilow Cancer Hospital, has been active in the leadership of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) for years and has just completed his term as president of ASCO and is now the organization’s Chair of the Board. In early June, he presided over the organization’s annual meeting that included more than 43,000 attendees. ASCO has over 46,000 members worldwide, the majority of whom are oncologists and cancer researchers.

LoRusso, who is chief of experimental therapeutics at Yale Cancer Center, was recently elected the 2024-25 president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) at its annual meeting in April. AACR, the first and largest cancer organization which spans basic, translational and clinical science, includes more than 54,000 members in 130 countries and territories.

In his June 3 ASCO address in Chicago, Winer capped his year-long tenure with a talk that emphasized the theme of his presidency, “Partnering with Patients: The Cornerstone of Cancer Care and Research.” He built his case for the importance of the patient-physician partnership by sharing his own extensive experience as a patient, matter-of-factly describing his childhood with an inherited bleeding disorder, hemophilia, in a time before effective treatments were available.

“I spent much of my childhood at Boston Children’s Hospital in a revolving door of hospitalizations and prolonged clinic visits to address recurrent bleeding episodes,” Winer said, adding that his parents actively “sought out doctors who would partner with them and quickly moved on to a new physician if their voices were not heard….after all, they were the experts in what I was going through.” In particular, he mentioned an orthopedic surgeon who taught his father how to splint, helping to avoid even more hospital visits for his young son.

As a teenager, Winer’s life practically changed overnight with the treatment Factor VIII and he went off to college and then medical school. However, his personal medical journey was far from over, as he explained to the audience, chronicling decades more of health issues as a result of HIV and Hepatitis C resulting from his clotting factor treatments. As someone who was infected with HIV in the early days of the epidemic, Winer experienced first-hand the stigmatization that was widespread. He went on to describe his challenge obtaining dental care as a result of his health status.

“Stigma can be crushing” was one of the five lessons shared at the conference by Winer, informed by decades as a physician and as a patient. While much of the stigma associated with cancer has dissipated in the United States, individuals who develop cancer from tobacco use or other behaviors may still experience discrimination. Others lessons include the reminder that for the seriously ill, the relationship with their health care team is paramount; and that people have very different reactions to what may seem to be similar health problems. The final two lessons were the need to push hard for advances in treatment, and a reminder that, everyone including clinicians, face life challenges that we can draw upon in our interactions with patients.

LoRusso’s life experience and chosen career path resonate with those lessons. Her life also changed dramatically when she was young and both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer, a circumstance that would influence the rest of her life.

“I went into medicine, specifically oncology, for a very personal reason. When I was young, both my parents had died of cancer. And I always look at cancer as my enemy. It’s been my enemy for many, many years,” LoRusso explained in a video interview for AACR. “[But] I realized, when my mother died, and then subsequently my father died…before I graduated from high school, [that] I could use it as a gift and use their deaths from cancer as a nidus to focus my career and so since I was young, I wanted to be a medical oncologist.”

“When my parents were sick, there were no drugs,” said LoRusso, who helped build the early phase clinical trials program at Yale, where she leads Experimental Therapeutics.

“[Clinical trials are] the only way that we are going to make clinical discoveries that are going to advance therapeutic interventions for our patients……It’s important to understand why and how new drugs work, and also sometimes even more important than why they work, understanding why they don’t,” LoRusso said in the AACR interview.

“Cancer research will equate to lives saved and years lived,” LoRusso said, noting that treatments can give patients the gift of time for “many, many personal things that may not have been experienced had we not had that next drug to treat our patients, or that next drug to prevent our children from developing that same disease that we had.”

Life experience brought Winer and LoRusso to their professions, while commitment to patients and their treatment propelled them to lead.

“Partnerships are crucial for the well being and career fulfillment of us as oncologists,” said Winer, in concluding his talk. “When an oncologist enters a room with a patient there’s an opportunity to open a door and walk into a patient’s life…the experience can be both rich and rewarding.”