Relentless Researcher: How a Detroit Oncology Surgeon Is Working to Beat Breast Cancer
Anyone who claims TV rots a child’s mind should learn from Dr. Lisa Newman. As a girl, she loved watching "General Hospital," especially Dr. Lesley Webber. The character was so beloved that the show’s fans picketed the network after the character died in a car wreck. “That was my one exposure to medicine,” she says. Newman was only 9 or 10 when she decided to be a doctor – and never wavered.
Today, you would be forgiven for wondering how Newman squeezes more than 24 hours from each day. The answer is simple. She’s out of bed by 4 a.m., at the office by 6 and on the job for 12 to 14 hours.
Then again, the 58-year-old breast cancer surgeon never lacks for something to fill her time. She heads up the Henry Ford Health Cancer Institute’s Breast Oncology Program and its new International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes.
“I generally describe my day as ‘baseline chaos,’” she adds with an easy laugh. “I’m usually in the hospital seven days a week, but I love, love, love what I do.”
Did we mention that she’s also a rock-star breast cancer researcher? Thanks to a $600,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, she expanded her study of an aggressive type of cancer that disproportionately affects African-American women.
The group also tapped Newman to join its Komen Scholars, and most recently she was appointed to their Scientific Advisory Board, where she helps shape the group’s research and educational and advocacy work.
Newman traces her focus, drive and work ethic to her parents. “Work hard and study hard so you can use your skills and expertise to make things better for your family and your community,” Newman recalls. “That message was fundamental in my upbringing and who I am today.”
Determined to find answers
In her first job as a general surgeon, Newman noticed a disturbing trend among her black breast cancer patients. They tended to be younger, with bulkier, faster-growing tumors. They were also more likely to die compared to white patients, even though they received the same treatment. Determined to find answers, Newman decided to specialize in cancer surgery and research.
In recent years, scientists have discovered that breast cancer isn’t a uniform disease. It includes a broad range of tumor types, Newman says. Each type responds differently to treatments. And some are deadlier than others.
Newman studies triple negative, or TNBC, breast cancers. The name refers to the lack of three specific tumor markers, she says. TNBC is a challenging cancer. It spreads faster than other types and doesn’t respond to treatments targeted at those three biomarkers, Newman says.
Not only is TNBC more common in black and younger women, it contributes more than its share to breast cancer deaths worldwide, Newman says. To better understand the link between African ancestry and TNBC, Newman began working in Ghana about 13 years ago. Ghana is in western, sub-Saharan Africa – a region that was prominent in the colonial-era trans-Atlantic slave trade. African-Americans and Ghanaians therefore have a “substantial shared ancestry,” Newman says, and TNBC is even more common among Ghanaians than African-Americans.
Working toward a cure
About five years ago, Newman expanded her research to Ethiopia in eastern Africa. She found that TNBC is much less common there compared to Ghana and among African-Americans. She believes this reflects important inherited genetic patterns because, historically, the east-African slave trade resulted in forced migration of east Africans to the Mideast and Asia.
This research allows scientists to better understand the spectrum of breast cancer subtypes and develop better treatments, says Newman, who visits Africa about five times each year. Teaching, seeing patients, surgeries and research fill her trips, which last nearly a week. One highlight is delivering toys and educational supplies to the pediatrics department. At times, Newman has personally paid for her 20-year-old son and 23-year-old stepson to join her.
Newman’s African medical partners also travel to Michigan. “These international research efforts are extremely exciting because of the prospects for conquering breast cancer,” Newman says, “and they are also immensely gratifying on a personal level.”
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