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Clinical Cancer Researcher Gini Fleming, MD, Firmly Believes in the Power of Ideas


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Gini Fleming, MD

Gini Fleming, MD

Gini Fleming, MD, had a peripatetic path to her destination as a gynecologic and breast cancer expert. As a child, she moved around a lot, living in about 10 or 12 different places, so she had no real sense of being born and reared in any particular place.

“My parents married young, when my father was in medical school, and then we moved during his internship and residency programs. After finishing residency, he had deferred military service overseas followed by a career switch from pediatrics to emergency medicine, as there were five kids by then and he wanted to make enough money to be able to put us through college. By the time we finally settled down in Bloomington, Illinois, I was already a sophomore in high school,” said Dr. Fleming.

Asked if being a doctor’s daughter affected her decision to pursue a career in medicine, Dr. Fleming said no. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that time. I thought I might be a playwright or a chemist; my mother had studied chemistry. I thought about a lot of careers and didn’t really settle on medicine until I was in college.”

A Pragmatic Decision

After graduating high school, Dr. Fleming entered Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in Ohio. It holds the distinction as being the oldest coeducational liberal arts college in the United States and the second oldest continuously operating coeducational institute of higher learning in the world. “I wanted to attend a school that was far enough away that I wouldn’t have to go home every weekend but close enough that I could pay for my travel home, which my parents wanted. Both my parents went to Oberlin, so there was that family connection, too,” revealed Dr. Fleming.

I love bringing a clinical trial from the initial concept all the way to fruition. There’s something truly exciting about working with new agents.
— Gini Fleming, MD

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Influenced by the same nationally renowned chemistry professor who had taught her parents, Dr. Fleming explored a career in chemistry. “But in the end, I decided chemistry didn’t offer me the opportunity to make breakthroughs, and medicine seemed to have more flexible options, so I decided to go to medical school. There was no epiphany, just a practical process of elimination,” said Dr. Fleming.

After graduating from college, Dr. Fleming entered The University of Illinois College of Medicine (UIC). “At that time, UIC had a great deal in which if you worked 25% of the time as a chemistry teaching assistant, they paid your full medical school tuition plus a salary for the first year. Plus, they had a medical school program where you didn’t have to sit in classes all day, which suited my hands-on approach. I also met my husband working as a chemistry teaching assistant at UIC, so it was a great experience all the way around,” she shared.

Hope Around the Corner

Asked if there was a particular inspirational period or mentor who influenced her decision to pursue a career in oncology, Dr. Fleming responded: “UIC was a very large medical school, and I remember that during some of our rotations, such as surgery, we didn’t even have time to attend lectures because we were so busy drawing blood. On the oncology service, Dr. Bill McGuire was the attending the first time I rotated through. He was a very charismatic person and insisted that all of the oncology attendings give student lectures. I immediately found oncology fascinating; it seemed like there were wonderful new therapies right around the corner, and I wanted to be part of it. The effects of what you did were visible. You could give chemotherapy and see tumors shrink, so the potential to make a difference in treating the sickest of the sick was captivating. I also loved the science and biology involved in oncology.

After graduating from UIC, Dr. Fleming moved to The University of Chicago Medicine for her internship and residency. “My husband and I wanted to be in Chicago, and I felt The University of Chicago had the best oncology program in town, so after my residency, I decided to stay and have been here ever since.”

She continued: “Early on in my fellowship, I pursued laboratory research, but by the end of fellowship, I had two children and realized I wasn’t going to be successful maintaining a lab, a clinical practice, and a family life, so I switched into clinical research. At that time, there was a job available in gynecologic malignancies, so I took it and sort of fell into the field. Ironically, at that time I purposely avoided breast oncology, because I thought it balkanized female oncologists, but after turning down some breast cancer jobs, I relented.”

Clinical Trials 

Dr. Fleming has spent the majority of her career in clinical trial research. As Head of the Medical Oncology Clinical Breast and Gynecologic Research Programs at The University of Chicago, she has extensive clinical research experience in the phase I, II, and III settings and is currently the Principal Investigator for Protocol Operations of the Alliance Clinical Trials Group. She also leads the Older Adult Working Group for the NRG research group, serves on the Ovarian Committee of the Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG/NRG), and formerly chaired the phase I subcommittee of the GOG.

As long as there is a will and scientific infrastructure to support cutting-edge research, I think our knowledge will be translated into cures.
— Gini Fleming, MD

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“I love bringing a clinical trial from the initial concept all the way to fruition. There’s something truly exciting about working with new agents. I remember when all-trans-retinoic acid was first available. I was a fellow and had a young patient with acute promyelocytic leukemia. She had received standard induction chemotherapy, and when she relapsed, I managed her with compassionate-use all-trans-retinoic acid as an outpatient; she didn’t get sick at all, as opposed to with her first treatment, when she nearly died. And from there, I was hooked on being part of a discipline that is rapidly advancing,” explained Dr. Fleming.

Along with her extensive clinical trial work, Dr. Fleming still dedicates a portion of her schedule to the breast and gynecologic clinic, also squeezing in tumor boards and mentoring fellows. And over the course of her notable career, she has maintained a firm optimism in the power of ideas.

“I think we will continue to find new ways to solve problems in oncology. As long as there is a will and scientific infrastructure to support cutting-edge research, I think our knowledge will be translated into cures; this may not happen all at once but for select subsets of patients at a time, and that knowledge will accrue and allow us to help larger and larger groups of patients with targeted regimens. That is why I have always been part of clinical trial groups in which physicians who are on the front lines of treatment are developing the trials. These are the people who understand the patient-related issues that are involved in the drug-development process. All in all, the future of oncology is very promising,” commented Dr. Fleming.

In her spare time, Dr. Fleming is an avid swimmer and gardener. She and her husband have recently signed up for The University of Chicago Great Books Program. “I’ve just made the last college tuition payment for my third and youngest son, so the Great Books program is my empty-nester project,” she added. ■


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