Internationally recognized genitourinary oncologist Maha Hussain, MD, FACP, FASCO, was born and reared in Baghdad, Iraq. “I came from a family that stressed the value of higher education and especially medicine. I have three uncles who are physicians, and my father encouraged my three siblings and me to become doctors. He understood the important role doctors play in society and considered it a fulfilling career, one that would give me the opportunity to make a difference,” Dr. Hussain told The ASCO Post.
The child of two chemists, Dr. Hussain recalled that ever since she was a child in elementary school, she always wanted to become a doctor. After graduating from her primary education, Dr. Hussain set her sights on a career in medicine. Acceptance to the University of Baghdad College of Medicine required the highest-ranking scores of a one-time national exam, a highly competitive test in which the absolute score determines one’s eligibility for medical school.
“The University of Baghdad and its Medical College is not only the top-rated university in Iraq, but also in the region. So there was considerable pressure going into the test. Thankfully, I tested very well and was accepted into medical school in 1974,” she revealed.
Once in medical school, Dr. Hussain soon realized that only those who truly love medicine as a calling could endure the demanding 6-year medical education and the postgraduate training process, which included service in rural areas. Dr. Hussain went to medical school during the mid-1970s, a time when sexism was endemic in U.S. medical schools. Asked about her experience she responded: “During the time I was in medical school, I had female professors who had graduated in the 1960s and 1970s. And there were women from my parents’ generation who had graduated in the 1950s. More than one-third of my medical school classes were women.”
She continued: “Yes, there were issues that were difficult for female residents and doctors, especially those who wanted to marry and have children, during the intense training required. But I must say, neither I nor my other female students and physicians felt discriminated against. This was probably attributed to the progressive attitudes in urban areas of Iraq and the heavy importance our society puts on education.”
First to England, Then to Michigan
Dr. Hussain graduated from medical school in 1980 and married that same year. “Within 5 weeks of my graduation and marriage, my husband and I decided to leave Iraq and go to England for postgraduate training. My husband is also a physician, and he had gone through the mandatory military and public health services. We spent 3 great years in England. One of my uncles in the United States who was an academic oncologist in Michigan at Wayne State University kept encouraging us to come to America and take advantage of the educational and research advantages. So we left England, and I did my residency and fellowship at Wayne State University,” explained Dr. Hussain.Error loading Partial View script (file: ~/Views/MacroPartials/TAP Article Portrait and Quote.cshtml)
Early on, Dr. Hussain noted she was fascinated with nephrology, but at Wayne State, her interactions with the oncology faculty and cancer patients had a profound effect on her career path. “Once I was fully immersed in oncology, I fell in love with the field, and nephrology became an afterthought. Remember, this was the mid-1980s, an incredibly exciting time in the field of oncology. Clinicians were beginning to talk seriously about the potential cures attributed to adjuvant therapy and the role of platinum-based treatments, such as cisplatin, curing testicular cancer. Moreover, drug discovery from the lab to clinical trials was exploding, bringing unlimited promise to the field. I felt it was a great opportunity to join a field that not only was at the cutting edge of science, but one that truly made a difference.”
Career in Genitourinary Cancer
Asked about her decision to pursue a career in genitourinary cancer, Dr. Hussain commented: “Part of my training at Wayne State took place at the VA hospital, I saw a lot of smoking-related cancers such as lung and head and neck, and because the veteran population was mainly older men, I saw a lot of prostate cancer. I was fascinated by the divergent biology and pathologies of these cancers, was surprised by how little was available to manage advanced disease, and it just seemed like such an opportunity to help people and have a real impact in oncology.” She continued: “I entered my hem/onc fellowship being groomed to be a breast cancer specialist, but my interactions with patients at the VA led me to genitourinary cancer, which ended up to be a wonderful choice.”
At Wayne State, the Hem/Onc Division was led by Dr. Larry Baker and the fellowship by Dr. Rick Pazdur, both of whom provided a great learning and mentorship environment to the fellows to develop an academic career.” Part of the fellowship requirement was spending a certain portion of time in the research laboratory, which is where Dr. Hussain met John Ensley, MD, a head and neck cancer expert and translational researcher. “He was really a fantastic mentor, and I worked in his lab on circulating tumor cells looking at biomarkers for detection of bone marrow micrometastasis in prostate cancer. It was a great learning experience; however, I realized my passion was in clinical research, partnering with translational researchers and others to come up with the best possible treatment protocols for patients,” said Dr. Hussain.
Wearing Many Hats at Lurie
In 2016, Dr. Hussain’s distinguished oncologic journey brought her to the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, where she serves as the Deputy Director of the Lurie Cancer Center. Asked about her success in oncology she replied: “I have been quite fortunate in that I have been able to do everything I set my sights on in oncology. My success is in part my own drive and my husband’s support, but more important, it is working with and being part of terrific teams focused on meaningful goals.”
I take pride in being a mentor, which is a vital role to ensure the field has a steady influx of dedicated bright young investigators and clinicians.— Maha Hussain, MD, FACP, FASCO
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Dr. Hussain currently wears several hats at Lurie Cancer Center. “I’m working with our team on enhancing the center’s capacity, and opportunities to further grow clinical and translational research and develop partnerships and broad national collaborations. I do have an administrative hat, but I am still a physician and clinical researcher at heart, so I continue to see patients and conduct clinical trials. I realize I’m where I am today because of the valuable mentorship of other fine oncologists, so I take pride in being a mentor, which is a vital role to ensure the field has a steady influx of dedicated bright young investigators and clinicians.”
Asked if she’s concerned the challenges faced by today’s oncologists might discourage the best and brightest from entering oncology, she said, “I think people invariably do what they’re attracted to, and if they love medicine, they won’t be discouraged by external factors. My concern for oncology at the community and academic levels is doctor burnout, given the amount of extra pressure at mutiple levels being put on oncologists. That said, the oncology community is very resilient, and we are in an incredibly exciting time. I’m proud to be part of it.”
Dr. Hussain once again made clear that her eminent career and contributions to the field were a collaborative effort. “My mother and father were the ultimate support team growing up, my husband, who has been my strongest supporter throughout the years, and I want to also acknowledge all the collaborative colleagues at all the institutions that I have been at and at the national level.”
What does a leader in the oncology community do to decompress? “I’m an avid reader, mostly history and mystery/thrillers. I’m also a photographer, and I love to cook. Not that I cook every day, just when I’m inspired by the latest copy of Bon Appétit.” ■
Disclosure: Dr. Hussain reported no conflicts of interest.