[April 2009] As a medical student Joanne B. Weidhaas, MD, PhD, was drawn to both the biology of cancer and to the patients suffering from its devastating effects. She chose to specialize in therapeutic radiology, because it allows her to do research and see patients, a combination that she finds rewarding. “I feel like I’m trying on more than one level, which is important, because sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can’t make somebody better,” she said.
Weidhaas treats mainly breast cancer patients, and one of the ways she tries to help them is by providing access to clinical trials that offer new protocols. One is a Phase III randomized trial on a protocol for partial breast irradiation, which involves radiation treatments for five days instead of the usual five or six weeks. It’s an appealing alternative, but Weidhaas is careful to educate her patients regarding decisions on treatments that are still investigational. The first trials on partial breast irradiation began about 11 years ago, when radiologists questioned the necessity of treating the whole breast, since tumors usually recur in their original location. Weidhaas thinks this treatment will be a great option for her patients, but she wants to know exactly who will benefit from it. “It’s important not to rush ahead without proving the validity of new things,” she said.
Weidhaas also treats patients with such gynecological cancers as cervical, uterine and ovarian cancer. While radiation may not always cure all of these patients, she says, it can still improve their quality of life by alleviating local symptoms even for those with widespread disease. One of the most rewarding aspects of her job is learning from her patients and bringing this knowledge directly into her laboratory work. “Combining clinical work and laboratory work in this way, daily almost, makes me hopeful that we will really be able to advance cancer care and save lives, by someday not only tailoring treatment for each patient, but also by identifying those who will get cancer and helping them avoid it.”
- Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Yale Practice.
Title: Assistant professor of therapeutic radiology
Area of expertise: Radiation oncology
Place of birth: Detroit, Mich.
College: Yale University
Med School: Tufts University School of Medicine
Training: Residency in radiation oncology, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Family: Husband, A.J., attorney; children: Lilly, 9; Drew, 6; Ella, 4 months
What is most challenging to you in academic medicine? I’m trying to improve patient care and find better solutions for cancer-related problems through my research, so it’s challenging to balance all the things I want to do.
What is most rewarding? Having the opportunity to do so many great things.
What do you like most about your practice? The patients that teach me what I need to figure out in the lab.
Personal interests or pastimes: Outdoor sports, gardening, music
Last book read: The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
What would you do to improve our clinical environment if you had a magic wand? Our technology is up to par, but the patient areas could be improved. I’d like to provide more comfortable waiting rooms and treatment areas.