Merry-Jennifer Markham, MD, FACP, FASCO, Rose From Humble Beginnings to a Leadership Role in Oncology

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The single biggest way I get away from the rigors of my career and reconnect with myself is through writing.
— Merry-Jennifer Markham, MD, FACP, FASCO

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Merry-Jennifer Markham, MD, FACP, FASCO, grew up in Fort White, Florida, a rural speck on the map in the northern part of the state. Fort White is home to the Ichetucknee River and Springs, a crystal-clear natural wonder known only to the locals until 1972, when it was declared a National Natural Landmark, hence becoming one of the world’s most popular tubing destinations.

“When I grew up, Fort White was a one-stoplight town, a blinking light to be exact. My mom was a schoolteacher, and my father was an artisan who made stained glass windows for churches. We had no air conditioner. We often took our baths in the springs, to cool off at the end of the day. Our single modern appliance was a washing machine. It was a very interesting time,” said Dr. Markham.

Dr. Markham came from a family of teachers and artists, and medicine really was not initially on her radar. “I went to Columbia High School, which was the only high school in the county at that time,” she continued. “Although I still wasn’t entertaining a career in medicine, I wanted something that offered me the opportunity to care for people. After high school, I attended the University of Florida as a psychology major. I loved my college experience, as it expanded my knowledge and love of the humanities.”

Changing Course

After graduating from the University of Florida with a BS degree, Dr. Markham initially planned on becoming a clinical psychologist and was accepted to a graduate program at Georgia Southern University. “During my first semester, I took a physiologic psychology course, similar to one in my undergrad career. During the course, I became totally enamored with the science of the brain. Halfway through the graduate program, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake in not going to med school. So, I quit (probably the first thing I’d ever quit in my life), moved back home, and took night classes in the sciences to prepare for the MCATs.”

Dr. Markham continued: “Money was tight, so I took a job at a physician’s office as a file clerk. The office was a private oncology practice. The senior partner was Dr. Bruce Stechmiller. He knew I was planning to go to med school and so took me on rounds at the hospital and allowed me to shadow him in between the work I was doing in the front office. During that experience, I grew to love and respect patients with cancer; these people were going through incredibly difficult times, yet they were insightful and kind and shared their experience with me. They were resilient. Even before I entered medical school, I decided I wanted to take care of patients with cancer.”

Two Valued Mentors

After taking the MCATs, Dr. Markham applied to the University of Miami Medical School. “Dr. Stechmiller wrote me an amazing letter of recommendation; not only was I accepted, but the university gave me a full scholarship. About 6 weeks before I started med school, I married my high school sweetheart, who’d been an influential supporter of my career early on. If not for my father’s and husband’s support, I might not have gone into medicine. The oncology practice where I worked threw a going away party for me, and Dr. Stechmiller gifted me with a stethoscope, which I use to this very day,” revealed Dr. Markham.

Although Dr. Markham was leaning toward pursuing a career in oncology when she entered medical school, she tried to keep an open mind. “Medical school offered such a wide array of fascinating options to explore, but I still found myself drawn to cancer-related specialties during rotations. When I did my OB/GYN rotation, I requested gynecologic oncology; during pediatrics, I chose pediatric oncology. In my fourth year, I did an elective back at the University of Florida, spending a month in the oncology clinic. It was another eye-opening experience; I fell in love with the field of oncology.”

Dr. Markham considered two faculty members—Drs. Craig Kitchens and James Lynch—instrumental to her career development. “I was amazed not only by their clinical knowledge, but even more so in the way they cared for their patients,” she noted. “That month sealed the deal; I made up my mind to become an oncologist.”

Florida All the Way

Dr. Markham was fortunate to match at the University of Florida (UF) Health Cancer Center, which was her oncology dream come true. She trained at UF from 2001, all through her residency, serving as Chief Resident, and on through her oncology/hematology fellowship (completed in 2008).

“UF grabbed my heart; it’s such a vibrant and collegial working environment. After my fellowship, I joined the faculty at the cancer center as a medical oncologist, specializing in lymphoma, the disease specialty that I fell in love with thanks to my mentor, Dr. Lynch. However, in that first year, I was also given the opportunity to care for women with gynecologic cancer, which I integrated into my ongoing practice,” said Dr. Markham.

She continued: “Over the years, I realized that women with gynecologic cancers do not have a powerful advocacy platform in the public health arena. As time passed, my practice has changed to a focus solely on gynecologic malignancies, and along the way, I made a firm commitment to be a voice for this population of women with cancer.”

Leadership Roles

Along with her busy clinical practice, in 2017, Dr. Markham was appointed Associate Director for Medical Affairs at the UF Health Cancer Center, a position that oversees operational quality to maximize efficiency as well as patient access and care at all of the ambulatory and inpatient cancer care sites.

“In 2018, I became the center’s Interim Division Chief for Hematology and Oncology Services when another of my mentors, who was then Division Chief, Dr. Carmen Allegra, stepped down and passed the position to me. Dr. Allegra is largely the reason why I entered academic oncology, and I’m eternally grateful for his incredible guidance and support,” commented Dr. Markham.

The ASCO Connection

Asked about her involvement with ASCO, Dr. Markham responded: “I became involved with the Society in 2014. I’m serving my second term on the ASCO Communications Committee, currently as Committee Chair. Through my connection with that committee, I’m also involved in the Social Media Working Group, of which I was one of the founding members. In addition, I am the Social Media Editor for the Journal of Clinical Oncology.”

The other piece of her ASCO connection centers on quality improvement and measurement, something she is very interested in. “In 2014, I was appointed to the Quality Oncology Practice Initiative (QOPI®) steering group and am currently serving my second term,” she added. “Looking at ways we measure and improve outcomes for patients with cancer is our mission, and it’s something I’m passionate about.”

As the conversation turned to ASCO’s ongoing work with the challenge of physician burnout, Dr. Markham said: “The single biggest way I get away from the rigors of my career and reconnect with myself is through writing. For a long time, I kept up a nonmedical blog, which was actually a food blog called I’m also addicted to my Peloton Bike, which is a great way to get away without going anywhere. And, of course, I love to spend time with my family. I have a wonderful husband and two teenagers, so they keep me pretty busy!” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Markham has received institutional research funding from Aduro Biotech, Lilly, Novartis, Tesaro, and VBL Therapeutics.