Gita Suneja, MD
Radiation oncologist Gita Suneja, MD, was born and reared in St. Louis, the first-generation daughter of two Indian immigrants. “My father came to the United States to pursue a degree in engineering and decided to remain here, feeling it offered greater opportunities for the family,” Dr. Suneja related. “He later pursued a career in medicine and did his psychiatry residency when I was an older child, so I saw firsthand the sacrifices required of a physician. My mother was an artist, but she later pursued a master’s degree in psychology. So, both my parents were lifelong learners and always worked in service-oriented professions, mainly with underserved populations. Seeing that created a strong foundation for my later work.”
Law and Math
Dr. Suneja’s parents grew up in what she described as a patriarchal culture and were determined that their daughters have a different upbringing. “For as long as I can remember, my parents always taught my sister and I that not only could we do anything a boy could do, but we should work harder to do it better. Those high expectations helped me navigate and succeed in many male-dominated spheres, from my college mathematics major to my first job as a financial analyst to my current career in radiation oncology,” she explained.
Dr. Suneja continued: “I’m a product of the St. Louis public school system, which gave me an oustanding education. In high school, one of my favorite subjects was speech and debate. I had a devoted teacher who taught me to effectively communicate my ideas, and those skills have served me well to this day.”
After high school, Dr. Suneja attended Northwestern University, at first with the idea of becoming a lawyer. “But because of an engaging professor, I decided to study applied mathematics. I fell in love with the subject because I found it was like learning Spanish or music—a beautiful language of its own,” said Dr. Suneja.
Longing for Service-Oriented Career
After attaining her undergraduate degree from Northwestern, Dr. Suneja leveraged her studies in mathematics and took a position as a financial analyst at a hedge fund. “I enjoyed the challenging work and dynamic environment,” she shared. “Every day was different, chock-full of critical thinking, but I longed for a service-oriented career; while working at the hedge fund, I also volunteered at a cancer support organization. Spending a lot of time with people who had cancer and their families, I began thinking about a career in medicine, particularly oncology. So, I took a leap of faith and decided to pursue medical school.”
After Dr. Suneja made the decision to become a doctor, she enrolled in Goucher College, a private liberal arts college in Baltimore, to do the prerequisite science course work she had skipped as a math major. “My year at Goucher was one of the most rewarding experiences in my years of schooling, as my peers came from all walks of life and we all joined together in our passion for medicine,” she continued. “After graduating from Goucher, I attended Brown University to earn my medical degree, which was a phenomenally enriching experience. During orientation, I remember one of the deans stated that medicine was fundamentally about love. Those words have stayed with me throughout my career.”
During her third year of medical school, Dr. Suneja was committed to a career in oncology, although she was also moved by Brown’s rich history in social justice and global health. “In the early part of medical school, I spent two summers at Washington University doing radiation oncology physics research with a fabulous mentor. Then in my third year, I did several clinical oncology rotations at Brown. During that time, I realized radiation oncology offered me the opportunity to use my quantitative background alongside my passion for interpersonal relationships and community service,” said Dr. Suneja.
After medical school, Dr. Suneja began a residency program at the University of Pennsylvania. “I had the privilege at Penn to train with some of the great radiation oncology luminaries, such as Dr. Eli -Glatstein, who taught me how to think critically about each individual patient and how to maximize the knowledge offered in the oncology literature,” Dr. Suneja related. “Although Eli has now passed, his legacy lives on in the many wonderful anecdotes he shared. One of my favorites is his constant reminder that radiation oncology is a referral-based subspecialty, so managing relationships with medical and surgical oncologists is critical. He used to say ‘don’t treat everyone who is referred to you. If you do, they will only send the people they want radiated. If you are more thoughtful and selective, they will seek out your opinion.’”
A Valuable Research Opportunity
Early on in her training, Dr. Suneja encountered a patient with HIV who also had cancer. “We weren’t sure if we should offer him standard cancer treatments or use a modified approach because of his HIV status,” she noted. “After looking into the literature and finding little relevant information, I wondered how other oncologists were making treatment decisions for patients who had HIV and cancer.”
“Under the mentorship of senior investigators at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), I conducted the first studies showing that people with HIV and cancer were far less likely to receive cancer treatment than cancer patients without HIV. The findings were problematic, because modern antiretroviral therapy helps patients with HIV to survive, only to have them die from cancers that are potentially curable with appropriate treatment,” she explained. Subsequent studies conducted by Dr. Suneja and her colleagues showed that knowledge gaps from lack of cancer treatment guidelines specific to the patients with HIV played a role in the treatment disparity.
Dr. Suneja continued: “Near the end of my residency, I enrolled in the Penn Master of Science in Health Policy Research program, which taught me about the important relationship between research and advocacy. Publishing in academic journals alone is often not enough to enable change. So, I presented our work to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®) with the suggestions for a new guideline for HIV-associated cancers to fill the knowledge gap that perpetuated treatment disparities. The NCCN steering committee agreed, and I am now the panel Co-Chair for the Cancer in People With HIV guideline, which has given me the opportunity to further advocate for the best cancer treatment for this patient group.”
A Dream Job
Dr. Suneja considers being at the University of Utah School of Medicine as Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology and Population Health Sciences a dream job. “I have a robust clinical practice in which I work with women who have breast and gynecologic cancers. I was also granted a career development award by the National Cancer Institute, which allows me to spend the majority of my time growing a health equity research program, mainly focused on HIV malignancies in both domestics and global settings. I also spend time as a teacher and mentor to our outstanding residents and students, which I greatly value,” shared Dr. Suneja.
Asked about her long-term goals, Dr. Suneja replied: “I love helping other people find and pursue their passions. Long term, I would like to be an advisory dean to students, residents, and/or faculty. I also want to encourage and mentor more women and underrepresented minorities to join the field of radiation oncology—there is a great need to serve the diverse patient population we have and to add new voices to develop our shared radiation oncology research agenda. Representation matters, from the classroom to the clinic to the board room.”
Advice to Students, Residents, and Junior Faculty
According to Dr. Suneja’s philosophy, failure is an integral component of success. “I try to put forth my best effort, then detach myself from the outcome. In my experience, academic medicine is not a linear trajectory; it is full of setbacks. But we live in a world where successes are highly publicized, and failures are not normalized. Failure can be discouraging, but it also keeps us innovating and reaching to do more and be more,” Dr. Suneja commented.
How does a busy radiation oncologist decompress? “From a young age, I’ve loved the arts, especially music and dance. In college, I actually hosted my own radio show and sang in an acapella group. These days, I share my love of music with my husband and three young children. We also love hiking and exploring the natural beauty of Utah. Life can be busy and chaotic, but my career in radiation oncology is exceptionally grounding and rewarding.”
DISCLOSURE: Dr. Suneja has received grant funding from the NIH.