In 2017, breast cancer expert Gabrielle Rocque, MD, MSPH, received an American Cancer Society Mentored Research Scholar Grant for her work in enhancing shared decision-making for patients with advanced breast cancer.
Gabrielle Rocque, MD, MSPH
“I come from three generations of physicians,” shared Dr. Rocque. “My father (Dr. Paul LeMarbre) is an oncologist, my grandfather was an anesthesiologist, and my great-grandfather was a family practitioner in the Boston area. My mother was a nurse. So, I grew up in a family in which medicine was at its center.”
Dr. Rocque’s father had a huge influence on her ultimate decision to enter medicine. “He was a role model of a professional who was not only successful, but absolutely loved his work,” she added. “When I was a kid, my father was on staff at Dartmouth as an academic oncologist. When we moved to Wisconsin, he left academia and went into private practice. Because of this, I’ve always had a very strong feeling for the interface between academic oncology and community practice, recognizing that we can learn from each other’s experience.”
Following in the Family Tradition
“In high school, I did volunteer work at our local hospital, and that experience added to my firm decision to pursue the medical field,” Dr. Rocque continued. “At that time, there was a program that allowed you to be accepted to both college and medical school simultaneously at the University of Wisconsin. It was a wonderful place to get my undergraduate degree and also to train in medical school. I ultimately stayed there for my residency and fellowship.”
At the time she entered medical school, Dr. Rocque was not sure about her career path. “Like most things that happened in my life, mentors played a huge role. During medical school, I was fortunate to have a great teacher in Elizabeth Silverman, MD, who taught in the school’s Division of Hematology/Oncology. That course work plus my rotations on the hematology ward during my residency sealed the deal, and I knew that oncology was what I wanted to pursue. Moreover, I found that I truly loved taking care of the oncology patient population,” she shared.
Two Special Mentors
Toward the end of her fellowship, Dr. Rocque credited two mentors who were largely responsible for shaping her future career path. “As I was finishing residency and preparing for my fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, I was thinking about pursuing a career in private practice. However, then I had the opportunity, led by Mark Burkard, MD, PhD, to prepare and submit an ASCO Young Investigator Award grant, with Jim Cleary, MD, as my mentor. It was the first time I did a major project on my own. The project evaluated automatic care consult for patients with solid tumors. At that time, I had absolutely no idea how to approach the project, but my mentors guided me through it. I ultimately received the ASCO award, and it was absolutely transformational for my career. I don’t think I would have reached this point without the mentorship of Drs. Burkard and Cleary,” said Dr. Rocque.
From Wisconsin to Alabama
After HER Fellowship Dr. Rocque journeyed from the University of Wisconsin to her current position at the University of Alabama (UAB) School of Medicine. “My husband, who is also a physician, matched into a fellowship position at UAB, so we headed south. At first, being a Midwesterner, I was hesitant about relocating to Birmingham, Alabama, a place that seemed so different. I did not plan on staying, as I always imagined I would live in the Midwest forever. However, after a few months, my husband and I fell in love with UAB’s collaborative work environment and the diverse patient population, ultimately realizing we wanted to stay on here permanently.”
Was there a culture shock moving from Wisconsin, a place of long cold winters, to the Deep South? “It was, of course, a very different environment, but I will say that people are very friendly in both places. Plus, there were huge opportunities and so much to do. We served a vulnerable population, which offered tremendous opportunities for improving care delivery. Truly being able to make a difference is the main reason I went into medicine in the first place.”
Following her fellowship, Dr. Rocque had a gap year before beginning clinical work during which she had what she described as another career-changing opportunity. “Edward Partridge, MD, who was Director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center at the time, had a large Center for Medicare & Medicare Innovation Award, which involved developing and implementing a patient navigation program across 5 states and 12 cancer centers. Because I was available and had research experience, I ended up coming on board as the program’s Medical Director. The program was ultimately very successful; we enrolled more than 10,000 patients. That experience opened my eyes to the possibilities offered by this type of large-scale programmatic research. It certainly influenced my career trajectory.”
“I’ve always had a very strong feeling for the interface between academic oncology and community practice, recognizing that we can learn from each other’s experience.”— Gabrielle Rocque, MD, MSPH
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Dr. Rocque noted that another plus of the project was that it involved both academic and community centers. “This was important because of my belief in the need to understand and collaborate with private practitioners. I think that my life’s experience of being a child of an oncologist who worked in both venues made me an ideal candidate for that role; I knew how to engage people in a way that made sense to them.”
An ASCO Connection
Most of Dr. Rocque’s clinical work is dedicated to patients with metastatic breast cancer, which is aided by her extensive training in palliative care. “I’m also a health services researcher in the areas of value- and shared-decision making, which involves a multitude of projects, from in-depth interview studies, to randomized clinical trials for behavior-based interventions, to large data-based analyses,” she explained. “So, I have a unique opportunity to use different methodologies to think about issues surrounding quality and value in the doctor-patient construct.”
Dr. Rocque reflected on the continued importance of mentorship. Her current primary mentor, Dr. Smita Bhatia, has been instrumental in her professional development. Dr. Rocque highlighted that Dr. Bhatia is a true role model for mentorship, particularly for young female investigators pursuing research careers.
Asked about her connection with ASCO, Dr. Rocque said: “I have had the privilege to do a lot of work with ASCO, which has been a formative experience. The first ASCO committees I worked on shortly after my fellowship were the ASCO Measures Working Group and Quality of Care Committee, both of which I later had the opportunity to Chair. It was a terrific way for me to share what was going on at UAB in a collaborative way and also to learn what was evolving around the country in the measures and quality care initiatives. Over the past 5 or 6 years, I’ve served on other committees related to quality care and value. I strongly advise those coming up the ranks in oncology to get involved with ASCO; the Society is a great way to network and grow your career.”
What advice would Dr. Rocque give to a medical student who is pondering a career in oncology? “The most important thing is to listen to your heart and take time deciding on the career that you want to dedicate your life to. It has to be something that you can’t wait to get to the moment you get out of bed in the morning. In short, align the work with your passion. I’d also encourage young students to be persistent and patient.”
When asked about physician burnout, Dr. Rocque noted that most of her free time is devoted to her husband and their two young children. “We travel as a family, which is not only fun, but gives my kids an early perspective of the world we live in,” she shared. “We actually just got back from Spain, where I presented at the ASCO ESMO meeting, which was a great way to mix work and down time with the family. It’s important to have a quality life outside of work to balance the challenges found in oncology.”
DISCLOSURE: Dr. Rocque has served as a consultant or advisor for Genentech/Roche and Pfizer; has received research funding from Carevive Systems, Genentech, and Pfizer; and has been reimbursed for travel, accommodations, or other expenses by Carevive Systems and Genentech.