Her Grandfather’s Medical Practice Inspired Nathalie LeVasseur, MD, BSc, FRCPC, to Improve the Lives of Women With Breast Cancer

Get Permission

Nathalie LeVasseur, MD, BSc, FRCPC

Nathalie LeVasseur, MD, BSc, FRCPC

At the 2018 ASCO Annual Meeting, Nathalie LeVasseur, MD, BSc, FRCPC, received the Annual Meeting Merit Award for a project titled, “Whole-Genome Sequencing in Metastatic Breast Cancer: Lessons Learned From the BC Cancer Personalized Oncogenomics Program.” Along with her clinical work, Dr. LeVasseur, a medical oncologist at the British Columbia Cancer Agency, has continued to research and publish on areas affecting women with breast cancer.

A Grandfather’s Influence

Dr. LeVasseur grew up on the outskirts of Ottawa, in the province of Ontario, Canada. “I lived right next to my grandfather’s medical office; he was a general practitioner. At that time in Canada, doctors didn’t really have specialties, so he did everything to take care of the people in the community. He was a family doctor, a hospitalist, an obstetrician, and a general surgeon all wrapped in one. I was exposed to his practice at an early age, in fact, it felt as if I grew up in medicine.”

Dr. LeVasseur was amazed at the role her grandfather played in people’s lives. “It inspired me early on to consider pursuing a career in medicine,” she shared. “However, on the flip side, I saw how incredibly busy he was, leaving in the early morning and not getting back home until 10 or 11 at night. So, that aspect of medicine gave me pause.”

During high school, Dr. LeVasseur began working as a medical office assistant for the physician who took over her grandfather’s practice after he retired. “The doctors I worked for were also family practitioners who did the full scope of medical care. That experience got me thinking a little bit more about medicine.”

After high school, Dr. LeVasseur went to the University of Ottawa and pursued a degree in biomedical sciences. “While I was getting my degree, I became captivated by research and the applied sciences in the laboratory,” she continued. “I took a summer job as a research assistant in a cardiac lab, looking at mutations related to hereditary arrhythmia. It was fascinating, but I found myself longing for direct interactions with people. In fact, the part of my day I found most rewarding was interacting with patients,” said Dr. LeVasseur.

An Oncology Rotation

Realizing that her calling needed to involve personal patient contact, Dr. LeVasseur applied to the University of Ottawa Medical School. “During my first year in medical school, I thought I would become a family physician, largely because I had so much exposure to that field while growing up. However, as school continued, I found I enjoyed the consultant aspect of medicine, so I began internal medicine; it was broad and gave me time to explore different specialties,” she said.

Dr. LeVasseur continued: “After attaining my medical degree, I began an internal medicine residency. During my first year, I did an oncology rotation and was mesmerized by the rapidly changing field and the complexity of oncologic care. I had the good fortune to work with Mark Clemons, who was extremely passionate about oncology. He gave me the opportunity to write a review paper on neoadjuvant endocrine therapy for patients with breast cancer, which was my first experience with breast cancer. I found my experience with patients who had cancer to be unique, as they were going through such difficult medical issues. And there was a multidisciplinary care approach, which I found interesting. So, after that rotation, I made up my mind to pursue oncology.”

Valued Mentors

After completing her internal medicine residency, Dr. LeVasseur moved to Vancouver, and did her medical oncology fellowship at the British Columbia Cancer Agency. “When I came to Vancouver, I did not know anyone, but the group was very welcoming. Soon after, I met my first mentors, Karen Gelmon and Stephen Chia, who were both medical oncologists. They knew that I wanted to specialize in breast cancer. I began working alongside them, and they gave me opportunities to do reviews and research projects, which really helped my career,” said Dr. LeVasseur.

After her medical oncology fellowship and training at the British Columbia Cancer Agency, Dr. -LeVasseur decided to pursue a research fellowship. “My clinical and research breast cancer fellowship was at a clinic dedicated to patients with breast cancer. Part of my project during that fellowship was the study of genomics in advanced breast cancer and predictive and prognostic tools for patients with advanced breast cancer. I was also doing outcomes research using real-world data and the patient experience. That work led to more recent work in quality-of-life and survivorship issues,” explained Dr. LeVasseur.

Busy but Rewarding

In her current role, Dr. LeVasseur cares for patients with breast cancer and is also Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of British Columbia. Asked to describe a day in her life, Dr. LeVasseur replied: “I’m up at 6 every morning to look after my 2-and-a-half-year-old son, spending most of the morning trying to have as much quality time together as possible. After dropping him at the nanny, I head into work.”

She continued: “Mondays are usually dedicated to research, so I work on papers and grants, go over proposals with some of our trainees, and all the other components needed to take a project from start to finish. I have clinical half-days spread out during the week. Then, on Fridays, we have a new pilot program, which is a breast clinic integrating multidisciplinary care into the management of our patients. On Friday afternoons, we have tumor boards, and, of course, I have various administrative and committee meetings throughout the week as well.”

Universal Access

Dr. LeVasseur explained that cancer care models differ across Canada. “In British Columbia, we are overseen by the provincial health services authority. We have six regional cancer centers, with the primary center being in Vancouver, where a large part of the translational and clinical trial research is run.”

She considers herself lucky to practice oncology in the Canadian health system, in which patients with cancer are offered treatment equitably with universal access to care. “From the point of diagnosis, the patient immediately enters the cancer care system without any financial concerns, which allows them to focus on receiving cancer treatment,” Dr. LeVasseur said. “Not having that additional worry is certainly an advantage in our system. The downside of the Canadian system is that many of the new cancer drugs come to us later than in the United States. For one, our drug-approval and funding process is complex and slow at times,” she added. 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Levasseur reported no conflicts of interest.