Inspired by the TV Show M*A*S*H, Lori Wilson, MD, FACS, Achieves Many Firsts as a Leader in Oncology

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Lori Wilson, MD, FACS, Chief of Surgical Oncology, Associate Dean of Faculty Development and Diversity, and former Program Director of the General Surgical Residency at Howard University Hospital, is the first woman to hold the position of Division Chief as well as the first tenured Professor of Surgery in the Department. She is also a breast cancer survivor, often speaking about her experience with breast cancer and translating it into the care she provides her patients as well as in teaching her students.

Lori Wilson, MD, FACS

Lori Wilson, MD, FACS

TV Surgeons Inspire a Young Girl

Dr. Wilson was born in Landstuhl, Germany, home to the military base where her father was stationed for a while during his career in the U.S. Air Force. The military family would make several moves, until settling in Portsmouth, Virginia, home to the nation’s second largest naval base, when Dr. Wilson was 5 years old.

“I grew up in a middle-class Black community that was largely composed of retired military personnel who continued working for the government, in some capacity. After retiring from the Air Force, my dad worked in the shipyard throughout my high school days and beyond. So, it was a fairly insular community in its demographics but a good place to grow up,” she said.

Dr. Wilson continued: “I knew from early on that I wanted to become a doctor. I can remember watching the surgeons on the TV show M*A*S*H. Even though they didn’t look like me, I liked their ability to help someone who was injured or sick and almost immediately change the person’s health status. At the same time, my parents bought a set of encyclopedias that came with a medical encyclopedia as a bonus book, and I liked the transparencies of bones, muscles, and blood vessels.”

However, an early opportunity solidified Dr. Wilson’s love of science and medicine. “Bausch & Lomb had a science award for high schoolers with high grades in science that gave them the opportunity to work in research labs,” she related. “I received the award and got to work with an endocrinologist, Dr. Gerald Pepe, and he was the first person to tell me I could be a scientist and clinician together. It was a magnificent first experience for me, which gave me an opportunity to learn the scientific approach. At the end of the program, all members of the group presented their data at a nighttime event, which was very exciting for me as a high school student, especially with my parents in attendance. Moreover, it also taught me the importance of grabbing opportunities when they arise, as you never know where it will lead in your career.”

A Mentor at the NCI

When it was time to choose a college for her undergraduate work, Dr. Wilson decided on Georgetown University, where another opportunity arose during her senior year. “While doing my senior thesis, I had the chance to work at the National Cancer Institute [NCI] with the father of proteomics, Dr. Lance Liotta, who, at the time, was early on in his investigation of proteomic signatures in cancer. It was an incredible experience that further sparked my interest in research.”

After getting her BS at Georgetown, Dr. Wilson stayed on to pursue her medical degree at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “Between my first and second years, I had another amazing opportunity to work with Dr. Soon-Myoung Paik, a pathologist who did seminal research in determining which women would benefit from adjuvant chemotherapies. He developed the first 21-gene Oncotype DX assay. I worked in his lab a few times a week for 2 incredible years and learned that through research, you can have broad translational impact on patient populations, which helped shape the way I thought about science and medicine,” she commented. 

A Year Off to Sell Cars and an Encounter With a Role Model

As Dr. Wilson’s science and medical career began to bloom, she took a sabbatical from academia to pursue an eccentric passion: cars. “I took a year off and became a car salesman. It sounds crazy, right, but I love cars, and it gave me the opportunity to have some fun and think about things from a different perspective. My best friend, who was going to Notre Dame, also decided to take a gap year. I know our parents were thinking they didn’t invest all this money and hard work so their kids could come back home and sell cars and hostess, but it worked out. My friend went to law school after I got my medical degree,” she added.

Dr. Wilson recalled her first in-person mentor, who superseded mentorship and became her model as a scientist-physician. “I decided to attend a lecture given by the famous doctor, LaSalle Leffall, and I am very glad I did. Dr. Leffall simply blew me away. He was everything I wanted to be—researcher, clinician, surgeon, educator, and leader—and he made a significant impact on breaking the barriers of race. He had many firsts, including the first Black President of the American Cancer Society and the American College of Surgeons. While listening to his lecture, I decided that was what I wanted to do, and the only place to do it was at Howard University, where Dr. Leffall was Head of the Surgery Department. I matched at Howard, where I did my surgical residency with 2 years of research at the University of Cincinnati,” she shared.

After her residency, Dr. Wilson spent a year caring for her mother, who had late-stage lung cancer, and did research at Eastern Virginia Medical School, under the tutelage of trauma surgeon Dr. L.D. Britt. “I had tremendous experiential learning opportunities, and many of them came because of my philosophy of saying yes when a chance arose. It’s a good life lesson, because so many times, we remain closed off in our safe spaces, afraid to take a chance,” said Dr. Wilson.

Going to California and Then Africa

After completing her residency, Dr. Wilson once again stepped outside the box; she went west to do a surgical fellowship at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in California. “Our whole family is solidly East Coast, so going to California was sort of a big deal. I was the first Black doctor accepted into the surgical fellowship program at John Wayne, and I worked under Drs. Donald Morton and Armando Giuliano, who were my mentors. They were the driving force behind the development of sentinel node biopsy. Donald Morton was also a huge force in securing research grants; in fact, at that time, he was the highest-funded clinician researcher in the country. He taught me the ropes of grant writing, and I wrote five grants that were funded, garnering me an award for grantsmanship.”

Dr. Wilson’s position at John Wayne Cancer Institute helped her career growth, which also included global surgical work in Swaziland, Africa (now known as Eswatini). “Swaziland is a patriarchy, and the king is a polygamist, with at that time about 70 wives,” she continued. “My time there, more than anything, taught me to view other cultures and their mores and beliefs with respect, which has stayed with me through my career and made me a better clinician.”

Dr. Wilson, who has served on the Board of Directors for the American Cancer Society and the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association, leads medical missions at least twice a year to Africa. She recently received the Nelson Mandela Award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO, for her humanitarian work. In 2019, she led two gender-sensitive surgical teams in Sudan and Nigeria to surgically treat patients with breast cancer.

Return to Howard University and a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

After her fellowship, Dr. Wilson began her first faculty position at the University of Connecticut. However, after a short while, she ultimately decided she wanted to be in a place where she could best give back to her community, and that place was Howard University. “At the start of 2011, I received an offer from Howard University, which I readily accepted. It was where I felt I needed to be. Within a few years, Dr. Leffall retired as Chief of Surgery, and I took over his practice, which was an incredible turn of events, given it was his lecture during my time in medical school that inspired me to become a surgeon. And from that point, my life as an oncologic surgeon was also based on a mission of examining and finding ways to reduce disparities in cancer care.”

In 2013, Dr. Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer, when her son was 18 months old. “I’m still undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and during this experience of being an oncologist with cancer, I have become a strong advocate for women facing a diagnosis of breast cancer. I’ve been there, so I can speak with authority, not only as a doctor, but as a patient as well. I’m also a big proponent of clinical trials, as I believe the trial I was on saved my life. I feel amazing and work every day doing what I love, but I also had cutting-edge treatment and resources that many others in challenged communities don’t have. So, this story circles back to my work in disparities of care,” she explained.

Dr. Wilson continued: “My beautiful son is 10 years old now; he’s a highly functioning special needs child who just fills my life with joy. Seeing how engaged he is, and how much zest for life he has, is truly inspiring.”

A Day in the Life

Asked about her current work, Dr. Wilson replied: “All my days are different, which keeps it very interesting. I’m an early riser, usually up by 5:00 AM, when I spend time reading and preparing for the day. I am at work before 7:00 AM and operate several days a week. I was promoted to Professor of Surgery and believe I’m one of only a very few Black women in the country with that title. I have administrative work, plus there’s teaching, which I love. I was also recently promoted to Associate Dean of Faculty Development and Diversity, which is an exciting opportunity. Then, there are the groups I lead to help develop the next generation of surgeons and oncologists—young, bright people who want to change the world for the better. So, it’s a full week, but I love every day.”

How does a super-busy oncology leader decompress? “Most of my decompression activities are built around family. I always tell my students, residents, and junior faculty that having a strong family tie helps make you a better clinician. I am an avid cook and love to entertain big groups of family. I also love to travel, which has been curtailed due to the pandemic, but things are finally looking up.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Wilson reported no conflicts of interest.