Four Generations of Doctors, One Oncologist, in the Family of Hanna K. Sanoff, MD, MPH

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Medicine is a family tradition for Hanna K. Sanoff, MD, MPH. “I was born and reared in a suburb just outside of Philadelphia and lived there my whole life until after college. I was one of those people who always knew they wanted to be a doctor. There were four generations of physicians on my father’s side of the family, and before I got married, I was the fourth Dr. Kelly in a row,” said Dr. Sanoff. “I wasn’t pressured into the field; it was just something I expected of myself.” 

Hanna K. Sanoff, MD, MPH

Hanna K. Sanoff, MD, MPH

Sticking to the Plan 

IN 1992, after graduating from high school, Dr. Sanoff entered Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “I stuck to my plan to become a doctor and majored in biology as a premed student. After graduating from Williams College, I returned to Philadelphia and began medical school at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine,” she explained. 

Asked about her medical school experience, Dr. Sanoff laughed and said: “I got a wonderful education at UPenn that left me completely prepared for residency, but I can’t say it was the most fun time of my life. I also didn’t like the fact that you couldn’t do anything; as a student I felt more like a third wheel, listening and learning. I like to get involved with situations and make a contribution.” 

Oncology Opportunity Knocks 

HOWEVER, DURING medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Sanoff had a career-shaping elective. “I don’t remember any ‘ah ha’ moment about the decision to pursue a career in oncology. I had a great experience with an oncology elective during my fourth year of medical school (with Dr. Stephen Schuster), and that certainly made an impression on me. Then in 2000, I came to the University of North Carolina [UNC] at Chapel Hill for my residency in internal medicine and had continued positive exposure to cancer patients. That’s when I began seriously thinking about oncology as a specialty; after a while, it just seemed like a good fit, the thing I should do,” she shared. 

“Time and again, I’ll see drugs that look great on paper but don’t live up to my expectations in the real-world clinic.”
— Hanna K. Sarnoff, MD, MPH

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“I really loved UNC: The people were warm and friendly, and it had a lively academic atmosphere. I got a first-rate education and ended up staying to do my fellowship in hematology/oncology. I actually met my husband on the inpatient oncology ward at UNC; he’s a physician as well. So it was a totally positive experience,” said Dr. Sanoff. “Things sort of fell in my lap at UNC for fellowship, and there was no reason to look elsewhere. They needed a slot filled, and I needed a job.” 

Mentor Did Not Mince Words 

ASKED ABOUT her decision to go into gastrointestinal oncology, Dr. Sanoff responded: “At the time I started my fellowship, Richard Goldberg, MD, joined UNC as the Gastrointestinal Division Chief. We were on the ward together, and I approached Rich and told him I was really interested in academic oncology but was sort of lost about how to proceed. I asked if he’d be my mentor, and he said he’d be delighted to mentor me, but that also meant I had to become a GI oncologist. So I said, OK, done. And that’s how I chose my specialty. And Rich was a wonderful mentor. I quickly got involved in a variety of interesting projects, and my career just went from there.” 

Dr. Sanoff explained that during her fellowship and the first year on the faculty staff, her early focus was on clinical trials and drug development. “I really enjoyed that work, but I became interested in health policy and ended up getting an MPH. We were doing wonderful work in the drug development area, but I was concerned about whether we were also getting good old-fashioned standard care to all our patients. 

Public Health Calls 

DR. SANOFF is currently involved in research that evaluates the care people receive in the real world and barriers to care they face. “I’m so lucky to have collaborators from the UNC School of Public Health who are looking at the barrier-to-care issue across a variety of cancers. We need to find ways not only to continue the cutting-edge research that brings new drugs to the market, but also to find strategies that ensure all our patients receive standard-of-care, high-quality treatment. Moreover, if patients are not fortunate enough to be on a clinical trial at Dana-Farber, MD Anderson, or UNC, for instance, we want to know how effective our basic standard treatment is for these patients, which helps inform us on a policy level as we move forward.” 

“Our mission going forward is to ensure that all our patients get the best cancer care possible, no matter where they live.”
— Hanna K. Sanoff, MD, MPH

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Dr. Sanoff began her public health research career in comparative effectiveness, the direct comparison of existing health-care interventions to determine which works best for which patients and which poses the greatest benefits and harms. “I was fortunate enough to have the absolutely best mentor possible in Deborah Schrag, MD, MPH, when I began doing work in comparative effectiveness research. When we compare the efficacy of various chemotherapies, it not only helps our understanding on the policy level, but more important, on the patient level. For instance, if a compound on a clinical trial improves survival by 10%, what can the patient hope to gain when we factor in things like toxicity? My clinical practice has greatly informed my comparative effectiveness research, because time and again, I’ll see drugs that look great on paper but don’t live up to my expectations in the real-world clinic.” 

Closing Thoughts 

ASKED TO SHARE some closing thoughts, Dr. Sanoff said: “We’ve made a lot of progress in diseases such as colorectal cancer, but there are still too many people who do not do well. Our mission going forward is to close that gap and ensure that all our patients get the best cancer care possible, no matter where they live. I’m glad to be part of UNC; it’s a great place to work and live.” 

What does a busy clinician-researcher do to decompress? “I run in the mornings. Other than that, I just spend as much time as I can with my husband and children, trying to live as normal a life as possible.” ■

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Sanoff reported no conflicts of interest.