Expert Genitourinary Oncologist's Drive Led Her from Baghdad to the United States

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This was the time when a cure for testes cancer was becoming possible, and better systemic therapies for advanced cancers were emerging. … The space and opportunity to contribute to the field of oncology became increasingly apparent, and I have never regretted my choice to become an oncologist.

— Maha Hussain, MD, FACP

Born in Baghdad, Iraq, renowned prostate and bladder cancer specialist Maha H. Hussain, MD, FACP, Professor of Medicine and Urology at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, remembers that she always wanted to become a doctor. She had strong role models in three uncles who were physicians, but she gives equal credit to her parents’ encouragement. “They knew the value of a medical profession, not only as a fulfilling career, but also as an opportunity to make a difference in the world,” said Dr. Hussain.

Medical School Experience

Dr. Hussain noted that in Iraq, as in the United States, gaining admission to medical school was a very competitive process. “But unlike the United States, students in Iraq who want to apply for medical school must take a one-time national exam, and your absolute score is the key to acceptance. Naturally, it’s a pressure-filled process, but since medical school entry requires the highest-ranking scores of any profession, the University of Baghdad College of Medicine gets the best students in the country. I scored very well, and was accepted to medical school directly after the test,” said Dr. Hussain.

Dr. Hussain went to medical school from 1974 to 1980. In contrast to many Western stereotypes of the Middle East, Dr. Hussain said that sexism was never an issue—many of her professors were women who had graduated in the 1960s and 1970s. “I also knew women from my parents’ generation who had graduated in the 1950s. In fact, more than one-third of my class, which was well over 300 students, were women,” said Dr. Hussain.

In Iraq, a doctor’s journey was very different from what is experienced in the United States. The first few years of training had demanding requisites, such as mandatory service in the country’s rural sections. “There were also several years of intense training before you could begin thinking about opening a practice, so you can imagine the added burden on women if they decided to marry and begin a family,” said Dr. Hussain.

Dr. Hussain did her training as a medical student at Baghdad’s main teaching hospital, which drew the most complicated cases in all diseases. “It was especially distressing to see the cancer patients. It was the mid-1970s and there were no systemic prevention or screening programs in place in Iraq, so most patients seemed to present with advanced disease,” said Dr. Hussain, adding that smoking was widespread in the population during that period.

Looking Abroad

“Although I hadn’t made up my mind about a specific career path, it struck me that something was critically wrong with the cancer care system in Iraq. People should not have to wait to have care. Early detection and preventive programs needed to be prioritized,” said Dr. Hussain. Her first inspiration toward an oncology career came from two of her uncles. “One uncle trained in the UK and returned to Iraq to practice medicine. The other uncle trained in the United States before returning to Iraq. Both were oncologists,” she said, adding, “Although they were early advocates for a career in oncology, it wasn’t until my own venture in the United States that my path was chosen.”

Pulling up roots and leaving one’s country is a life-changing, difficult decision. It was no different for Dr. Hussain, but the drive to succeed proved stronger than any border or flag. Encouraged by their families and recalling a memorable one-liner from her father—“Graduate from Baghdad College, then get your higher education in the United States”—Dr. Hussain and her husband left Iraq to pursue professional opportunities abroad. It was just a few weeks before the start of the long war between Iraq and Iran, and the couple was looking forward to a fresh start in the West.

“Our first landing was actually in the United Kingdom. But after a year there, it became very clear that while there were opportunities to train, they were not the ones we were truly seeking. Although we’d just recently left our home in Iraq and didn’t relish another major move, we didn’t hesitate to pack up and head for America. It was the best decision we ever made,” said Dr. Hussain.

Embracing Oncology

Upon arriving in the United States, Dr. Hussain was offered a training position at Wayne State University, where her true momentum toward an oncology career was built. “Actually, my first month was spent doing internal medicine rotations at the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Allen Park, Michigan, which is one of the oldest VA facilities in the country. During my training at Wayne State University, I was exposed to an array of medical challenges that covered a broad socioeconomic slice of the population, from urgent care in indigent patients, to elderly veterans, to CEOs. It was very rewarding for a young doctor to be thrown into such an eclectic care environment,” said Dr. Hussain.

Dr. Hussain continued her medical training at Wayne State University, where she became immersed in oncology. “I had the good fortune to closely connect with several members of the hem/onc faculty whom I consider wonderful mentors and who intensified my already blooming interest in oncology,” said Dr. Hussain. She remembered those early days as an exciting period, fresh with therapeutic breakthroughs that fueled her drive to become an oncologist.

Dr. Hussain continued, “This was the time when a cure for testes cancer was becoming possible, and better systemic therapies for advanced cancers were emerging. Moreover, organ preservation strategies were being looked at, and clinical and basic research was rapidly expanding. The space and opportunity to contribute to the field of oncology became increasingly apparent, and I have never regretted my choice to become an oncologist.”

A Doctor at Heart

A firm believer in the power of research to cure cancer, Dr. Hussain, a hands-on physician, not only practices in the clinic but is also involved in robust research activities. “I partner with basic scientists looking to answer questions on how to develop novel therapeutic approaches with a special focus on prostate and bladder cancer,” said Dr. Hussain, adding that along with her clinical and research activities, she also wears an administrative hat as Associate Director for Clinical Research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

At the national level, Dr. Hussain, the author of more than 185 articles and book chapters, has served in a variety of leadership capacities. She is the current Chair of the Integration Panel of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command Prostate Cancer Research Program, served as the Co-Chair for the Prostate Cancer Subcommittee of SWOG GU Committee, was a member of the NCI Cancer Biomarker Study Section and the NCI’s Prostate Cancer Task Force, and has served as a member and the Chair for the FDA Oncology Drug Advisory Committee. She has also chaired several ASCO committees.

Although the extraordinary demands of her career give little time for hobbies or avocations, Dr. Hussain always carries a camera with her as she travels to various destinations. “I love nature, and my photographs attempt to capture the most beautiful scenes of wherever I am, in the States or abroad,” said Dr. Hussain. After a brief pause, she added, “I like to cook, too. It’s a great medium for creativity. But before anything, I’m a doctor at heart. I want to help patients.” ■