The Road to a Career in Breast Oncology Took Several Twists and Turns for Sara A. Hurvitz, MD, FACP

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Breast cancer specialist Sara A. Hurvitz, MD, FACP, grew up in the East Bay area of Northern California, the youngest of five children. “My mother was a traditional stay-at-home mom, and my father was a probation officer. I come from a long line of artists; my great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a sculptor who came over from Italy. So, my ancestry of Irish, Italian, and Swedish qualifies me as a true American mutt,” she said.

Dr. Hurvitz continued: “I grew up in a small town on the outskirts of ranches that had a rural feel to it. I never had any exposure to medicine, and it was not on my career radar. Early on, I loved theater and dance and toyed with the idea of becoming a thespian or choreographer. However, when I was growing up, my mom always told me to consider a career that is dominated by men not women. So, if I wanted to become a teacher, I should aspire instead to become a principal. If I was thinking about becoming a nurse, I should become a doctor. It wasn’t until I was 19 and attending Diablo Valley College near home that I first took chemistry and biology courses and thought about becoming a doctor.”

Sara A. Hurvitz, MD, FACP

Sara A. Hurvitz, MD, FACP

Fighting Insecurity

Before pursuing medicine, however, Dr. ­Hurvitz sought counsel from her elderly male family pediatrician, who encouraged her to become a doctor. “I took several science courses in junior college and along the way (in fits and starts of indecision) made the firm commitment to enter the field. It kind of merged with my desire to help people with my ambition to enter a challenging career. After junior college, I entered the University of California Irvine [UC Irvine], which was my school of choice because it had a safe, small-town feel to it. At that point, I was still nervous about leaving home and going to a big school,” said Dr. Hurvitz.

However, even after earning a BS in biology and a BA in psychology from UC Irvine, Dr. Hurvitz had some reservations about her ability to continue into medical school. “I remember calling my mom on weekends, crying that I didn’t have what it took for medical school. She’d always tell me to follow my instinct, no matter what. So, I decided to work for a couple of years and became a legal assistant, briefly toying with the idea of becoming a lawyer. But that desire faded quickly, and I realized law wasn’t my path of joy,” said Dr. Hurvitz.

A Transformative Lecture

After her revelatory hiatus, Dr. Hurvitz took the MCAT, scoring very high, which boosted her confidence. “I applied to about ten medical schools, sort of testing the waters. I was interviewed by four and accepted to one, University of Southern California [USC], which was where everything began happening. It was 1995, which was at the height of the AIDS crisis. I had a professor, Sandy Levine, MD, who was a lymphoma/AIDS researcher. On my first day of medical school, she gave a lecture about what it meant to be a doctor and being invited into another human’s most intimate space during illness. I had tears in my eyes at the end of the lecture, and it was right then that I also decided to pursue oncology,” explained Dr. Hurvitz. “Maybe oncology satisfied my draw to drama, working in a setting where mortality is always in the room. It wasn’t seeing patients for a head cold; it was getting down to the nitty-gritty of life and death and the intimacy that accompanies that setting.”

Matching at UCLA

During medical school, Dr. Hurvitz went through the customary vetting of which specialty to pursue. Then she also met her future husband, who was on the road to becoming a surgeon. “We married a week after graduating med school and had to do that complex couples match process. His family was in Los Angeles, so we put institutions there at the top of our list. I ended up matching at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], which was where I did my internship and residency. I did a lot of oncology rotations and of the approximately 15 attendings, there were only 2 women, both of whom were single. So, I was getting the subliminal message that this wasn’t a career for a married woman with children,” said Dr. Hurvitz.

During her second year of residency, Dr. Hurvitz became pregnant; given the workload and challenges of a hematology/oncology fellowship she’d been warned about, she caved to an inner voice of panic and instead took an endocrinology fellowship at UCLA. “I had my baby and 2 weeks later, I experienced another bout of panic, realizing I did not want to spend my entire career dealing with diabetes as my main clinical experience. So, I went to the Vice Chair of Internal Medicine and asked for a job as a hospitalist for a year, explaining that I’d decided to apply for a hem/onc fellowship but missed the deadline. I not only got the job but was asked to be Chief Resident, which filled that year before I went on to my medical oncology fellowship at UCLA,” shared Dr. Hurvitz.

A Famous Mentor Suggests a Career Change

During fellowship, Dr. Hurvitz’s early experience with her mentor, Dr. Levine, had predisposed her to following that same clinical specialty. “I had [another] great mentor, a lymphoma specialist who taught me terrific skills in the clinic and the research bench. At the end of my fellowship, he offered me a position as a ‘super-fellow’, which in fact is a very low-paying faculty position. At that time, I was pregnant with my second child, and our Division Chief, Dennis Slamon, MD, offered me a faculty position specializing in breast cancer. I thanked him but said I wanted to do lymphoma. After a few meetings, he told me to take a couple of days to read about breast cancer, noting that compared with lymphoma, breast cancer was easier. Well, I read up on breast cancer and although I did not agree that it was easier, I decided to take his offer. The rest, as they say, is history,” said Dr. Hurvitz.

During this time at UCLA, there were three other faculty members specializing in breast cancer. For one reason or another, they all left soon after Dr. Hurvitz joined the program. “Their departure left me in a short period of time with a full clinical practice and with several clinical trials to lead as a principal investigator. It was an amazing double-edged sword in that it was a huge opportunity, but one I had to learn from the ground floor up,” she explained.

Hectic but Satisfying Career

Dr. Hurvitz is currently Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Director of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center Clinical Research Unit.

“My job suits somebody like me, who probably has subclinical ADHD, in that every day at work looks a bit different, and I like it that way. I see patients with breast cancer two half days a week and lead our clinical trials, which now consist of more than 20 breast cancer studies; as part of that effort, I also mentor junior faculty and help them develop their own clinical investigations. In addition, I mentor eight trainees, ranging from the high school level all the way to fellowship. I teach at the medical school and serve as a liaison at the comprehensive cancer center. So, it’s a full schedule, but I love my work, so I don’t feel overwhelmed,” said Dr. Hurvitz. “I’m also at a stage in my career when I can pick and choose my projects and have the luxury to say no to small things and evolve my role in bigger things.”

What does a super-busy breast cancer specialist do to decompress? “With the advent of COVID, I’ve become an avid at-home chef. I love to cook and have sit-down meals with my family. It’s an important way to connect and keep everything grounded. I also exercise daily, which provides me an outlet of nervous energy and a way to detox from all the unfortunate things we see on the news. During my workouts, I also get to indulge my guilty pleasure, watching mindless shows on TV, which also serve a purpose in the decompression area.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Hurvitz has an immediate family member who holds stock or other ownership interests in Ideal Implant and ROMTech; has received institutional research funding from Ambrx, Amgen, Arvinas, Bayer, BioMarin, Cascadian Therapeutics, Daiichi Sankyo, Dignitana, Genentech/Roche, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Immunomedics, Lilly, MacroGenics, Merrimack, Novartis, OBI Pharma, Pfizer, Phoenix Molecular Designs, Pieris, Puma Biotechnology, Radius, Samumed, Sanofi, Seattle Genetics, and Zymeworks; has been reimbursed for travel, accommodations, or other expenses by Lilly; and has stock options from NKMax.