As a Young Oncologist, Enrique Soto Pérez de Celis, MD, MSc, Met a Career-Changing Mentor at the ASCO Annual Meeting

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Enrique Soto Pérez de Celis, MD, MSc

Enrique Soto Pérez de Celis, MD, MSc

Geriatric oncologist and researcher Enrique Soto Pérez de Celis, MD, MSc, was born in Mexico City and grew up in the nearby city of Puebla. “There were no physicians in the family who might have influenced my decision to become a doctor, but both of my parents were academics; my mother was a mathematician, and my father was a physicist, so I grew up in an atmosphere where education and learning were always present. Moreover, my mother always wanted to become a doctor, but her circumstances didn’t mesh with her dream, so she tacitly nurtured my early thoughts about pursuing a career in medicine,” shared Dr. Soto.

Tuition-Free Medical School

Mexico’s higher educational system differs from the U.S. path of attending college before graduate school. Instead, Mexican high school students who have passed through a selective process go directly from high school to a specific university that supports their career goals. Dr. Soto noted that, in Mexico, public universities and technologic institutions are tuition-free, requiring only nominal monthly payments.

“After graduating high school, I went directly to the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, where I completed 5 years of medical school education and training. Then, I followed with 1 year of internship at a hospital, after which I did another year of requisite social internship, which is designed to provide a safety net for the underserved and is usually served in a poor rural area. However, I had the opportunity to participate in a special program run by the Mexican government in which I conducted basic science research. It was a terrific experience because, for one, it taught me how to conduct research projects.”

Asked what event or person might have influenced his decision to pursue geriatric oncology, Dr. Soto replied: “In 2010, during the second year of my internal medicine residency at the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán (INCMNSZ) in Mexico City, I became interested in geriatric medicine. I saw that, among the geriatric patients, those with cancer were the most vulnerable and needed highly specialized care. I began reading everything I could about geriatric oncology, which at the time was an emerging specialty. So, not long after that, I decided to become a part of this exciting and still new field.”

Meeting a Pioneer in Geriatric Oncology

After completing his internal medicine residency, Dr. Soto remained at INCMNSZ for his medical oncology fellowship. “In my second year of oncology fellowship, I traveled to Chicago to attend the ASCO Annual Meeting. By then, being interested in geriatric oncology, I’d already read every paper by one of the field’s leaders, Arti Hurria, MD, FASCO, who was at the meeting to receive the B.J. Kennedy Award for Scientific Achievement in Geriatric Oncology. After the award ceremony and her presentation, I waited until the crowd around her thinned and then introduced myself and asked if I could work with her for a few months at City of Hope. She said yes, immediately. I knew that I’d just received a tremendous opportunity,” said Dr. Soto.

“Dr. Hurria was not only a world-class oncologist and a pioneer in geriatrics, but she was a warm and generous human being.”
— Enrique Soto Pérez de Celis, MD, MSc

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He continued: “When I returned home, I applied for and received a grant from the Mexican Society of Oncology that allowed me to do part of my fellowship at City of Hope. I worked closely with Dr. Hurria, and it was a great learning experience. She mentored me in a project for which in 2015 I won the ASCO Young Investigator Award. Largely due to the award, I was able to begin my career in research back at my institution in Mexico City. Right from my fellowship, I started a geriatric oncology program at the hospital.”

ASCO Long-Term International Fellowship

Dr. Soto remained in touch with his valued mentor, and, in 2016, he received the Long-Term International Fellowship grant from ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation. “After my award, I went back to City of Hope and worked with Dr. Hurria for a full year and was also able to bring my family to Los Angeles. She was such a great and giving person. Under her mentorship, I further developed my skills in treating older patients with cancer and improved my knowledge and techniques in research, which accelerated my career. Dr. Hurria was not only a world-class oncologist and a pioneer in geriatrics, but she was a warm and generous human being. She had that special quality that, no matter how busy she was, she always found time for her mentees and colleagues. As you know, she died tragically young, and the whole community felt the loss.”

A New Normal

Like many leaders in academic oncology, Dr. Soto maintains a challenging schedule, balancing clinical care, performing administrative duties, and pursuing his research interests. He explained that, like many low- and middle-income countries, Mexico’s oncology service system is fiscally challenged, and only those who work in government jobs have full medical coverage.

“Many of our patients with cancer are uninsured and have to pay for everything out of pocket, which means some therapies, including supportive care, are out of their reach. I run a geriatric oncology clinic, and my favorite part of the week is on the floor, interacting with my patients. I attend clinic twice a week and see older patients with colorectal and gastric cancers as well as vulnerable older patients with cancer; these patients are so vulnerable that their oncologists send them to us for evaluation and supportive care. The rest of my week is dedicated to research, mentoring our fellows, and meeting with my research team,” explained Dr. Soto.

Asked about how the “new normal” amid the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his work, Dr. Soto responded: “At the onset of the pandemic, quite honestly, I didn’t predict it would get this crazy. I contacted all my patients and explained that things would be changing moving forward, but, no matter what, their care would continue. Our hospital was transformed into a COVID-specific center.”

Dr. Soto set up a home office and is now doing telemedicine weekly. “Although I was leery at first about telemedicine,” he admitted, “it has been surprisingly successful for me and my patients with cancer. So much so that, even when this crisis is over and we return to normal, I’ll still use telemedicine for certain situations. It allows instant connection at any time of the day and is helpful for my patients who find it difficult to travel.”

Spending Time With the Family to Decompress

What does a busy geriatric oncologist do to decompress? “I love sports. I cycle every day, which is a bit challenging in Mexico City, a bustling place filled with cars and buses. I also play soccer in a league, something I really love, but unfortunately, like a lot of group activities, it has been cancelled.”

According to Dr Soto, however, the best way to decompress is spending time with his family. “I try to get away on weekends and go to the country. Being outdoors puts things in perspective. That said, I love my career in geriatric oncology and cannot imagine doing anything else.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Soto has received institutional research funding from Roche.