International Career Joins Cancer Research and Clinical Care of Patients With Lung Cancer

A Conversation With Pilar Garrido, MD, PhD

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Pilar Garrido, MD, PhD, is Head of the Medical Oncology Department, University Hospital Ramón y Cajal, Madrid. She is also Co-Director of the Cancer Research Group at Instituto Ramón y Cajal de Investigación Sanitaria (IRYCIS). Her main areas of research and clinical interest are thoracic tumors, in particular lung cancer.

Pilar Garrido, MD, PhD

Pilar Garrido, MD, PhD

Early Influences and Educational Path

Please tell our readers about where you were born and reared and whether there were any early influences on your decision to pursue a career in medicine.

I was born and raised in Madrid. When I was growing up, nobody in my family was in the medical field, and during my adolescence, what I liked most was philosophy and literature. However, when I began to consider the career I would like to pursue, I thought of medicine because I found the combination of science and humanism very attractive. And I have never regretted the decision to become a doctor. 

Please tell us about your educational path and when you decided on medicine.

At the time I was being educated in Spain, when you were 15 years old, you chose a training itinerary between only two options popularly known as “sciences” or “letters,” depending on the university degree you wanted to achieve. I selected “sciences,” leaving literature and philosophy as hobbies. Afterward, there is a national exam, and depending on the grade, you choose a university degree and a university.

Studying medicine has always been a challenge because it is one of the most demanding university degrees, but I managed to select one of the best places to pursue my degree at the time: the Universidad Autónoma in Madrid. It was founded in 1968 and is widely respected as one of the most prestigious universities in Europe.

Why Oncology?

Please give the readers a window into the medical school experience in Spain and when you decided on oncology.

At the beginning of my medical studies, I thought I would like to pursue psychiatry, but I quickly realized that what I liked the most was oncology. In my opinion, it is the most complete and most beautiful specialty because it combines cutting-edge research with the closest attention to patients, especially during their most vulnerable moments. I think it is a privilege to learn every day from our patients and relatives, especially how they face complex life situations as they battle their disease.

In my opinion, oncology is the most complete and most beautiful specialty because it combines cutting-edge research with the closest attention to patients.
— Pilar Garrido, MD, PhD

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Medical Training in Spain

In the United States, after graduating from medical school, young doctors do an internship, residency, and eventually a fellowship in their subspecialty. Please take us on your journey, after receiving your MD degree, noting any salient experiences or mentors.

After one graduates from medical school in Spain, there is a national qualification exam in which several places are offered for specialized training. Depending on the number obtained in that exam, you choose your specialty and place of training. 

Medical oncology is a highly demanded specialty, which in my time required 4 years of training, although now it is 5 years. There is a national committee responsible for updating the knowledge required to be a competent medical oncologist. The clinical training required is aligned with the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Global Curriculum in Medical Oncology. Today, many oncologists complete their training with a stay in a prestigious center in another country, but this was uncommon then.

From the beginning of my training as an oncologist, I was interested in lung cancer, even though at that time, there were practically no treatment options. That is why it is so rewarding to have witnessed the birth, development, and implementation of precision medicine and immunotherapy in health-care practice, because of the impact it has had on the lives of so many patients. Among my mentors, I would say Dr. Rafael Rosell, a pioneer in lung cancer and personalized treatment and founder of the Spanish Lung Cancer Group.

A Day in the Life

Please take us on the road from fellowship to your current position and give us a sense of your work week, including any current research you may be conducting.

Currently, I serve as Head of the Medical Oncology Department at the University Hospital Ramón y Cajal in Madrid, and Professor of Medicine at Universidad de Alcalá. 

My daily activity at the hospital starts with clinical sessions and tumor committees. Over the past few years, I have had to limit the number of patients I treat personally, but as a physician, I consider this something I cannot give up. As head of the department, it also allows me to experience firsthand the problems and challenges of day-to-day practice. An important part of my position over the past few years has been to create a team in whom I have complete confidence and on whom I can rely to make many of the day-to-day decisions.

I was appointed as Co-Director of the IRYCIS some years ago, and my main areas of research and clinical interest are thoracic tumors. As an active member of CIBERONC (Centro de Investigación Biomédica en Red de Oncología), the national research program made up of 50 research groups from 27 Spanish institutions, I participate in a translational lung cancer program in collaboration with other clinical and experimental biology cancer groups.

Like many of my colleagues, I have participated in multiple clinical trials in thoracic tumors and collaborate with different researchers. Lately, I am quite interested in the role of the microbiota in lung cancer, with several projects in progress. In addition, I have always dedicated a lot of time and effort to collaborate with scientific societies, scientific committees, and Spanish national political and administrative institutions such as the Spanish National Cancer Strategy Committee.

I had the privilege of being the first woman to be elected President of the Spanish Medical Oncology Society in 2013, President of the Medical Oncology Specialty Training Committee in 2014, President of the Minister of Health Specialty Training Advisory Council in 2015, and President of the Spanish Federation of Medical Societies in 2020.

On an international level, I have held several positions. I am proud to be part of the ESMO Council and Chair of the ESMO Women for Oncology Committee as well as ESMO faculty for lung and other thoracic tumors. I also had the opportunity to lead the ESMO Press and Media Affairs Committee and currently am also involved in the ESMO Fellowship Committee and the Leadership Generation Task Force. For the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC), I participate as a member of the Educational Committee, the Women in Thoracic Oncology Committee, and the IASLC Academy. A couple of years ago, I was invited to be part of the Lung Cancer Track ASCO AM Education Committee. In all these positions, I have had the privilege of meeting extremely bright people from whom I continually learn. 

Words of Wisdom for Medical Students

What advice would you give to medical students who are considering pursuing a career in oncology.

I have had the privilege of meeting extremely bright people from whom I continually learn.
— Pilar Garrido, MD, PhD

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In my opinion, oncology is a highly demanding specialty on two levels. On the one hand, we feel we are never sufficiently trained to help our patients who find themselves in vulnerable situations. On the other hand, we are aware it is a field that evolves so rapidly as to require constant updating. However, in my opinion, these aspects are also the ones that make oncology so special and unique. There is nothing like feeling that you are helping a patient to live longer and better. 

It also has an enormous and very diverse field of work, from the most innovative research to the closest palliative care to the patient; from the study of the most frequent to the rarest tumor or from the most preventive approach to the most specific one of treating the symptoms at the end of life. In my opinion, as I have already said, it is the most complete and most beautiful specialty.

Carving Out Time for Oneself

Finally, what do you do to decompress from the rigors of your career?

It is not easy, but it is absolutely necessary to preserve time for oneself, especially with family and friends. I believe that taking time off from time to time also allows us to come back with more energy and to be better doctors, more focused for our patients. The challenge for busy academic oncologists is to find that balance, which I’m sure is different for each of us. For me, it is simply spending quality time with family and friends. 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Garrido has served as a consultant or advisor to AbbVie, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Oncology, Lilly, MSD Oncology, Novartis/Pfizer, Roche Pharma AG, and Takeda; has an immediate family member who has served as a consultant or advisor to Boehringer Ingelheim, Gebro, Janssen Biotech, and Nordic Group; has participated in a speakers bureau for AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb, Boehringer Ingelheim, Janssen Oncology, MSD Oncology, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche Pharma AG, and Takeda; has an immediate family member who has participated in a speakers bureau for Boehringer Ingelheim, Janssen, and Nordic Group; and has been reimbursed for travel, accommodations, or other expenses by AstraZeneca, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Roche.