Early Cancer Experience Plants the Seed for a Career in Oncology to Grow for Joyce F. Liu, MD, MPH

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As a young girl growing up in central New Jersey, Joyce F. Liu, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist specializing in gynecologic cancers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, dreamed of becoming an astronaut. However, she realized her fear of heights and propensity for motion sickness didn’t jive with blasting off into outer space.

“There were no medical professionals in my family, and during grade school, I didn’t think about becoming a doctor,” she shared. “That changed, however, when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I was 12 years old. To this day, the memory is still vivid. We were at the dinner table, and I remember a strange tenseness in the air. I finally asked my mother what was wrong, and she instantly burst into tears.”

Joyce F. Liu, MD, MPH

Joyce F. Liu, MD, MPH

Dr. Liu continued: “Although we were fortunate that my mother had an early-stage low-grade cancer, and she’s doing fine today, at the time I remember a sense of the world around me collapsing. Looking back, I think that experience made me think about what it would be like to be a doctor, someone who could really make a difference in people’s lives at a time they are vulnerable.”

Following high school, Dr. Liu traveled to Boston, where she attended Harvard University. “When I first entered Harvard, medicine was in the back of my mind, but I still hadn’t decided on becoming a doctor. I was drawn to science and basic research; however, after doing some volunteer work at the hospital, I realized that even though I enjoyed scientific bench research, my passion was with patient interaction, with hands-on satisfaction in helping people,” said Dr. Liu.

Interest in Gynecologic Oncology

After receiving her BA in biochemical sciences magna cum laude from Harvard, Dr. Liu remained there for medical school, earning her MD in 2002. Although her initial experience with her mother’s cancer diagnosis planted a subliminal seed, her decision to pursue a career in oncology did not take root until her clinical oncology rotations during medical residency.

“Taking care of patients with cancer really resonated with me,” commented Dr. Liu. “These patient populations are among our sickest and most vulnerable, and it was a special honor to be able to help them in any way possible. I ultimately chose to specialize in gynecologic cancers because there was such an unmet need in that discipline.”

Dr. Liu related an early experience she had as an intern, caring for a young woman in her early 30s who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer that presented with cutaneous wounds all over her body. “By then, she’d been through multiple lines of treatment and was looking for a primary care clinician to help her with pain management,” continued Dr. Liu. “Unfortunately, she passed away a few months after we met, but it left a lasting impression that we needed to find better ways to treat patients with these cancers.”

Memorable Mentors

Dr. Liu noted that her training, residency, and fellowship in Boston were greatly enhanced by mentors. “One of my first mentors, who has remained an advisor and great friend to this day, is Ursula ­Matulonis, MD, Chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Dana-Farber. We met during my senior year of residency, and she talked with me about potential papers. At the time, Ursula was doing a research project with one of the pathologists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Michelle Hirsch, MD, PhD, looking at differences in ovarian cancers that occurred in younger and older patients. That was one of the first things I published in ovarian cancer research from the clinical perspective. That early experience with Ursula helped build my interest in pursuing clinical research,” Dr. Liu explained.

In her research years during her fellowship at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Dr. Liu eventually did postdoctoral work in the laboratory of David ­Livingston, MD. “I ended up working very closely with Dr. Livingston in identifying an important signaling pathway in ovarian cancer,” related Dr. Liu. “We’ve pursued similar projects over the years, and David has been a great mentor and teacher, who has certainly helped shape not only my career, but also how I look at the scientific process. One of the things David really taught me was how to build hypotheses and to rigorously question my data and ask what it showed, not what I wanted it to show. These tools have remained with me over the years and have enhanced all aspects of my career.”

Long-Time Bostonian’s Clinical and Research Interests

Dr. Liu noted that she arrived in Boston for her undergraduate studies and never left. “It’s a city that offers so much richness in medicine, history, and overall academic resources. I’m very lucky to have started my career journey here and have never found a reason to be any other place,” she added.

Dr. Liu sees patients 2 days per week, and most of her other time is spent writing and coordinating research projects. “I currently do not have my own dedicated laboratory, but I collaborate with multiple colleagues on translational projects, and we also work with investigators from industry. Serving as Director of Clinical Gynecologic Research at Dana-Farber requires wearing multiple hats, which I thoroughly enjoy. I coordinate our clinical research efforts and portfolio, and also help to coordinate our translational research efforts, including collaborations utilizing models of ovarian cancer that I established in my work in David Livingston’s lab,” noted Dr. Liu. She also coordinates tissue sampling programs that help investigators access patient samples, from which they can build a better understanding of the biology of gynecologic cancers.

“I have a busy work week, but at the end of the day, everything we are learning in the clinic, lab, and trial setting will eventually translate into better care for our patients with gynecologic cancers,” commented Dr. Liu.

Asked about life at Dana-Farber in the new and challenging era of COVID-19, Dr. Liu responded: “Clearly, the pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. But from a research perspective, I must say I am really proud of how Dana-Farber has stepped up to the challenge from day one. In fact, we have been able to continue our clinical trial research and recruit patients. There are definite challenges, such as tissue collection, patient safety issues, and funding, but our talented and dedicated group of associates have been able to maintain our research program.”

Away From Work

What does a super busy clinician-­researcher do to decompress? “First and foremost, I have an amazing family, two young children and a very supportive husband, who really keep me balanced. I’m also fortunate that my college choir conductor started a community choral group, which has given me the opportunity to keep singing. It is a great opportunity to connect with music in a high-level mixed-voice choir and really helps me get away.”

‘On the Cusp of Progress’

Dr. Liu shared some closing thoughts on the future of cancer care: “What still amazes me is how fast and far the field of oncology has evolved over the course of my career alone. We are now able to extract and analyze enormous amounts of complex data from tumors in a way that we couldn’t dream of a decade or so ago. I am convinced that with our rapidly growing knowledge base about tumor biology and microenvironment, along with genomics and proteomics, we are on the cusp of progress, which will lead to better outcomes for our patients with cancer. I really believe we’re going to see continued acceleration in our understanding and treatments for cancer, and I’m excited to be part of this process.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Liu has served as a consultant or advisor to ­AstraZeneca, Tesaro, Clovis, Merck, Genentech, and Mersana Therapeutics.