Conversations With Prostate Cancer Experts

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Dr. Eliezer Van Allen: Why Medicine?

Dr. Eliezer Van Allen, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, a clinician at Dana-Farber/Partners Cancer Care, and an Associate Member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, focuses on computational cancer genomics, using new technology in precision medicine, and resistance to targeted prostate cancer therapies.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about why he became a prostate cancer doctor.

Dr. Eliezer Van Allen: An engineer probably would’ve been closer to what I had imagined. Medicine was, in some sense, an accident. When I went out to college at Stanford University in the late 90s, I studied something called Symbolic Systems, which is a mix of computer science and a bunch of other coursework. Many of my friends from that era, who studied the same things, stayed in Silicon Valley and are now software engineers, computer scientists, and whatnot.

While I was pursuing this degree of study, some of my friends worked on creating Camp Kesem, a camp for kids who have or had a parent with cancer. (It seemed like a cool thing to do, I’d do some good, and learn something.) We had the first camp in 2001 with 37 kids. I was lucky to be a counselor.

I say, very genuinely, that that was a life-changing experience. It really exposed me to a humanistic side of medicine, which I really hadn’t seen up to that point. It also exposed me to the world of cancer and how cancer touches not just patients but their whole families. That pushed me to pursue medicine, and cancer medicine in particular. It was a seminal life experience. It’s cool to see how that program has grown both locally and nationally. There must be hundreds of Camp Kesems at this point.

How did you get involved with prostate cancer?

Dr. Van Allen: While in medical school and residency, I met patients who had prostate cancer. I was really struck by them. I’d meet them in the hospital, some when they were very sick and often times with advanced cancers. A lot of the prostate cancer patients appeared to be very different from each other and from all the other cancer patients I saw. In part, this was because the treatments were so different than those given for other cancer patients across the board. It was just so striking.

Even back then, when I didn’t understand the details and nuances, I noticed that some men seemed to bounce back from any kind of cancer-related illness and live for many years. Others, who were often on the younger side, would have catastrophic advanced disease, terrible side effects to the treatments, and would die quickly. That puzzled me.

I got to know a lot of these guys while working at the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco. I just felt a very symbiotic bond. I don’t know how to explain it. There’s some sort of unwritten connection with these men that resonated with me.

I took that with me into my continued training as an oncologist, both clinically and as a computational biologist. As a person with a computer science background who started to build a career at the intersection of cancer genomics, prostate cancer, clinical medicine, and the emerging space of cancer data sciences, this particular puzzle became very exciting to explore for both humanistic reasons and the emerging scientific reasons.

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