Dr. Neha Vapiwala is an Associate Professor and the Vice Chair of Education in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in the management of patients with genitourinary (GU) cancers, and served as the department's first Chief of GU Oncology. Her research focuses on biological and technological improvements in the delivery of photon- and proton-based radiation, and she currently serves as the Principal Investigator of multiple therapeutic trials for prostate cancer patients. She is also the Associate Dean of Admissions at the Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Neha Vapiwala knew she wanted to work with cancer patients, and assumed that probably meant a career in either medical or surgical oncology. And often when people outside of the profession think of oncology, things like chemotherapy and images of medical oncologists come to mind. It wasn't until her electives in medical school that her colleagues, most notably Dr. Helen Shih, talked Dr. Vapiwala into considering radiation oncology.
Dr. Vapiwala's assigned attending during her radiation oncology elective was none other than Stephen Hahn, the recently-appointed FDA Commissioner; though of course, at the time, he was one of many faculty members in a vibrant and exciting department, demonstrating the multi-dimensional role of academic radiation oncology, an "inspiration for learning," Dr. Vapiwala recalls. "Radiation oncology is a specialty at the forefront of innovative technologies, while also allowing us to be intimately involved in patient care and myriad research opportunities."
She notes especially the broad range of patients that radiation oncologists are able to see and treat. “The term cancer can often conjure images of visibly ill patients battling terminal diagnoses; radiation oncologists help care for the sickest patients, but also have the privilege of caring for patients at earlier stages with more promising prognoses, living their lives while coming in for treatment. We can focus not just on active treatment, but the importance of reducing long-term toxicities, of long-term relationships with our patients, of survivorship. It's a refreshing take on cancer care."
After graduating residency, Dr. Vapiwala had the unique opportunity to serve as the new program director, a role seldom, if ever, offered to residents who have just graduated. She cites that experience as a particularly important and impactful one: "a lot of roles I serve now, on education-related committees, are informed by that position. It taught me that training is both a privileged and challenging time for residents and medical students, and how much teaching methods and learning experiences evolve over time, with technological and generational differences." Dr. Vapiwala uses that experience as a former program director to enhance her own teaching and learning abilities throughout her career.
And there's no shortage of work to be done in oncology. "One of the more challenging aspects of having a fulfilling career and personal life is the feeling that you never have enough time. Efficiency of time, without compromising the quality of that time, is key. As more streamlined workflows and smarter systems emerge in practice—and they are painfully needed—our bureaucratic burdens will hopefully decrease so that we have more time to interact with our patients and trainees. They need our attention more than the EMR does.”
Fortunately, there is a lot of research being conducted that has Dr. Vapiwala looking towards the future. "We're seeing a lot of progress in the role that more accurate imaging, for example, is playing in identifying lesions for treatment. An increasing number and variety of systemic therapies are being combined with radiation for improved outcomes in patients who previously may not have been candidates for local therapy."
For medical students looking to enter the field of oncology, Dr. Vapiwala recommends using resources at their institution, if available, to find mentorship, as it can lead to some amazing opportunities. If not present at an institution, there are mentors throughout the specialty who have been and continue to be willing to advise students virtually. “Even if it means cold calling and networking, the world is never too big to seek out help and advice from people who have been through it before. Take advantage of the connections around you, and form new ones when you can."
Dr. Vapiwala includes theMednet in her list of great resources: "it's a great idea, bringing together a wide range of providers, institutions, and backgrounds to provide valuable guidance on applying data to patient management."