Expert Spotlight: Dr. Patricia Eifel

spotlights Jan 17, 2020

Dr. Patricia Eifel is a Professor of Radiation Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She served as past President and Chairman of the Board of ASTRO, and currently serves on the Board of the International Gynecologic Cancer Society.

Dr. Patricia Eifel, a past president of ASCO and current Professor of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson, wasn't sure about her career aspirations during her undergraduate studies: "I sort of...wandered into medicine and oncology. I had interests in science, art, history, research, so I felt like I was being pulled in a lot of directions at once." A big inspiration for medicine came in the form of her work at a tumor lab in undergrad; eventually, she took the MCAT and was accepted to Stanford soon after.

There she met Henry Kaplan, one of the greats of radiation oncology, but also an educator who had a strong commitment to medical student education. A problem that often plagued medical programs concerned under-training students in outpatient oncology. Stanford’s radiation oncology rotation became a place, Dr. Eifel recalls, "that developed a reputation as the best to get hands-on experience with physical examination techniques. For this reason, many students (including myself) actually chose radiation oncology as their first clinical rotation."

That rotation turned out to be especially meaningful to Dr. Eifel, most notably the degree of intellectual discussion taking place, the thoughtful approach to treatment options for patients, and the positive work environment. “At one time, I planned to be a pediatrician, but after internship I decided to switch to radiation oncology. I never regretted that decision."

Dr. Eifel had what she calls her first eureka moment, one that stands out to her as pivotal in her career, during research into endometrial cancer: "I remember the day we put the data together comparing various histologic subtypes with the clinical outcomes. It was a moment that showed me how careful clinical research, even retrospective research, can lead to amazing, valid, and durable conclusions."

While many of the highlights of Dr. Eifel's career have been concerned with research and intellectual discovery, she has also found great satisfaction in teaching. In her recently published textbook on gynecologic radiation oncology (coauthored with Ann Klopp), she attempted to summarize her years of experience in a practical way. She found it particularly satisfying to compile the numerous case studies included in the book. "Sometimes after many years you lose track of patients who have gone through treatment; some of the most joyous moments I experienced while writing our book was the discovery of patients who had been treated for extremely challenging, some might say hopeless, cancers who are thriving more than a decade after treatment."

Dr. Eifel notes that theMednet has been fascinating, especially, "to see how colleagues have answered questions. It's a great service: we’re at a time where textbooks become outdated so fast, and practical knowledge is needed more than ever. It’s important for people to get the opinions that are difficult to summarize in a paper, things that aren't hard and fast rules, and how to manage the gray zones."

To maintain balance in her life, Dr. Eifel looks towards opportunities outside work: piano, painting, and photography, to name a few. "There was a point in med school where I stopped and realized I hadn't read a novel in years. This imbalance I was feeling was affecting my sense of well-being and my ability to interact with others." So, Dr. Eifel pursued what she calls parallel priorities. Oftentimes in medical professions, physicians narrow their focus too intensely, and everything else falls to the wayside. Parallel priorities are a way to divide time among all the important aspects of life. "Carve time out for yourself; sometimes that means saying no to people or projects. But it's worth it: deliberate action will help with balance."

Dr. Eifel has found interests even in the most unconventional places: she creates 1:12 scale 17th century miniature furnitures, a venture which started with making a dollhouse for her granddaughter. And through an illustrious career, Dr. Eifel has never stopped enjoying each moment in oncology, and in life.

Brendan Bense

Brendan is an Editorial Assistant at theMednet, and an author for theMednet Blog. He's a Philly native, with a passion for technology, creative writing, and travel.