Meet W. Charles Penley, MD, FASCO

Feb 23, 2016

Partner at Tennessee Oncology, PLLC; ASCO member since 1988; Conquer Cancer Foundation Board of Directors Member and Immediate Past Chair

AC: What led you to oncology?

WCP: While it may sound silly to say it today, in light of the amazing discoveries of the past few years, the mid-1980s were exciting times in oncology. Curative chemotherapeutic regimens had been developed for many malignancies that had, just a decade or so previously, been routinely fatal. New agents and dose-intensive regimens were being developed, and the science of bone marrow transplantation was coming into its own. As a medical resident, it was hard not to be excited by these developments.

I was also drawn to a specialty that allowed me to take care of the whole patient, and not just focus on one organ or system. Patients diagnosed with cancer face complex physical problems, but there are psychological and socioeconomic issues to be considered as well, and I’ve been challenged and humbled while assisting patients and families to find solutions to those problems.

AC: What’s the last book you read?

WCP: Currently, I’m reading Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep, Ike’s Spies by Stephen E. Ambrose, and The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer. The last books I’ve finished are Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Doc by Mary Doria Russell, and The All of It by Jeannette Haien.

AC: What hobbies do you enjoy?

WCP: I enjoy the outdoors. When I was a bit younger, that meant mountain biking and whitewater canoeing. Approaching 60, I’ve embraced less physically demanding activities such as hiking, rafting, and fly-fishing. AC: Do you have a personal motto? WCP: While I don’t have a personal motto, per se, I have always approached medical decisions with one guiding principle: Do the right thing for the patient, and everything else will fall into place. With the changes in the health care system that have occurred over the past several years, that isn’t always as easy as it might sound.

AC: What career would you be in if you weren’t an oncologist?

WCP: I can honestly say that I didn’t set out as a young man to become an oncologist—many factors aligned to guide me down this path. I can just as easily see myself pursuing a career in the basic sciences, laboratory research, or teaching. I’ve often joked that my next career will involve opening an antique bookshop—there is just something comforting about the scent and feel of old books.

AC: What changes do you envision for the field in the next 10 years?

WCP: That is difficult to predict, given the current frenetic pace of scientific discovery. It seems likely that we will continue to focus on the genome, and that we will find new targets and develop more effective, less toxic therapeutic agents. I’d like to think, however, that we would focus more on the prevention of neoplastic disease. While we will likely never eradicate cancer as human illness, identifying greater numbers of genetic and environmental risk factors, and developing more effective risk reducing strategies, seems within reach.

AC: What would you say to a young physician thinking about entering the field of oncology?

WCP: I would say that the same factors that drew me to the field exist today. The science is exciting, and knowledge is rapidly expanding. There is a huge burden of human illness and suffering that demands our attention and best efforts. The field offers a young physician almost limitless opportunities to truly make a difference—and in the final analysis, that’s what we all should strive to do.

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