One of the best things about ASCO’s Annual meeting is the opportunity to catch up with colleagues. For me, oncology has always felt like a small community of like-minded clinicians who choose to dedicate their lives to the treatment and care of people with cancer. So, with each year, I look forward to seeing friends from fellowship, mentors who helped shape my career, students who I taught and later chose the field themselves, and those colleagues who I’ve gotten to know first professionally, and in whom friendships easily developed.
Arti Hurria is one of these persons. We met in fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). She came across as quietly assured, thoughtful, yet immediately approachable. We worked closely at different times during those years, notably during our rotation on the leukemia service, and I still remember the long days and nights on service.
Our careers diverged after fellowship. I have watched proudly as she developed a career in breast oncology and as an expert in geriatric oncology, becoming Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Geriatric Oncology, and one of the leaders of the Cancer and Aging Research Group. In 2013, she was the recipient of ASCO’s B.J. Kennedy Award and Lecture for Scientific Excellence in Geriatric Oncology, and even while I beamed at the achievement, I was shocked. When did we get old enough to receive achievement awards??
The issue came up after a meeting for The Oncologist, which was held during the 2015 ASCO Annual Meeting; both Arti and I have the privilege of being on the editorial board. After a quick hug and small talk, we discovered our flights were leaving Chicago at the same time and decided to share a cab to the airport. There we reminisced about old times in New York, about where our colleagues were and who we had kept in touch with, and what we were up to now. We caught up on families and careers, achievements, and how younger colleagues had started to come to us for guidance on careers—marveling on what our mentees had achieved thus far and enthusiastic about what else they could do.
“When did we become the mentor, Arti?” I asked her, somewhat shocked to see myself in the role. “When I look in the mirror, I still see a somewhat uncertain clinician finishing his fellowship—making his first foray into the role of attending; someone who even today seeks direction from my own mentors—from David Spriggs at MSKCC, or, more recently, from Michael Birrer—about what direction my career should take. Surely, I cannot be a mentor, if I still feel the need to be the mentee.”
Arti chimed in then. “Well, I think oncology is changing so much, and there is so much yet to do. In geriatric oncology, I know what questions we’ve answered. We’ve worked hard to obtain the datasets, looked at the assessment tools, created some as well. The field is attracting more and younger faculty, motivated to move us forward, and I want to encourage them. If I can make it easier to answer a question, I want to do that. And, if the question has been asked and answered, I want to help them define: What else do we need to know?”
Listening to Arti, I recognized some of the same passions reflected in my own quest to stay in academic oncology, and perhaps explained why I considered her such a close colleague. Like her, I enjoyed helping students and young faculty better define their interests, develop clinical questions, and launch an academic career. It was also satisfying when something I worked hard on with junior faculty made its way to ASCO as a poster or better yet, published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Talking to my dear friend as we made our way to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I realized that being a mentor is not just an honor that comes with age or academic rank. Mentoring is a skill that underlies the commitment we make to the next generation of oncologists. It is both an honor and a responsibility. However, one can still be mentor and mentee—to be both reflects the ever-evolving state of our field.
Note: This blog was originally published on The Oncologist and is posted here with permission.