Mary Duong On The 5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
It’s so important for everyone to talk to their doctor and have their regular screenings. Some cancers may be particularly uncomfortable to talk about, but we have to bust that stigma!
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?
In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Duong, PA-C.
Mary has over 20 years of experience working in oncology with a focus on treating prostate cancer. She graduated cum laude with her Bachelor’s of Science and Physician Assistant degree from an accelerated program at St. John’s University and St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers School of Allied Health Professions.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to the US when I was five years old. My mom was a nurse and inspired me to join the healthcare field. When I was in high school, I volunteered at an oncologist’s office and gained first-hand experience in the world of oncology. I didn’t fully understand what cancer meant at the time, but learned a lot by accompanying the oncologist to see patients, helping the infusion nurses, providing patient education, assisting with running simple blood tests, and keeping patients company during their chemo infusion. As a teenager, I actually didn’t find it sad or depressing, words which have often been synonymous with cancer. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in healthcare, and the role of a physician assistant (PA) was perfect for me. A PA is a medical professional who can diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, and prescribe medications. PAs are versatile and collaborative. Once I graduated from PA school, I quickly found that in oncology, where I first started, was where I belonged. As a physician assistant, I was able to use my skill set and education to be part of the oncology patient healthcare team to achieve and maintain desired patient outcomes, support the oncologist and other staff members, and act as a patient advocate. Also, I was able to bring new ideas to the practice, including integrating technology such as electronic medical records (EMRs), which were new at that time. I love to find ways to make things run more efficiently, which ultimately means that everyone can concentrate more on patient care.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My greatest mentors have been my supervising physicians. I have always admired their compassion for their patients and their staff, as well as their incredible intelligence. When I first started in oncology, I remember being surprised to hear a staff member greet an incoming patient by their name without looking at the schedule. It was unlike any doctor’s office I had ever been in or worked for. I soon realized that oncology office staff and providers establish close connections with the patient and their family.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
Hope. I am part of a team that helps people live longer and have a better quality of life, experiencing things they didn’t think they would get to — walk their daughter down the aisle, see their grandchildren be born. We give them hope when they have none, and I hang on to those moments. I feel like a trainer at the gym sometimes — I’m part of a support team that helps patients follow their treatment plan for the best possible result.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
My supervising physician is also the Research Director at the Institute, which is really exciting. Our research includes both clinical research and laboratory research for the development of new treatments, as well as finding new molecular markers to broaden the treatment options for our patients. I’ve been in oncology, specializing in prostate cancer, for over 20 years, and it is really exciting to see so many new developments for prostate cancer in the last decade. It’s a very exciting time!
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?
I am a Clinical Physician Assistant at the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC, and I have been in oncology, with a focus on prostate cancer for more than 20 years.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?
Cancer is technically an overgrowth of cells. Here at the Institute, our philosophy is that cancer is a verb, not a noun. It’s something that your body does, and all of our treatment plans are based on that.
What causes cancer?
There are so many causes: environmental, genetic, behavioral. In our clinic we’re also building a wellness program focusing on cancer prevention and overall well being to try to address prevention and early detection.
What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?
That’s a tough question, because not only is every form of cancer different, every patient is different. My expertise is in prostate cancer, so I’ll speak to that. A thing that stands out to me is that due to the demographics of patients who develop prostate cancer — typically older, male — my patients tend to be a bit unfamiliar with showing vulnerability, and letting someone help them (of course there are exceptions!) They may be uncomfortable talking about their health, let alone their prostate and other things related to cancer, so it’s really my job to make them feel safe and taken care of, and to be an outlet for them.
I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?
That is a big topic! Of course cancer can’t be prevented 100%, but taking care of your overall health and making sure you receive r regular screenings are extremely important. But it’s also important to say that if diagnosed with cancer, your healthcare team will help you live with it, and not let it define you. At the Ellison Clinic, we strive to treat prostate cancer to become a chronic illness, like high blood pressure or diabetes.
How can one detect the main forms of cancer?
Guidance does continue to change regarding screening recommendations for prostate and other forms of cancer because over-screening can sometimes lead to over-treatment and unnecessary anxiety for patients. On the other hand, delays in diagnosis can sometimes mean a difference in treatment options and outcome. It’s important to have a conversation with your physician and figure out what’s right for you, given your personal situation, including family history and ancestry, as well as other factors.
Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?
It really has changed. As I mentioned, we’re focused on ways to make the experience of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer more like that of a chronic condition We’re focused on a patient’s overall wellness. We strive to offer treatment options that are personalized for the patient’s condition and offer options with the best outcome, with the least side effects.
Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?
The Ellison Institute is such an innovative place, where I’m so proud to work and be a part of. We combine patient care with cutting-edge, multidisciplinary research, a policy department, and several educational initiatives. There’s a vision for something bigger than the traditional cancer research center, and I think that’s really the wave of the future.
Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?
In addition to the medical side of things, I also feel that it’s an important part of my job to provide hope and comfort to our patients, and that can take many forms. I do everything in my power to make this process easy for them, from making them laugh when they’re here for an appointment, to making their treatment plan easy to follow, assisting them in accessing financial assistance for treatments, and adjusting treatment plans to allow patients to also experience life events like family reunions, vacations, etc. It’s important for me to aid them in their ability to continue living life, and it’s also important to me to consider the overall patient and their family, not just their cancer.
From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?
Whether it’s cancer or anything that someone is going through, talking and listening are key.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
The big misconception is that the diagnosis of cancer equates to a death sentence, which is just not the case. Many times it can be managed as a chronic condition. Also, here at the Ellison Institute, we hold onto the mission to analyze data, research, evaluate, and develop treatments that can achieve this.
Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
My answers will focus on clinical care of cancer, as that’s my area:
- As I learned early on, an important determinant of outcome is not necessarily the severity of the cancer, but the quality of the patient’s social and financial support systems. Ask your providers for information on programs that can make treatment more financially attainable. obtain treatment that they would otherwise find unattainable to them due to financial constraints.
- I’ll say again that not all cancers are death sentences! Many can be effectively controlled like a chronic condition, similar to high cholesterol or diabetes.
- Although the road of treatment can be extremely difficult for some, many of our patients continue to live full lives while undergoing treatment. It doesn’t have to keep you from doing everything you enjoy.
- It’s so important for everyone to talk to their doctor and have their regular screenings. Some cancers may be particularly uncomfortable to talk about, but we have to bust that stigma!
- Research is always progressing, so there are new therapies for prostate cancer and other forms of cancer that a lot of people may not be aware of. The mainstay of prostate cancer therapy was hormonal-based for many years until 2004 when Docetaxel was the first chemotherapy approved in prostate cancer, offering an overall survival advantage. In 2012, a new novel hormone medication was approved for prostate cancer, followed by three more novel options in the following years. In the last two years, a new treatment option, PARP inhibitors, was approved in prostate cancer. Currently, researchers are working on developing other classes of treatment for prostate cancer including CAR-T cell, PSMA-lutetium therapy, etc.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Medicare beneficiaries cannot currently take advantage of many programs offered directly by drug companies due to government regulations. In some cases, this means that a Medicare patient ends up paying 10x what someone else, who’s able to take advantage of those programs would pay. I understand the rationale that allowing Medicare recipients to utilize those benefits would seem to unfairly support a private company, but there has to be a way to allow Medicare recipients to access these same discounts.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m on Twitter @MaryDuong11 and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-duong-096068163/
Ellison Institute Twitter: @UscEllison
Ellison Institute Facebook: @EllisonInstitute
Ellison Institute Instagram: @ellisoninstitute
Ellison Institute LinkedIn: Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC
Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.