Ernest Han, M.D., Ph.D.: Skill, Compassion and 'A New Leaf'

June 29, 2017 | by Abe Rosenberg

Ernest Han Ernest Han, M.D., Ph.D.
After nine years performing intricate cancer surgery at City of Hope, gynecologic oncologist Ernest Han, M.D., Ph.D., is the kind of doctor women seek out. Patients have called him “brilliant,” “amazing” and an “expert in his field.” Some even turn to Han after starting with another physician, citing his compassion.
Colleagues have noticed.
“Dr. Han is the nicest and most capable physician I have ever worked with,” said Mark Wakabayashi, M.D., M.A.C.P., chief of gynecologic oncology.
Ironically, Han wasn't always comfortable with being a physician.
Raised in Houston, Han planned to study engineering, following in his father's footsteps, but soon realized it wasn't the right path. Looking for a new direction, he indulged his interest in science and biology by working in a research lab with a cell biologist. Ultimately he earned a Ph.D in cell physiology and molecular biophysics from the University of Texas.
But Han didn't want to stay in the lab.
“In medical school I was attracted to gynecologic oncology because of its capacity to help people both surgically and with chemotherapies,” he recalled. It turned out to be an ideal choice. Han now says he “loves to operate,” and “would rather be in the OR than anyplace else.” He's an acknowledged expert in minimally invasive laparoscopy as well as robotic surgery, and says he’s inspired by the constant changes occurring in the chemotherapy armory, especially the development of targeted therapies and immunotherapies.
But he always puts his patients' needs above his personal enthusiasm.
“Surgery is a last resort,” he said. “It's a major ordeal, with a long, difficult recovery. I see what my patients go through. So, unless there's no other choice, I try to be as conservative as possible.”
His interest in research hasn't gone away. Han believes his broad knowledge beyond the operating room makes him a better doctor, enabling him to speak intelligently with his surgical patients about chemo and other post-op treatments they may be receiving. Especially the newer options.
“[Dr. Han] has a better understanding regarding new targeted treatments and immunotherapy than most physicians,” said Wakabayashi.
“It's still early,” said Han, “but there's great excitement in those two areas. Antibody-based drugs, for example, that attack the proteins that drive cancer. And some immunotherapies are showing promise in treating cervical and other gynecologic cancers. But the drugs don't work for everybody, and we're trying to figure out why.”
Han also puts his Ph.D. to good use by writing papers on drug treatments for ovarian cancer, alone and in conjunction with surgery. He has high hopes for a treatment called hyperthermic intraoperative peritoneal chemotherapy, or HIPEC. During the operation, high doses of heated chemo drugs are circulated into the abdominal cavity, creating a lethal environment for cancer, killing malignant cells that surgery may have missed, and avoiding the side effects of chemo delivered through the bloodstream.
“It's possible the heat helps the drugs penetrate better,” said Han. “It's a very aggressive treatment.”
And more aggression is needed, Han says, especially in ovarian cancer.
“We're not sure why,” he said, “but up to 70 percent of ovarian cancer patients who have surgery will suffer a relapse. Even when we think we've removed all the cancer, it comes back. Are we missing some cells? Are they hiding where we can't see them?”
Technology may help.
“We're working on ways to give surgeons a better view of the cancer cells, using dyes, lasers and fluorescent imaging. We're hoping to target and 'light up' those malignant cells which the surgeon might not otherwise see.”
Soft-spoken and self-effacing, the easygoing Han turns positively evangelistic when talking about avoidable cancer.
“There are way too many cases of advanced cervical cancer in young women, and it's just wrong,” he said. “Between Pap tests and the HPV vaccine, we know how to detect this disease early and even stop it entirely. We should never see advanced cervical cancer anymore. And yet we do, because not enough women get proper screening or preventive care.”
“I have two teenage daughters. This is a big deal to me.”
Another big deal –  and a principle he adheres to in his own life – is maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“I've made some changes. I've switched to a more plant-based whole-grain diet. And I'm exercising. I'm convinced it helps with a variety of things, including cancer prevention. It's a new leaf for me, and I wish medical schools would spend more time teaching their students about proper nutrition and exercise. I think it would make a big difference.”
“In the meantime,” he said, “just start doing it yourself. Be a role model.”

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