'The power to change a person’s life for the better': Meet James Shen, M.D.

August 6, 2018 | by Maxine Nunes

James Shen James Shen, M.D.
James Shen, M.D., a medical oncologist at the City of Hope locations in South Pasadena and Arcadia, is happy to be back home, serving the area where he grew up.
“To me it’s my roots,” he said. “I’m a first-generation Asian-American, and the people here have very similar background experiences to mine.”
Shen, who grew up in Rowland Heights and San Marino, California, was in grade school when his family immigrated from Taiwan, and he’s a seamless blend of both cultures — a guitarist who can play Taiwanese rock or croon “If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words” to his newborn son. He’s also an eight-time marathon runner and a Big Brother volunteer.
Medical oncology is a career he finds incredibly rewarding.
Being a doctor gives you the power to change a person’s life for the better,” he said. “And hopefully I bring something positive to people while they go through the tough journey of this serious illness.”

The miracle of science in a local setting

Shen chose to specialize in oncology because of the way exciting new developments in cancer care are changing our traditionally grim view of the disease — and at City of Hope's South Pasadena and Arcadia locations, he can offer patients some of the most effective new treatment options available.
Take, for example, one of Shen’s patients, a man in his 70s with metastatic nonsmall cell lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain.
“When I first saw him he was at death’s door. He had fluid in his lung, was losing a lot of weight and was essentially skin and bones,” he said.
The patient did not want the standard treatment of whole brain radiation or stereotactic radio surgery, so Shen gave him an oral medication, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor targeted to ALK, a gene found in this patient’s cancer.
“That’s part of personalized medicine,” Shen said, “because each person’s tumor may have signals or mutations that we can specifically target.”
A few months later, the brain metastases had disappeared, the fluid in his lung had cleared, the tumors continue to shrink and he’s gaining his weight back.
“He went from somebody who had difficulty breathing and was so weak he spent most of his time in bed to someone who’s functioning normally, going on walks with his family, even playing a little badminton now and then.”
Another of Shen’s patients was a man in his 80s with metastatic bladder cancer. It was inoperable, and because of his age and kidney function, chemotherapy was not advisable.
Bladder cancer is very aggressive and patients can pass away in a matter of months from it,” Shen said. “I put him on a checkpoint inhibitor, and we’re actually controlling the disease. It’s been a year, and right now he has no symptoms. In fact, in the last scan there was no evidence of the disease.”

A more personal style of practice

Shen’s multicultural background brings a lot to City of Hope’s South Pasadena and Arcadia practices, which serve many Mandarin-speaking Asians — immigrants like his parents. It’s a culture he fully understands, and both he and his medical assistant are fluent in the language.
Working in the community is something that Shen is very enthusiastic about. “It’s smaller and more personalized and we get to know our patients really well,” he said.
Another advantage is that the locations are a huge convenience for people undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. “Those therapies can be very tiring and make you feel ill, so you don’t want to be driving a hour or two every day to get there and back,” he said. “Here, treatments are very nearby for our patients.”
At City of Hope, Shen also has a great many treatment options to choose from. Many clinical trials are offered locally at community locations, and if those aren’t right for a particular case he can also refer the patient to the main campus in Duarte.
“A diagnosis of cancer can be devastating, but it’s amazing how fast medical technology is advancing. The whole field is completely different from a decade ago,” he said. “That’s the hope in City of Hope.”
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