May 23, 2015 | by Samantha Bona
Skin cancer is an enticing field to be in these days. Just ask Laleh Melstrom, M.D. M.S., one of City of Hope's newest surgeons. “In the last few years, melanoma has been the type of cancer that has really shown the most progress in terms of treatments,” Melstrom said. “It’s the one cancer in 2015 that is probably the most exciting in terms of survival.”
The new melanoma treatments that have recently emerged “delay recurrences and progression,” said Melstrom, an assistant clinical professor of surgery who joined City of Hope in March from a similar role at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “And there are more forthcoming. They’re targeting aspects of the immune system to stimulate its response to melanoma” – the most deadly form of skin cancer.
However, although melanoma has seen “a lot of progress in the development of targeted therapies to treat for systemic disease, early surgical intervention remains the most effective strategy for preventing metastatic disease and prolonging survival,” Melstrom said.
Melstrom enjoys the challenges that skin cancer presents. “There are a multitude of treatment options for almost every cancer,” she said. “And tailoring the plan for each individual and their family and their value system is what makes this an art and not just a technical practice. The modalities of treatment cross all different disciplines. To be knowledgeable about all the different practices, as well as the person’s value system, really makes it a rewarding job.”
'The most rewarding profession you can have'
Melstrom says she never had any doubts about becoming a doctor. “It’s far and away the most rewarding profession you can have,” she says. “Not only are you impacting one human being’s life, but you are affecting that person’s family’s life, and if you are a teacher, you are passing on knowledge to the next generation of physicians. So your impact increases exponentially, both as a teacher and a physician.”
Still, Melstrom admits that treating cancer patients can sometimes be emotionally difficult. She couldn’t watch the TV show “Breaking Bad,” she says, because “the character dealing with lung cancer was just too much.”
Instead, she looks to “Game of Thrones” for escape from everyday pressures: “It is so far from reality that it is pure entertainment,” she says.
When not getting lost in the world of King’s Landing, Melstrom’s favorite post-work activity is spending time with her kids. The unusual names of Melstrom’s two boys – Benjamin Franklin Melstrom, 5, and Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt Melstrom, 8 months, hint at the qualities she most admires.
“Both of these gentlemen had multifaceted talents,” says the avowed American history buff. “Benjamin Franklin was forever inquisitive. Theodore Roosevelt grew up as a very weak, sickly child. He overcame his delicate physical constitution and was quite a formidable character, but used his wits more than his muscle: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.’”
While never sickly – Melstrom played varsity tennis at Johns Hopkins, where she received her undergraduate degree – it was her own intellectual curiosity that attracted her to the field of medicine. “It’s one of the only fields where your career is constantly changing, where you are always learning new things, progressing and growing as the biology is better understood and the therapies are improved over time,” she says. “You never get bored.”
What makes City of Hope special
The potential to learn new things, and the ability to contribute to breakthrough cures and treatments, attracted Melstrom to City of Hope, where her husband, Kurt “Kip” Melstrom Jr., M.D., works as a colorectal surgeon.
“Research is front and center here,” she says. “Really cutting-edge trials are offered here. Research is not an afterthought.” An active scientist, Melstrom has already published 59 articles in peer-reviewed publications, abstracts and book chapters. She has received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Fellowship, a Chicago Surgical Society Annual First Prize Award for Surgical Research and the Northwestern University Kanavel Scholar Award. At City of Hope, she will be passing on her knowledge as an assistant clinical professor of surgery.
At home, however, the most important lessons she plans to teach her young presidential namesakes are to always wear sunblock, of course – and the closely guarded recipe for her “world-famous guacamole.”
Learn more about skin cancer treatment and research at City of Hope.
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