April 13, 2018 | by Maxine Nunes
What’s absent from a child’s world often forms their goals and desires as an adult. Maria de Leon, M.D., grew up in a small town in the Philippines, and what people there desperately needed was medical care.
“Coming from a third-world country, I saw a lot of disease that could have been prevented,” she said. “Even vaccinations weren't being done much, and polio was still an issue, when it shouldn’t have been.”
But most wrenching is the memory of what happened to a woman her family knew well. She was poor and gave birth to her baby at home. Then she began to hemorrhage, and because the hospital wouldn’t take her without money up front, she died from loss of blood.
De Leon’s parents wanted a better life for their children, so the family moved to California when she was 14. But those early experiences shaped her future.
She received her medical degree at UCLA, did a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Yale, and is now a surgeon and gynecologic oncologist at City of Hope locations in Antelope Valley, Santa Clarita and Mission Hills.
It’s a job that meshes perfectly with her lifelong ambition — providing medical care where it’s most needed.
When I joined City of Hope, their mission was to take their quality of care to the community,” she said, and some of the areas they serve are relatively impoverished. “The patients are so appreciative of what we do for them, because if we weren’t there, I don’t think many of them would get the kind of service we’re able to provide.”
De Leon has an easy charm, punctuated frequently by a delightful laugh, so it’s no surprise to learn that she’s a people person, someone for whom relationships are an important part of medicine — and what’s unique about being both a gynecological oncologist and a surgeon is that she is with her patients thorough every phase of their cancer journey.
Often you have a medical and surgical physician managing a patient. But a gynecologic oncologist is trained to do both, and this makes our subspecialty unique,” she said. “You’re there from diagnosis to surgery to chemotherapy, so you build a relationship with those patients and with their families as well.”
Many of her patients are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and when treatment has been successful, they often bring photos to their appointments. “They show us pictures of the new grandchild they were afraid they’d never get to see or the wedding they wanted so much to attend,” she said. “It’s just wonderful to see that they can now continue living their lives.”
As with all cancers, the earlier you detect it, the better the outcome will be. With women’s health, de Leon explained, there are many things you can do. You can screen the cervix for precancerous cells and take care of it before it becomes cancer. Endometrial cancer is often curable if the patient sees a doctor at the first symptoms and is diagnosed and treated at early-stage disease.
She recalls one patient in her 30s who was diagnosed with Stage 1 endometrial cancer. The surgery was successful, and the woman is not only back at work but has begun studying for her master’s degree.
“Being a part of that is amazing,” de Leon said. I’m so grateful that I get the opportunity to do this work.”
De Leon hopes one day to volunteer with a group like Doctors Without Borders, so that she can bring screening and patient education to underserved parts of the world, including the town where she was born.
Work is a passion that takes up most of de Leon’s time. But when she does get a chance to relax, you might find her hiking the beautiful trails near Valencia with her husband Johnny and their little dog Marshmallow. When they work up an appetite, she doesn’t have to spend time cooking. Her husband is a foodie so they often eat out, and he loves experimenting in the kitchen with new dishes of his own. Do the experiments work? “He’s a good cook,” she said, “and I’m not a picky eater.”
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