It Began in a Barber Shop: The Remarkable Career of Arti Hurria, M.D.
October 10, 2017 | by Michael Easterling
Arti Hurria, M.D., began in the unlikeliest of places: a barber shop.
“It was the barber shop my dad went to,” she said. “I was with him. I was about 5. The barber asked what I was going to be when I grew up and [my Dad] said, ‘Oh, she’s going to be a doctor.’”
She laughs about it now. The memory is so vivid because of the haircut she got that day.
“My mother’s horror at my haircut is forever cemented in my mind,” she said. “That’s the day I learned I was destined to become a doctor.”
The child of two physicians, Hurria credits her parents with instilling in her an appreciation of the value of education.
“My father came from a village in India and described studying by candlelight,” she said. “As I grew up, he continued to study and always had a highlighter in his hand. That was normal to me, growing up. He taught me to appreciate education and the opportunities it can bring.”
A Global Education
It was their own devotion to education, medicine and each other that led Hurria’s parents around the world.
After leaving India, they relocated to the United Kingdom and, later, New York, where Hurria was born. When she was 8, her family moved to Southern California for its more moderate climate.
At 18, Hurria left the family home to pursue her medical education at Northwestern University. There, she met Steven T. Rosen, M.D., City of Hope’s chief scientific officer, who was then a professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine.
“I was a second-year medical student and I thought I wanted to be an oncologist,” she said. “So, I knocked on his office door and he invited me to follow him around his clinic on Tuesday afternoons. He was already famous then, but I didn’t know it.”
Investing in the Future
Rosen and Hurria’s parents, Kamla and Kesho Hurria, were all present recently when she received The George Tsai Family Chair in Geriatric Oncology.
Tsai, chairman of Fairmont Designs, who endowed the chair, attended as a friend and benefactor. The occasion was Hurria’s chance to tell her personal story and to share her vision for the future of geriatric oncology.
Hurria has always had a strong compassion for whom she calls the “older, more vulnerable” generation. As director of City of Hope’s Center for Cancer and Aging, and vice provost for clinical faculty, Hurria was instrumental in establishing the Cancer and Aging Research Program, which includes 17 participating institutions across the country.
As an oncologist specializing in geriatric medicine, Hurria is part of a rarefied group of physicians. In the United States, there are fewer than 200 geriatric oncologists. As a result, Hurria said the health care workforce receives very little geriatric training, even though the older population is the largest demographic.
Today there is one geriatric physician for every 2,620 patients. By 2030, it is projected that there will be one geriatrician for every 3,798 patients. Cancer diagnoses among this group are growing every year. However, when researchers test new drugs in clinical trials, they typically recruit younger individuals.
“Historically, clinical trials have left out people who are older and more experienced, which doesn’t make much sense,” Hurria explained. “We’re changing that. Older people have much to teach us. Their bodies are different. Their lives are different.
“Sixty percent of all cancers occur in people who are 65 and older,” she continued. “Baby boomers are turning 65, and today, the largest population consists of people who are over 65. By 2030, the largest population of adults will be 80 or older. We cannot ignore that.”
Hurria said that older patients with cancer have different needs and expectations.
“They want to know if they are treated, just how sick they will get from the treatment. They want to know if they will still be able to function,” she said. “They want to know if they can still be socially active and if their memory will be intact. Eighty percent of our older patients say they would rather maintain their memory than survive. And they do not want their children to know. They have a great anxiety about becoming a burden.”
The Power of Listening
One way Hurria is treating cancer differently in older adults is by listening to them – and listening to their bodies. There is chronological age, she explained, but there is also functional age. Two people, both 75 years old, can be very different. One may be wheelchair-bound, while the other may still be surfing every morning. These differences impact how cancer is treated, Hurria said.
“We can understand what the risk of chemotherapy toxicity will be, so we can prepare the best course of treatment for the individual,” she said. “We can talk to the patient, we can talk to the family and they understand we are all doing this together. They know what to expect and they will be more prepared for the treatment course.”
Hurria’s research is fortified by the newly endowed chair, for which she said she is both humbled and grateful:
“I am so thankful to George Tsai and the family for caring so deeply about those who are vulnerable in this world, and for helping our work continue here. City of Hope is a place of healing and humanity. We can make a difference in the lives of our older patients. We can climb this mountain together, and I’m convinced the view will be absolutely beautiful.”
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