Dr. Zerhouni performing surgery

Why a dedicated English teacher became a surgeon

Colorectal cancer specialist Yasmin Zerhouni, M.D., began her career as a middle school educator, but soon realized that public health issues were impacting her students’ ability to learn

As a young woman, Yasmin Zerhouni, M.D., had no intention of becoming a doctor. 

Both of her parents were physicians who loved their work, but her passion was for language and literature. She also had a strong desire to make a difference in the lives of young people. After graduating from Columbia University, she became an English teacher.

It was an eye-opening experience. 

As a middle school teacher in New York City, she realized how hard it was for many students to learn because of problems they were facing outside of school — depression, teen pregnancy, and food and housing insecurity. 

Yasmin Zerhouni
Yasmin Zerhouni, M.D.

“It’s hard to just close the classroom door and pretend all of that is not happening — these socioeconomic and public health issues are an essential part of your students’ experience in school,” she said. 

Zerhouni wanted to find a better way to serve these kids. She began to explore a career in public health and realized she would be most effective as a physician. Her plan was to become a pediatrician — a natural continuation of her interest in children. 

But again, her career took an unexpected turn. 

She enrolled at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and, as soon as she did her first surgery rotation, she knew she had found her calling. Influenced by the fact that her grandfather had colon cancer, she did her fellowship in colorectal cancer surgery. 

Now an assistant clinical professor in the Division of Colorectal Surgery at City of Hope, Zerhouni sees patients on the Duarte, California, campus, as well as at the Arcadia and South Pasadena clinical network sites. She not only treats patients with colorectal cancer, but those with benign colorectal problems as well.

Shared Values 

Zerhouni joined City of Hope in June 2022. “I kind of had my wish list of what I wanted in a job, and this meets it in so many ways,” she said.

Public health remains one of her top concerns, and she has published several articles in medical journals about racial and economic disparities. City of Hope, with its emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, is a perfect fit for her. 

She also appreciates the way cancer care, as it’s practiced here, can lead to better outcomes for patients. 

'It’s hard to just close the classroom door and pretend all of that is not happening — these socioeconomic and public health issues are an essential part of your students’ experience in school.'
Yasmin Zerhouni, M.D.

She recalled one recent patient with rectal cancer who had Medi-Cal insurance and limited financial resources, factors that made it even more difficult to navigate a medical system that is often somewhat fragmented.

“With that type of cancer, you have to be seen by a surgeon, a radiation oncologist and a clinical oncologist — but by the time this patient got connected to all the right doctors, the window of time for the best outcome was already gone,” she said.

In this patient’s case, too much time had elapsed since her radiation treatment, and the tissue had become fibrotic — that is, thickened and scarred. 

“She’s doing fine now,” Zerhouni said, “but with more timely care it could have been better.”

One of the benefits of City of Hope is the way care and communication are seamlessly integrated.

“At City of Hope, where you have the specialists you need in the same clinic, a patient can get their care in a timely manner, with better outcomes than people who receive disjointed care.”

Something else Zerhouni appreciates is City of Hope’s motto: There is no profit in curing the body if, in the process, we destroy the soul.

“Right off the bat, that made me feel like we were in sync, putting the emphasis on a patient’s quality of life and not just surgeries and procedures.”

Colon Cancer Screening Works

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and Zerhouni has one important message to convey.

“Screening works,” she said. “And the best test is the test that you actually get done.”

While colonoscopy remains the gold standard, it’s difficult for some people, especially those who can’t afford to take two days off, one for the prep and one for the procedure. But there are also several highly effective home tests. All of these look for blood in the stool and some also include immunohistochemical tests to find markers associated with cancer.

'Screening works. And the best test is the test that you actually get done.'
Yasmin Zerhouni, M.D.

Though it was once a disease commonly related to aging, in recent years colorectal cancer has been on the rise among younger people. In fact, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force guidelines now recommend that screening begin at age 45.

If a malignancy is found, there are three types of surgery that can be performed at City of Hope. Two of the least invasive methods are laparoscopic surgery and robotic surgery, both of which use very small incisions and guide the surgery with video cameras. These surgeries are minimally invasive and generally have faster recovery times than traditional surgery, which requires a long incision but is sometimes necessary to ensure that all of the cancer is removed.

Patients can also be tested for Lynch Syndrome, an inherited disorder that can lead to colorectal cancer.

Oui, the Doctor Speaks French

Many doctors at City of Hope are multilingual, fluent in a variety of languages from Farsi to Mandarin — and while Zerhouni does speak Spanish, which helps her communicate with many of her patients, she’s also fluent in French, thanks to her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Algeria. 

When she’s not at work, she likes hiking with her dogs, Lupita and Indigo, or taking them to the beach. As a newcomer to Southern California, that’s one of the joys of exploring her new home.

But what’s most important to her is her belief in the difference her work can make.

“I firmly believe in a life of service and devotion to your community — and by that I mean everything from the community of your neighborhood to the community of the world.”