Ankur R. Parikh, DO, is a board-certified hematologist and medical oncologist and serves as medical director of precision medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
In our “Meet the Specialist” series, we highlight the unique perspectives of various medical specialists on the types of patients they see and what they find rewarding and challenging in their daily practice.
From an early age, I personally witnessed the impact cancer can have on patients and their families. My uncle was diagnosed with colon cancer when I was in high school, and our families are very close. He’s doing well now, but at that time it was a very scary feeling to wonder what was going to happen. Watching him undergo treatment brought up questions for me that I wanted the answers to. I didn’t really understand the disease at the time, but I wanted to know why and how the cancer was impacting him. How did his doctors decide what treatment would work best? Why did a certain treatment work well? Why did another treatment fail? These questions led me to pursue a career in oncology, the study of cancer, and hematology, the study of blood diseases, so I could focus on helping patients with blood cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, and more. Even as a practicing physician and clinical researcher, the more I learn, the more questions I have, which makes my job really fun, challenging, and rewarding.
Training In Hematology and Oncology
Majoring in pre-med during undergrad and then heading to medical school were obvious choices for me. In my last two years of medical school, I made a point to choose rotations in oncology so I could get firsthand experience learning what it was really like to treat cancer patients. I was fascinated by the scientific side of oncology, but also interested in the relationships between physicians and patients. After my medical residency, I pursued further training in a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, focusing on both oncology and hematology.
During my fellowship, I got to work with patients who had different types of blood cancers, and it was mind blowing that someone could be so sick and yet, with the right treatment, they could be doing extremely well months and even years later. I remember treating a patient who’d had a stem cell transplant 20 years prior. He came in for a routine follow-up appointment and brought his kids with him. Had he been diagnosed 30 or 40 years earlier, a transplant wouldn’t have been an option and he probably wouldn’t be around today. But because of medical advances, he’s still here living a healthy, normal life with his family.
Now that I’m a board-certified hematologist and medical oncologist, I’m even more passionate about the landscape of cancer treatment. I’m especially interested in how we can use genomic testing to target cancer and treat it more effectively. As medical director of CTCA’s precision medicine program, I’m able to explore how my patients’ DNA can help guide our treatment decisions and lead to better outcomes. It’s a humbling field, but it’s also really exciting to see new treatment advances and be able to help people get back to living normal lives despite having cancer.
I see patients with leukemias, lymphomas, and other blood diseases every single day. In the mornings, I’ll meet with my oncology colleagues to review complex cases together and determine what resources we need for individual patients; we’ll discuss whether a patient needs a consultation or input from another specialist or if there’s a clinical trial that might work well for them, among other things. After that, I sit with my team and review the list of patients coming into the clinic on a given day. We make sure everyone is on the same page and knows what each patient needs. We stay up to date on any medical events that have occured since each patient was last seen by us, for example, if a patient went to the ER for some reason or if they called our clinic with any questions. After the prep work is done, I meet with patients for the rest of the day; often, medical school students accompany me to the appointments so they can get real-life experience treating patients. Once I’ve seen my last patient for the day, I’ll get my notes in order and prepare for the next day. And because I serve as medical director of precision medicine at CTCA, I’ll also spend time developing and operating that program. My days are full, but I’m very efficient with my time, thanks in large part to my great team. I have a lot of support and we’re a well-oiled machine when it comes to caring for our patients.
Finding the Right Hematologist-Oncologist
If you’re looking for a hematologist-oncologist to treat your leukemia or lymphoma, I think the number one thing to think about is trust. Many doctors are educated on available treatments, but beyond that, you want to make sure your hematologist-oncologist is someone you trust and feel comfortable with. Look for a doctor who takes the time to answer all of your questions: if it’s important to you, it should be important to them. If you don’t feel like you’re given the time or attention to even ask questions, you may want to find someone else. I try to keep an open dialogue between myself and my patients, structuring our appointments like a conversation. I want to educate my patients as much as possible about their condition and treatment options, while giving them the chance throughout to ask questions and clarify any confusion. At the end of the day, I’m guiding the decision-making process, but I want my patients to thoroughly understand why the decisions are being made and what comes next. The last thing I want is for a patient to come back for a follow-up and tell me, “If I had known this was going to happen, I would have chosen something different.” I want them to be as educated as possible. Obviously, unforeseen complications can occur, but everyone is better off when the patient feels informed and confident that their doctor is working closely with them throughout this challenging experience.
One of the most rewarding parts of my job is when patients and their loved ones feel that I am, along with their entire healthcare team, truly invested in their care–I want them to feel like they’re the most important person I’m treating, because when I’m treating them, they are. No matter what the outcome, my goal is to do my absolute best to support each patient during this cancer journey.