A Deep Dedication to Improving Outcomes for Patients With Lung Cancer

Lung Cancer Heroes®, CURE® Lung Cancer Heroes® 2021 Essay Book, Volume 2,

An oncologist from Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia explains the early career mentorship that inspired his successful lung cancer career.

Dr. Hossein Borghaei credits mentorship early in his career with inspiring his interest in lung cancer and how immunotherapy can play a role in its treatment.

Fifteen years ago, people with lung cancer didn’t have a lot of options, Borghaei says. “I felt like this was a disease where I could contribute and do something meaningful down the road for patients with this diagnosis.”

And contribute he has. Borghaei is chief of the Division of Thoracic Medical Oncology and also serves as co-leader of the Molecular Therapeutics Program. In 2015, he was the lead author of a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that the immunotherapy drug Opdivo (nivolumab) worked better than chemotherapy (the standard of care) for patients with non-small cell lung cancer in the second-line setting. That clinical trial led to Food and Drug Administration approval of the drug for second-line treatment, he says.

“It was very gratifying, and I’m grateful that I got to be the first author,” Borghaei says. “In our field, that’s a big deal. It was a seal of approval from my colleagues on that study.”

Borghaei’s current research includes a National Cancer Institute-supported phase 3 trial of a new first-line immunotherapy treatment option. The multicenter national study, which is now recruiting participants, is “another major effort to see if we can use immunotherapy a little bit differently in lung cancer,” he says.

At the center of Borghaei’s work — always — are his patients. “The person sitting in front of you is a person, not a disease,” he says. “Treatment responses are different in individuals. It’s important to remember that you’re not just treating lung cancer. You’re treating Mrs. Smith, who also has lung cancer.”

Over the years, he’s often felt like a member of his patients’ families, Borghaei says. “Lung cancer is such a life-altering diagnosis,” he says, adding that he focuses on providing clear explanations and making patients feel comfortable enough to ask any question. “If it’s an emotional discussion, I make sure I’m close by if they want to hold a hand. I’m from the Middle East, and we show emotions. I bring that with me into the clinic.”

Borghaei came to the U.S. alone from his native Iran at the age of 17. His dream was to become a doctor. “It wasn’t always easy,” he says. “But people were so nice and supportive.”

That’s exactly how many of Borghaei’s patients describe him — which likely stems from his philosophy of treating patients the way he’d like to be treated. “I talk with patients about their fears, concerns and hopes,” he says. “I get to know them and their family members.”

Those connections with patients are what drive Borghaei to seek new and better ways to treat lung cancer. “As physicians, we are proud of what we do, and we remember success stories,” he says. “But there are lots of stories you accumulate and carry with you about all the things you were not able to do. It gets emotional sometimes thinking about those patients.”

Borghaei notes that more research, funding and support for lung cancer are needed. “We’ve made improvements,” he says. “We’ve had some tremendous advances. I’m happy that I was able to contribute my piece to improve outcomes for people with lung cancer.”

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.