Ever since medical school at Tehran University, Dr. Mazyar Shadman has known that oncology, an area with great unknowns as well as great need, was on his horizon.
“When you’re beginning your career in medicine, you learn there are a lot of unknowns about cancer and a lot of people who suffer from it. There is so much to do in this area of research,” Shadman said. He knew he wanted to work in a field where he could answer questions that have a profound impact on patients.
“There are so many areas that require research that even as a medical student you can start a small project and get something really interesting out of it. So that's how it started for me,” Shadman said.
Born in Ohio, Shadman moved with his family to Iran while only a few months old, later returning to the U.S. for advanced training after med school. Now, he’s a clinical researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
At the Hutch, he specializes in blood cancers, specifically lymphoid malignancies like lymphoma. He works both with patients and scientists to achieve a longer and better-quality life for those he cares for, through identifying the best course of treatment for each patient.
“My goal is to really bring what happens in the lab to the patient level, taking the research that is created by scientists at Fred Hutch and translating that to the patient,” Shadman said.
Since he finished medical school there has been a shift in cancer treatment from conventional chemotherapy regimens to targeted and immune therapies, or combinations of the two. With the development of new treatments comes the question of finding the right one, the right sequence or the right combination, for each person.
“The pace of the science moving forward is amazing. When we’re talking about targeted drugs, it’s not just one, we have many options,” Shadman said. “Patients often ask if there is much left to do research on now that we have access to non-chemotherapy treatments. But the truth is we are at the beginning of so many new treatments and exciting research.”
Shadman knows that the methods we use today for clinical research may not answer the questions we have in five to 10 years. New strategies for analyzing treatment effectiveness will help Shadman and others in his field continue to grow our understanding of the right sequence, agents and combinations that will improve the treatment of patients with lymphoma.
“I think we will see a major revolution in how we evaluate new treatments because we have to follow the science and the speed that we’re getting access to these new drugs,” he said.
For Shadman, that combination — advancing the cutting edge of care and providing highly personalized treatment to patients who often have few options left — is what makes his work rewarding.
While Shadman is a scientist and researcher, he is also a member of a team working to treat patients with respect and compassion.
“In oncology, you become your patients’ primary care physician in a way. You become their first-contact medical provider, so the relationship you build with the patient and their families you don’t see in very many other disciplines,” Shadman said.
"The pace of science moving forward is amazing. When we’re talking about targeted drugs, it’s not just one, we have many options."
Shadman recalls a moment in 2017 when his faith in his work was shaken. Then-President Donald Trump had just announced the travel ban of citizens from several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, into the United States.
He found himself rethinking his past ten years in the United States, wondering if he wasn’t as welcome as he felt, despite his U.S. citizenship. In that time, he had developed strong connections with his patients and become part of the research community.
Quickly his faith was restored when a photo circulated online and in the news of a man at the travel ban protest at Seattle-Tacoma Airport holding a sign that read, “My Iranian Doctor is Keeping Me Alive.” That Iranian doctor was Shadman.
Yet some moments of connection and care won’t be seen on the news. Not uncommon for practicing oncologists, Shadman has received insurance denials of necessary drugs for patients, and the follow up often requires talking to three different people, writing a letter and making several calls to get the approval.
Though often unseen, Shadman knows that everything he does in this line of work can help his patients.
“I have the opportunity to see the direct impact on the patient and the positive results in many cases, and I think that's amazing.”
— By Kat Wynn, Nov. 19, 2021