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Research Is the Reason I Can Better Treat My Patients

By BCRF | December 21, 2020

BCRF investigator Dr. Neil Iyengar was already motivated to improve outcomes for people with breast cancer through his work. Then his mom was diagnosed.

As a teenager and an athlete, Dr. Neil Iyengar was fascinated by nutrition and exercise, developing his own personalized regimens. Later, as an undergrad and a medical student, Dr. Iyengar particularly enjoyed studying the science of hormones and how they impact aging, metabolism, and more. These interests have guided him to where he is today.

Dr. Iyengar, 37, is a medical oncologist and clinical-translational researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City. As a researcher supported by BCRF since 2015 and a Play for P.I.N.K. award recipient, he studies the links between metabolic health, with a focus on diet, exercise and obesity, in the development and progression of breast and other cancers. With BCRF funding, he is developing a digital platform to provide highly personalized diet, exercise, and medication interventions to improve outcomes.

“We don’t hand people a tote bag of pills and tell them to figure out what they’re going to take, but we tell people they need to exercise 150 minutes a week without helping them figure out how and what to do,” Dr. Iyengar said. “We need to similarly ‘prescribe’ lifestyle interventions according to a person’s specific biology.”

In addition to his research, Dr. Iyengar also spends time seeing patients as an attending physician for MSKCC’s Breast Medicine Service. When he was deciding on a chosen field in medical school, he was drawn to oncology in part because of the unique doctor-patient experience.

“It’s a tremendous privilege to be invited into the personal life of a patient, and in no other field did I see that,” he said.

Two years ago, Dr. Iyengar found himself on the flip side of that experience when his mother, Uma, told him her doctor had found something suspicious on her mammogram.

When she went in for a biopsy, he remembered hoping, of course, that it wasn’t breast cancer at all. But the results confirmed Uma had the disease. As she moved further along in the process of diagnosis, Dr. Iyengar couldn’t help but hope she had a non-invasive, easier-to-treat hormone-receptor positive breast cancer, given what he knew of the disease’s different survival rates. Uma was ultimately diagnosed with stage I invasive HER2-positive breast cancer.

“I had to deal with a situation where this is my life’s work and my academic passion, but then it was personal,” Dr. Iyengar reflected. “All the scenarios played out in my mind.”

Around the time Uma was diagnosed, she and Dr. Iyengar’s father, Mukund, were preparing to move home to Chicago after spending a year in New York City. Dr. Iyengar and his partner had had twins, and Uma and Mukund wanted to be close by. The timing ended up being a blessing in disguise: They extended their stay so Uma could be treated at Dr. Iyengar’s home institution.

Dr. Iyengar’s colleagues “came together like a family” to care for her, helping him focus on being there for her appointments—not as a doctor, but as a son. His children provided a relief for Uma on difficult days.

RELATED: Research Is the Reason Uma’s Aggressive Breast Cancer Was Treatable

Dr. Iyengar says the experience of seeing Uma be treated was surreal, but it has made him a better doctor. It was eye-opening for him to go through the entire journey of a patient—from meeting with financial services to starting chemotherapy.

“I’ve treated hundreds and hundreds of patients, and I’ve told so many of them that there is a chance of an allergic reaction to Taxol, for example,” he said. “The gravity of that possibility doesn’t really hit you until you’re there sitting in the chemo suite.”

In addition to giving him a first-hand appreciation for what his patients and their family members go through, Dr. Iyengar said his mom’s experience also deepened his drive to accelerate research and improve patients’ experiences.

“I was reminded of the limitations of medicine and why research is so important,” he said. “We’ve made incredible advances, but we have a long way to go.”

Read more personal stories about breast cancer from BCRF’s Research Is The Reason campaign here.