BROOKLYN – Dr. Ioannis Hatzaras, Surgical Oncologist and Director of the Surgical Oncology Outreach Program at NYU Lutheran spoke with The National Herald about his work, research, and the advancements in treating patients with cancer.
As he was growing up in Thessaloniki, did he always want to be a doctor? “I wanted to do something scientific, something that was challenging,” he told TNH. “I come from a family of doctors and engineers. My mother is a physician, retired, infectious disease specialist and my father is an engineer, so I was always drawn to the sciences. In high school, I was an athlete, I sailed, so I became fascinated with how the human body works and wanted to learn more and more about it.”
Regarding the demanding career of a surgeon, he said “you are sort of always on call and but that’s a good thing also, I wouldn’t want a nine-to-five-type job, I like the fact that my profession keeps me plugged in to my patients, my associates, even my friends and family, they know that I’m always there if something health-related happens to them.”
Hatzaras then spoke about NYU Lutheran: “NYU became affiliated with and then merged with Lutheran Hospital, roughly two years ago. The goal was to expand into Brooklyn and offer very high quality medical care to the neighborhood. NYU Langone Medical Center is one of the pillars of healthcare in New York City and one of the best hospital systems in the country, so for an institutional giant to come to Brooklyn, I think it’s very beneficial to the community here. The population in Brooklyn now has access to tremendous resources and very high quality physicians as well. The vision that our dean has laid out is that the NYU Brooklyn campus, NYU Lutheran is a natural continuation of the campus in Manhattan. As such, NYU Lutheran will offer the same very high quality of service that we offer in Manhattan, down here in Brooklyn, so that it is easy for the patients and, perhaps more importantly, for the patients’ friends and family, their support system, to access this very high quality care network. In this framework, oncology is one of the priorities for the institution.”
He continued: “when I was asked to lead this new effort, I was thrilled for two reasons; first because I like the idea of building a new service in a place where it doesn’t exist under the auspices and protection that only great hospitals like NYU can offer. Our service is not depended on stand-alone physicians, but rather, on multi-disciplinary teams of doctors and other providers, all focusing on a single patient. This is the first time that this service is provided on a systematic, comprehensive way in Brooklyn.
Secondly, the second-highest concentration of Greeks in the metropolitan region is right here, and I happen to be very honored and privileged to be of Greek heritage. However, not only Greeks but many other ethnic minorities live in Brooklyn, and the borough’s population is growing. Brooklyn is an excellent representation of what New York City stands for in my mind, which is a melting pot of all cultures, heritages and beliefs. To me, it was and still is a very interesting challenge, to build an oncology service and offer the highest quality care to this very diverse population.”
Dr. Hatzaras, who is also Assistant Professor at NYU’s Department of Surgery, spoke about his research: “Every NYU faculty member has to do research. My affiliation with the school of medicine is tied to research and education. I have a background in clinical research. I investigate gastrointestinal malignancies (cancer of the stomach, liver, pancreas) and I write papers that try to answer the fundamental question- how will patients do long term based on the characteristics of their illness? We’ve been successful in writing papers on this question which is based on another fundamental principle- that not all cancer is the same. Under the heading cancer, there are numerous diseases. Even for example, under the heading “pancreatic cancer”, i.e. cancer of one organ, there are numerous diseases and there are many variables that determine how the disease will ‘behave,’ how aggressive or not it will be, how fast it will grow or not. As a researcher, it is fascinating to me to understand these variables, to identify what are the key elements that will predict how aggressive the disease will be. As a clinician, I am fascinated by the challenge of how we can tailor treatment to each individual patient. Ideally, it should be a bespoke suit, if you will, a tailor-made treatment plan per patient, since two patients with the same disease likely will require different treatment. So it’s fascinating to try to understand what the differences are that make each person’s disease unique and trying to exploit these differences for therapeutic opportunities in such a way that an aggressive disease will have a better outcome.”
Surgery plays a key role in the treatment of cancer, the doctor noted. The added knowledge of epidemiologic and genetic information and the use of immunotherapy allow the surgeon “to offer better treatment options such, and determine how aggressive to be in the operating room.
“A lot of people come to me and they’re really scared, terrified, about the diagnosis of cancer. What I try to do first is give them as much hope as I can without, of course, taking away from the seriousness of the situation. I tell them that we can fight this together. If we don’t do anything, perhaps you will live, let’s say X amount of time. If we do a comprehensive management of this disease you may live 2X, 3X, God knows how much, and with that net increase in survival time, who knows what else will come up. I go to 3 or 4 national and international meetings every year where a lot of very good research is presented. Once or twice a year something is a major leap forward which means, if we can provide a net increase in the overall survival of a given patient, he or she may then benefit from the latest scientific leap forward. Then we can perhaps increase the net survival gain to 10X. So the idea is to use all the research success to treat our patients, aiming to cure cancer. But even if we can turn cancer into a chronic disease, one that doesn’t kill patients, but requires frequent check-ups and perhaps interventions, that’s extraordinarily meaningful progress.”
What advice can he offer to reduce the risk of developing cancer? #1 stop smoking, #2 eat healthy, and #3 exercise regularly.