MedicalPhysician Q&A

20 Questions: Erica L. Mayer, MD, MPH, Breast Oncology

Erica L. Mayer is a medical oncologist at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers/Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, as well as an associate physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She’s the faculty education coordinator for breast oncology and director of advanced fellowship in breast oncology at Dana-Farber, as well as director of clinical research at Dana-Farber and Women’s Cancer Center at Faulkner Hospital. Mayer received a bachelor’s degree in both biology and history from Williams College in Williamstown, MA, where she graduated summa cum laude (1995). She received her MD from Harvard Medical School (2000), and her MPH in clinical effectiveness from Harvard School of Public Health (2005). Dr. Mayer’s postdoctoral training included a clinical fellowship at Harvard Medical School (2000-2006), a residency in internal medicine at Brigham & Women’s Hospital (2000-2003), a chief residency in internal medicine at Faulkner Hospital (2002-2006), and clinical fellowships in both medical oncology and medicine at Dana-Farber/Partners Cancer Care and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, respectively (2003-2006).
Dr. Mayer is a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society, American Society of Clinical Oncology, Cancer and Leukemia Group B, and Translational Breast Cancer Research Consortium. She’s involved in numerous funded research projects focusing on the role of novel biologic agents in the treatment of advanced breast cancer, and she has been published in numerous peer-reviewed publications including Nature, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Clinical Breast Cancer, Journal of Clinical Oncology, American Journal of Surgery, Annals of Oncology, and Clinical Cancer Research.

When did you first decide to become a physician? Why?
My father is a physician and I grew up going on rounds with him on the weekends. I was inspired by his connection with patients and the intersection of science and humanism.
How/why did you choose the medical school you attended?
I applied to medical school out of college and selected a school with a curriculum that included problem-based learning, a relatively new style of teaching at the time, and a focus on humanism.
What surprised you the most about medical school?
I loved learning about the wide variety of ways one can practice medicine and the incredible diversity of careers which can be pursued with an MD.
Why did you choose to specialize in breast oncology?
Mentorship played an important role in my decision to specialize in breast oncology. In my senior resident year in internal medicine, I began clinical research projects under the mentorship of my current department chair. I chose his field to continue my close work with him, while simultaneously developing great interest in the science of breast cancer and admiration for my patients.
If you had it to do all over again, would you still specialize in breast oncology? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead?)
I love what I do and would absolutely choose it again. But I also enjoyed many aspects of other solid tumor subspecialties, and probably would have been happy in a variety of other internal medicine specialty fields as well.
Has being a specialist in your field met your expectations? Why?
I work with a wonderful team of colleagues and guide the care of incredibly courageous and strong women. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am in and very much enjoy what I do.
What do you like most about being a specialist in your field? Explain.
See above. Great colleagues, interdisciplinary collaboration, exciting science that closely translates into clinical care, wonderful patients.
What do you like least about being a specialist in your field? Explain.
There is an increasing amount of documentation and “computer paperwork” that we have to do when we see patients. It takes time I would rather spend talking to my patients. This is not unique to breast oncology though.
Describe a typical day at work—walk readers through a day in your shoes.
Clinic day: get to work by 7:30 a.m. See patients until 5:30 p.m. – try to get billing and as many notes as possible done before the end of the day. Get home by 6 p.m., put my kids to bed by 8 p.m., then work on research projects until too tired to work more. Research day: get kids ready for school, leave home at 7:30 a.m., get to work by 8 a.m. The day is spent mostly working on writing, data analysis, slide making, etc. punctuated by meetings. Get home by 6 p.m., kids in bed by 8 p.m., work on clinical work afterwards.
On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
I work about 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day on average. I try to sleep six to seven hours a night. I take about three full weeks of vacation a year, but try to turn off from work on the weekends as well.
Do you have family, and if so, do you have enough time to spend with them?
I am married with two school-age kids, who are great and understand that Mom and Dad have busy schedules. It’s never enough time with them though.
How do you balance work and life outside of work?
I try to make time for exercise when I can, and I am lucky to have great support from my wonderful cardiologist husband and family nearby. Finding balance is hard though.
Do you feel you are adequately compensated? Explain.
Academic salaries are fairly level and transparent.
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain? Explain.
I was lucky to not have loans.
In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself back when you started your medical career?
Don’t worry, relax and enjoy everything in medical school, and focus on friends, mentorship and opportunities.
What information/advice do you wish you had known prior to medical school?
I would have spent more time exploring new opportunities that seemed out of my comfort zone – a rotation in an underserved country, health care for the homeless, a cardiac surgery rotation. You only have the opportunity once to explore and enjoy these things.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in health care today? Explain.
The need for universal coverage and removing business from medical care. The high cost of providing care.
Where do you see breast oncology in five years?
Even more personalization of care, with breast cancer patients living longer than ever before. I am very optimistic about the direction of cancer care.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
I volunteer on the alumnae board of the high school and for events at my children’s school.
Do you have any final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing your specialty as a career?
Oncology is a wonderful and exciting career. We have the ability to have long lasting and close relationships with patients, as well as develop and translate cutting edge research to clinical care. Medical oncology colleagues in general are wonderful people, and comprise many of my closest friends. Oncology is a very exciting and dynamic field.