MedicalPhysician Q&A

20 Questions: Barbara Pro, Oncologist

Dr. Barbara Pro, a medical oncologist in Philadelphia, is a Thomas Jefferson University-Kimmel Cancer Center physician, as well as a professor and director of the Cutaneous Lymphoma Center. Dr. Pro received her MD from University La Sapienza in Rome, Italy, cum laude (1988). She completed a fellowship in medical oncology at University La Sapienza (1988−1992); an internship in internal medicine (1994−1995), a residency (PGY-2) in internal medicine (1995−1996), and a chief residency in internal medicine at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine (Cabrini) Program (1996−1997); and a fellowship of medical oncology at Medical Oncology U.T., M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston (1997−1999).
Dr. Pro has previously worked at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (1999−2010), and Fox Chase Cancer Center (2010−2012). She has won several professional awards, including Best Doctors In America (2009−2010), America’s Top Oncologists (2010), and U.S. News Top Doctors (2011-2012). She belongs to several professional organizations, including the Italian Association of Medical Oncology, American College of Physicians, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Society of Hematology, European Association for Cancer Research, and Italian Society of Immunology, Oncology and Embryology. Dr. Pro has published numerous articles in several journals, including BloodJournal of Clinical OncologyAnnals of OncologyClinical Cancer ResearchCancerBone Marrow TransplantationJournal of Infectious DiseasesLeukemia LymphomaEuropean Journal of CancerBritish Journal of Hematology.
When did you first decide to become a physician? Why?
My father was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer at the age of 42. He died a few weeks later. It was devastating for me and my family. I decided I wanted to be a cancer specialist and help cure cancer.
How/why did you choose the medical school you attended?
I chose the medical school I attended because it was the closest to my family. I am the eldest and needed to be close to my mother.
What surprised you the most about your medical studies?
It was fascinating. It is incredible how complex the human body is. I studied very hard and was still able to enjoy it.
Why did you decide to specialize in medical oncology?
I decided to specialize in medical oncology because I wanted to be able to make a difference. Taking care of patients with cancer is my mission in life. I could not help my dad, but I am helping my patients. I try to help not only with the medical aspect, but also with the emotional one.
If you had it to do all over again, would you still specialize in medical oncology?
Yes, I would still specialize in medical oncology. I love what I do every single day.
Has being a physician met your expectations? Why?
Yes, it has met my expectations for the most part. The only part I don’t like sometimes is the paperwork. But it is necessary so I deal with it.
What do you like most about being a medical oncologist?
It is a very difficult field. You have great rewards when things go well. However, it can be very hard when you have to deal with hard-to-treat cancers. I have a lot of patients who are very young. I am also a clinical investigator, so I’m always trying to develop new ways to improve the outcome of patients affected by lymphoproliferative disorders.
What do you like least about being a medical oncologist? Explain.
There are some barriers sometimes about using new drugs, especially if they are not approved for a particular cancer. It is also hard sometimes to deal with insurance carriers, trying to get treatments, clinical trials or tests approved.
What was it like finding a job in your field–what were your options and why did you decide what you did?
For me it was pretty easy. After finishing my fellowship, I was offered a position in the same institution.
Describe a typical day at work–walk me through a day in your shoes.
I leave the house around 6:40 a.m., drop off my kids and arrive at work around 7:30 a.m. If I am on the inpatient rotation, I review the list of patients and see if we had any new admissions at night. Then I go to the hospital and start rounds with the house staff. We review patients’ charts and then go together to see the patients. That is the best part, as I love teaching and sharing my experience. I usually finish rounds around 1 p.m. If there are consults, I have to go back to the hospital in the afternoon. Two days a week I have outpatient clinic. After 5 p.m., I usually go back to my office and dictate reports, return phone calls and work on my research.

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 spend 10 to 11 hours each day in the office/hospital. However, two to three days a week I have to do some work at home in the evening. I sleep six to seven hours per night. I take two weeks of vacation.

Do you feel that you are adequately compensated?
Yes, I feel well compensated.

If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain? Please explain.
I did my medical school in Italy, so I did not have to take out educational loans, as the Italian government pays for education.
In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself when you were beginning your medical career?
Try as hard as you can and you will be fine.
What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were beginning your medical studies?
Study English! I was in Italy then and had no idea I would eventually practice in the U.S.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in health care today?
There is too much bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork. Also, insurances sometimes dictate patients care, and from a physician perspective, that is very hard to accept.
Where do you see your specialty in five years?
I see more cuts for NIH/NCI research grants, and this can potentially affect our ability of doing research. The NIH/NCI budget cuts have a number of consequences on clinical and translational research. For example, investigators initiated research studies testing original hypothesis are usually small size studies. Traditionally these studies have been supported by research grants and the review process was based on innovation, feasibility, scientific impact and investigators experience. Without appropriate federal funds, many of these studies can only be performed if supported by industry, and the review and approval process follows different criteria and certainly does not help young investigators. In this new environment, only major academic institutions with large endowments and recognized leadership are able to still select and drive such studies.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
I would like to, but don’t have enough time to do any.
Do you have family? Do you have enough time to spend with them? How do you balance work and life outside of work?
I have two children and my husband is an oncologist too. It is very difficult to balance work and life with the type of jobs and the schedule we have. This is why I would rather finish work at home when they are in bed.
What is your final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing a career in your speciality?
It is a great specialty, but you have to be passionate about it. If you are interested, I suggest you do an elective rotation if you have the chance during your second year of residency. That way, you will get to see what the day-to-day work is like and what could be the many challenges you will have to be ready to face.