Dr. West was running a successful practice as a top pulmonary oncologist in Seattle, Washington, when an opportunity came his way that he just couldn’t pass up. City of Hope, an organization he already respected as an innovative pioneer in cancer care, was building a new model to remotely export the latest cancer knowledge to people with cancer across the country. Galvanized by the prospect of contributing to this revolutionary undertaking, Dr. West and his wife moved to Los Angeles to help reinvent the delivery of leading cancer support.
As part of AccessHope’s initial team, he has helped adapt the company to changing times while watching it grow significantly. Today, he’s proud to be one of the cancer specialists actively supporting our evolving model of providing expert recommendations, including novel clinical trials, to more people with cancer and their local doctors. Considering that cancer innovations are exploding yet this knowledge isn’t getting to everyone who needs it, he’s grateful he can work with these doctors—who couldn’t possibly know the most recent developments for 10 to 12 kinds of cancer they might see every day—to optimize treatment plans for the best outcomes.
We wanted to know more about Dr. West’s path to AccessHope, some of his achievements with the organization so far, and a bit about him as a person, so we asked him a few questions:
What was your first position in the healthcare industry?
In college, I worked in a lab taking care of the lab rats. It wasn’t glamorous, but you could say it was like the biomedical version of starting in the mailroom.
Then in medical school, I spent a summer volunteering at a hospice, conducting home visits. The experience taught me to never underestimate the value of alleviating suffering for people, the value of helping address people’s symptoms, and how incredibly important a network of caregivers can be for a patient.
Why did you decide to become a physician?
I wanted to work in the medical field because it brings interpersonal connection and communication to science and biology. I decided to work in cancer care because it broadly covers all aspects of medicine, and it so greatly impacts patients and their families. It doesn’t just affect one organ but also the entire body and whole life. In this field, I can help guide patients through life decisions that minimize their symptoms and improve their quality of life, while making human connections and forming relationships that provide mutual benefit.
What do you believe is your biggest contribution to the fight against cancer?
I feel that I’ve been able to offer the latest cancer knowledge in an accessible language. I try to genuinely connect with those I’m talking to—not as another lung expert, but as a person working with other people to express ideas in a way they can understand them. This is true not only for the patients in my clinic but also for the broadest population I can reach and support through different methods including live meetings and online platforms.
One of AccessHope's brand personality traits is rebellious because we're recreating the established notion that people need to physically go to a cancer center to get leading support. How do you feel, personally, that we rebelliously approach cancer?
Our model is very novel, different, and innovative. Nobody else is really doing it the way we are, efficiently helping more people connect with a specialist—while showing respect to patients and their local physicians. It has been well received by both patients and physicians, gaining a lot of traction and creating a very promising path forward for delivering care differently.
What's one way you've greatly contributed to AccessHope's fight against cancer?
AccessHope is in a close collaboration with a client I’ve been working with to develop a pilot program that provides detailed, thoughtful interpretation of molecular marker results within just of a couple of days of receiving those results. The interpretation can help oncologists quickly develop the optimal treatment strategy.
Another innovative service we’ve been piloting is a “curbside consult,” which lets oncologists reach out to us by phone or online with questions on a cancer case, without needing to submit a case for a full review.
How have recent advancements in research for lung cancer treatments improved quality of life for patients?
Lung cancer has been a remarkable area to focus on. In just the last few years, treatments have gone from only chemotherapy with notorious side effects and a very limited improvement in survival for many patients, to much more effective targeted therapies characterized by fewer side effects and often remarkable gains in life expectancy.
We’ve also seen the development of immune therapies that help the immune system attack cancer, dramatically improving survival rates. In some cases, the immune system even takes over after the patient has stopped the therapy. People no longer need to make the choice between living longer and feeling well. It’s very exciting—we’re reinventing what’s possible for advanced lung cancer.
What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
Before the pandemic, I really enjoyed traveling, but right now, I’m enjoying being active on social media, especially Twitter. I also cohost a video podcast called Beyond the Journal with a colleague of mine, discussing novel developments in the evolving practice of medicine and cancer care.
Digital education and social media cultivate a global community of oncologists, giving us the opportunity to continuously expand our knowledge. It allows me to see industry news within hours of it breaking, so I can keep up on the latest FDA approvals, clinical trials, and innovations impacting patient care—while connecting with colleagues and friends and feeling like we’re all in it together. Social media has become a wonderfully constructive tool widely used in cancer care.
What movie, book, or podcast are you watching, reading, or listening to now?
Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria. It’s a very interesting time to be in medicine. It's like the ironic saying, “May you live in interesting times”—the global crisis has actually propelled telemedicine and AccessHope’s work. We’re also seeing how the younger generation is coping, different businesses are evolving, transportation is changing, and education is adapting (colleges are even changing their value proposition). The pandemic has created indelible changes—we’re seeing that always-accepted conventions are now working in novel ways. It’s not that virtual will replace in-person, but we’re seeing that telemedicine should work alongside physician visits and that educational content can be shared through virtual meetings and recorded webinars. We’ve discovered a lot through the pandemic, including that there’s a place for everything.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
I owe my wife a trip to Italy. Before the pandemic hit, I was supposed to give a talk in Bari, a coastal town in Southern Italy, and wewere going to treat it like the honeymoon we hadn’t quite made time for. We also had to do my mother’s funeral online rather than being able to grieve together as a family, so I’d like to spend time with my father and extended family in the Midwest.
What's your favorite quote or motto?
It’s one that my grandfather used to say, “It will all come out in the wash.”
There’s a lot we can’t control, and all we can do is our best. When it comes to cancer, we can’t control if the cancer will respond to a treatment, but we can arm ourselves with the best information.