Dr. Maryam Lustberg Of Yale Cancer Center: “A cancer diagnosis does not define us”

A cancer diagnosis does not define us. A cancer diagnosis is scary and overwhelming. Yet who we are as individuals is not defined by a diagnosis, but how we move forward and what we want our future look like. Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes […]

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A cancer diagnosis does not define us. A cancer diagnosis is scary and overwhelming. Yet who we are as individuals is not defined by a diagnosis, but how we move forward and what we want our future look like.


Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?

In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maryam B. Lustberg, MD, MPH.

Dr. Maryam Lustberg is a medical oncologist focused on the care of patients with breast cancer. She serves as the Chief of Breast Medical Oncology at Yale Cancer Center and the Director of The Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was a quite reflective child who loved to observe people and get to know them. As an only child, I spent a lot of time in adult circles, which also honed my communication skills very early on. I enjoyed reading and playing in nature. My early years provided the foundation to help prepare for me the privilege of taking care of patients and families dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I love science and literature and art. I could not pick among them as a teenager. Medicine seemed like a natural combination of the humanities and cutting-edge science with the ability to focus on human relationships, which was very important to me. Realizing this was the beginning of me being drawn to the field of medicine even though neither of my parents were physicians. I subsequently had very positive experiences shadowing physicians (oncologists in particular) and very much enjoyed the experience of getting to know patients at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives. By the end of high school, it had become very clear to me that I wanted to devote my career to medical oncology. It felt like a natural fit for my skills, values, and interests.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

I see it as a privilege. I see it as an honor to be part of the lives of my patients when they are scared, worried and confused and attempt to comfort, educate and improve their outcomes. On my worst days, I remind myself that my patients are going through so much more and my role is to be there for them.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

In addition to taking care of patients, I am a physician leader committed to improving current programs and clinical care both at the local, national and international level. As the Director of the Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center, I am working with a multidisciplinary team to improve care delivery across an entire network of care centers in Connecticut, including increasing specific population programs (young breast cancer, metastatic breast, and older adults with breast cancer) and expanding access to cutting edge clinical trials. At the national level, I serve as the co-chair of the Alliance Clinical Trials Symptom Intervention Committee where I work on innovative studies aimed at improving quality of life and reducing symptom burden in patients with all types of cancer. At the international level, I am the incoming president of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC) and collaborate with global leaders to improve global cancer supportive care measures.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?

I have been a practicing breast oncologist for the last decade and half. I have devoted my entire career to understanding, researching and advocating for patients living with breast cancer.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?

Cancer is a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body.

What causes cancer?

There are many theories on what causes cancer. However, an underlying theme is that there is a type of switch that turns some cells to grow abnormally and avoid the body’s normal checks and balances.

What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?

Cancer is a broad term that encompasses multiple types of solid and blood-based malignancies. The differences are based on the origin of the cancer, the spread of the disease or metastasis, and molecular/biological characteristics.

I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?

I would like to dispel the myth that cancer can be 100% prevented. Risk of various cancers can be reduced by certain risk reducing habits and lifestyle measures such being physically active, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol.

How can one detect the main forms of cancer?

Cancer can be found in many ways, including the use of regular screening tests (mammogram, colonoscopy, blood test) or it can be found on clinical exam. In some of the advanced stages of cancer, the presentation is based on a symptom experienced by the patient, which alerts their physician to investigate further.

Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?

I think while it is important to acknowledge that we have made great strides toward improving cancer outcomes, we still have a long way to go. Earlier diagnosis and availability of cutting-edge treatments have definitely improved outcomes for many cancers. However, I do want to recognize that this is not the reality for every patient, and we still have a lot of progress to make. We can do this through dedicated research and clinical trials.

Can you share some of the new cutting-edge treatments for cancer that have recently emerged? What new cancer treatment innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition in the near future?

Personalizing therapies based on a patient’s tumor type and tumor characteristics has been a major advance. Understanding tumor biology has led to many new drugs that have dramatically improved outcomes. I see in the future additional immunotherapy based and targeted therapy options, in addition to more precise symptom management that will work together to improve both clinical outcomes and quality of life.

Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?

There are so many unique and individual ways to navigate cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. I think recognizing this is very healing in itself. I like to say there is not one way to heal and every patient needs to identify what makes them most comfortable. For some, it is spending time with family and friends. For others, it can be exercise programs, support groups or meditation. Others enjoy the support of an online community. There are no right or wrong answers here.

From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?

Active listening is so important. We all have impulses to offer solutions when someone we care about is struggling. However, just listening is therapeutic.

Second, every patient and family is different. Ask them what they want and need.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

#1 Having cancer is not anyone’s fault. Lifestyle factors and healthier living can reduce the risk of cancer but cannot 100% prevent it.

#2 It’s ok to feel scared and overwhelmed with a new or ongoing diagnosis. There are many resources to help.

#3 Nothing is one size fits all. Treatment plans need to be personalized for reach patient and family reflecting both the cancer type and biology as well as unique individual needs.

Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Cancer impacts the whole family and challenges our self-views and core identity. As we think about cancer treatments, it is important to take into consideration how they can impact all these important areas and address these needs along with medical needs.
  2. Clinical trials are created by the best minds in the science and medicine to improve outcomes for patients. Patients do better in clinical trials and our best treatments currently available came from clinical trials. There are many emerging therapeutic strategies and the best access to them is through clinical trials.
  3. Cancer and cancer treatments may feel like they are taking away our sense of control. However, there are many things still in our control as we navigate treatment decisions and options.
  4. Treatments are continuing to improve and become more manageable. However, we treated cancer 10 years ago, it is very different today. It is very important to have a healthcare team that you trust who specializes in your specific cancer type, so the best treatment options are selected.
  5. A cancer diagnosis does not define us. A cancer diagnosis is scary and overwhelming. Yet who we are as individuals is not defined by a diagnosis, but how we move forward and what we want our future look like.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think we can do a lot in medicine through team-based care that places patients and families in the center. This is a simple idea that has been discussed multiple times over the years. Yet, there are various barriers, challenges and excuses to making this happen. So, my movement is let’s make it happen, no excuses! #PatientsFirst

How can our readers further follow your work online?

On Twitter: @Maryam_lustberg

Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.


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