Breath is life. We depend so much on our ability to breathe with ease but, for patients with lung cancer, that is no small task. For her entire career, Joan H. Schiller, MD, FASCO helped patients breathe easier and enjoy a better quality of life.
Dr. Schiller has helped to break the taboo of talking about lung cancer and also expanded the public’s understanding of lung cancer as a disease caused by various factors. For these and her many other accomplishments on behalf of patients with lung cancer, Dr. Schiller has been chosen as this year’s recipient of the Paul A. Bunn, Jr., Scientific Award. Initially named the Scientific Award, the IASLC renamed the award in honor of Dr. Bunn after he served as its executive director and CEO for 10 years. Dr. Schiller was surprised but thrilled by having been this year’s award winner.
“It’s a very prestigious award, and I am humbled to have won it,” Dr. Schiller said.
Dr. Schiller has held many influential roles. She is the former division chief of Hematology/Oncology at the University of Texas-Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center where lead UTSW’s process to become an NCI-designated cancer center and then an NCI-designated comprehensive center in 2015. She was also Deputy Director of the Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center in Dallas. Currently Dr. Schiller is an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia, a board member of the Lung Cancer Research Foundation, and a member of the IASLC Lung Cancer News (ILCN) Editorial Group.
Before the era of targeted therapy and immunotherapy, the only treatment for advanced lung cancer was chemotherapy. Dr. Schiller’s early work was influential in defining the appropriate drugs, the appropriate number and combinations of drugs, and the duration of treatment for both SCLC and NSCLC.
Reducing Stigma in a Changing Culture
Although smoking has garnered the most attention for causing lung cancer, but other factors, such as genetic mutations, and environmental factors including indoor and outdoor air pollution also are causes of lung cancer. In some cases, the cause of lung cancer is unknown. (Read Dr. Schiller’s ILCN article on global warming and lung cancer.)
“I had so many patients who felt ashamed that they had done it to themselves,” Dr. Schiller told WCLC News. During her early career many of her patients started smoking during their military service, when cigarettes were given out for free, and others were influenced by the glamour of smoking in the movies. Smoking was often paired with a morning cup of coffee, and smoking indoors was ubiquitous in a time before the addictiveness of tobacco was understood. Changes in advertising and public campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco have increased cessation rates, thus reducing the incidence of lung cancers in recent years.
“Fortunately, the stigma surrounding lung cancer is decreasing, although we still have a long way to go,” said Dr. Schiller. This is probably due to a combination of factors—more never-smokers getting lung cancer and more patient advocacy. Decreasing stigma is important, because stigma may delay patients from seeking medical attention and contributes to their sense of isolation and guilt.”
Lung Cancer in Women
Compassion and a focus on research are the keystones of Dr. Schiller’s drive to help patients during her career. When a lot of attention was focused on breast cancer, Dr. Schiller was quick to raise awareness about other cancers that affect women.
“One of the things I gave voice to is that lung cancer is a women’s disease.”
Dr. Schiller and colleagues formed a group and published research (she’s published more than 200 articles) to raise awareness of lung cancer in women, echoing what was being done in the breast cancer field, at a time when lung cancer researching lagged behind.
Research yielded key findings and highlighted the fact that women respond differently to certain cancer treatments than their male counterparts. This opened the floodgates for including more women in clinical trials.
“Women are more likely have to have some of the targetable mutations,” Dr. Schiller said.
Her Role as Mentor
Dr. Schiller had great mentors, and she has truly enjoyed bringing on the next generation of smart, dedicated lung cancer experts.
“It’s been a real joy to watch their careers blossom,” she said.
This is a difficult time because the demands on research physicians are increasing. Her advice to up-and-coming lung cancer specialists, however, is to stay committed.
“Stick with it,” she said. “You will be one of the few who emerge at the end, and you’ll be in a much better position for it,” she said.
Her Path to Lung Cancer Care
Dr. Schiller graduated from the University of Illinois Medical School and completed her internship and residency in internal medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. She completed a clinical fellowship in the Department of Human Oncology at the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Dr. Schiller is a past board member for the IASLC, and she has served in many roles at the National Cancer Institute, including as chair of the thoracic committee of the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG). She currently serves on the NCI Board of Scientific Counselors—Clinical Sciences and Epidemiology, and is a mentor for the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Leadership Development Program. She also served as an Editor of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. She was the principal investigator on many national clinical trials for lung cancer, including trials that involved precision targeted therapies.
Dr. Schiller is also the founder and President of Free to Breathe, a national advocacy organization aimed at raising awareness and funding for lung cancer, which merged with Lung Cancer Research Foundation in 2017.