From the time he was an ardent seven-year-old Philadelphia sports fan in Abington, PA, Matthew Weiss, MD, the Northwell Health Cancer Institute’s new deputy physician-in-chief and director of surgical oncology, has always looked beyond what was easy or expected.
It was expected, for example, that he might enter a real estate business that his family had owned and operated for generations. But he saw his future a bit differently than others and decided to avoid the path that was laid out for him.
“For some reason and for as long as I and my parents can remember, I wanted to be a doctor,” Dr. Weiss said. “I didn’t know I wanted to be surgeon or a liver and pancreas surgeon, but I knew I wanted to be a doctor. People asked me all the time: ‘Why do you want to be a doctor?’ The answer sounds cliché but it really was that a doctor had a unique opportunity to help people. To have the opportunity to help people in need.”
That decision to choose a different road than the one laid out for him was replicated more recently when Dr. Weiss, chief of hepatopancreatobiliary surgery, surgical director of liver and pancreas cancer multidisciplinary clinics and director of surgical oncology fellowship at Johns Hopkins Medicine, decided to join the Northwell Health Cancer Institute.
“I am asked why I want to leave [Johns Hopkins] because it has been such a successful and rewarding experience,” Dr. Weiss said. “The truth is, I think the Northwell Cancer Institute is positioned and on the verge of doing something incredible.”
Northwell already has great surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and researchers, Dr. Weiss said, and “all the pieces are in place for developing an unparalleled cancer institute.” The health system is investing significant resources and creating an overarching structure that allows a multi-disciplinary approach for each individual patient, he added.
“I’m optimistic about building a program that fundamentally alters the way we fight cancer and changes the way we treat cancer patients,” Dr. Weiss said. He sees enormous opportunity to improve the survival rates of people with liver and pancreas cancer, and envisions a strong emphasis on clinical trials where surgical, medical and radiation oncology specialists collaborate on trials. The partnership between Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researchers and Northwell physicians will give the health system’s cancer patients access to best cutting-edge science and therapeutic translational research.
“I like to take on the toughest problems,” Dr. Weiss said. “I want to take on the problems no one else wants to deal with. I find it challenging but also rewarding because, although I do have stories that don’t have happy endings, I also have a good number of stories that have miraculous endings.”
The drive to tackle the greatest challenges took root in high school. Dr. Weiss didn’t initially know he wanted to be a surgeon, let alone a liver and pancreas surgeon he only knew that he wanted to be a doctor.
“Being a doctor offered a unique opportunity to help people in need. I always loved that. I always loved the idea that you could take a problem and help people that are facing daunting issues,” he said.
For a high school project, he spent a month analyzing a range of clinical practices, including primary care, radiology, cardiology, orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery. As a medical student at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, he wound up conducting research in pediatric oncology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and worked with renowned pediatric oncologist John Maris, MD.
“At that time, the genetics of cancer were really poorly understood and the technology was very rudimentary,” Dr. Weiss said. “You’d want to run gene testing on a tumor and it would take several days. They hadn’t even done the Human Genome Project at that time… and it was like, ‘They’re going to map the human genome and it’s going to take several years and cost millions of dollars.’ Now, we can sequence a tumor’s entire genome in an afternoon. It’s unbelievable what we can do.”
At medical school, Dr. Weiss went into the operating room and from that moment on knew he wanted to be a surgeon. “I loved the idea that you have patients with these serious problems and you can go to the OR and see the problem, see the pathology and fix it right there. There is something extremely gratifying about seeing a problem and fixing a problem all in one setting.”
He doesn’t need to a reminder that making a difference for people with liver and pancreas cancer is one of the most difficult health care challenges of all. “I do love the technical aspects of pancreas and liver surgeries. They are technically challenging operations. And to be honest, there was a lot of room for improvement in fighting these cancers and treating patients who did and still do relatively poorly oncologically.”
He’s quick to add that it’s one of the main reasons he chose it as his specialty. “I have countless examples of patients that the medical hierarchy felt had insurmountable problems and were destined to die of the disease,” he said. “Giving hope to someone who has lost it and offering the possibility of a miraculous ending for them and their family is the most important thing you can ever do.”
He offers the following example: “About six years ago, I saw someone with pancreas cancer who had been explored twice for resection by a respected, internationally renowned surgeon. She was a nurse. After she was deemed ‘unresectable’ a second time, she was sent home to have chemotherapy for the rest of her life until she would eventually die of cancer. After a long discussion with her and looking at her scans, I told her there was a least a possibility that I could remove her tumor. I ended up taking her to the OR and removing the tumor. I saw her two weeks ago. Alive and well five years later -- no evidence of cancer and living a perfectly normal life.”