He hails most recently from Tufts Medical Center in Boston, but Wasif Saif, MD, will tell you that he’s right where he wants to be — conducting cancer research, caring for patients and educating the next generation of clinicians at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute.
Amid his busy life as the Cancer Institute’s deputy physician-in-chief and director of medical oncology, Dr. Saif speaks thoughtfully and compassionately, as if a good deal of forethought has gone into each and every breath he takes. That considerate demeanor and the link he sees between the spiritual and the medical defines the physician-patient relationship for Dr. Saif.
“Many years ago, someone asked me what I do — and I told him I don’t treat cancer. He sort of looked at me until I said: ‘I treat people who have cancer.’”
It’s an important nuance. “The Cancer Institute provides supportive care from day one. The patient and their overall quality of life remains at the center.”
All resources need to be coordinated and brought to bear against this tough disease, he said. “Cancer keeps physicians, researchers and patients on their toes,” said Dr. Saif. “But where we are now from where we were 20 years ago is night and day. We can do so much more.”
A lot has changed over the past two decades — with cancer, and with Dr. Saif himself. “Patients change me,” he said, adding that the physician-patient connection is “hard to put into words.”
“My patients and I have a very beautiful relationship. They are the reason I am sitting in this chair today.… Where I am is because of my patients."
While the unique physician-patient relationship motivates Dr. Saif, what excites him is assembling a large group of physicians under one umbrella in his new role at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute.
“We can make sure we provide patients with the same interdisciplinary approach for every tumor type at every facility,” Dr. Saif said. “Every patient is discussed and evaluated by specialists in different modalities, because we have different treatment options now. Treatment is personalized — it is defined more on the molecular or genetic level and based on the patient’s condition or comorbid conditions.”
He stressed the multiple benefits in this approach for people with cancer. “It means more convenience — the patient does not have to come in multiple times for all different modalities. Historically, the patient would go see medical oncology, then be told to see radiation oncology or see the surgeon — that’s three trips! If somebody with cancer is sitting around waiting to hear about what can be done for them, you’re taking time away from the patient’s life. That is unacceptable to me.”
Treatment modalities can be combined more seamlessly. “We can give you a better outcome and we are now able to give everyone the same level of care. Whether you come to the hospital, a satellite facility or I see you through a video system or a telephone call,” Dr. Saif explained. “We can give people the same level of care, the same level of excellence but closer to their homes.” Furthermore, a clinical trial that is available at one location is available at other Cancer Institute sites.
Cancer treatment has been revolutionized — and the evolution continues, he said. “We are on an evolutionary pathway. Technology has provided advancements that enable us to tailor treatment. And we can identify certain genetic mutations that allow us to tailor what type of chemo will work, what won’t and what will have fewer side effects. Northwell’s Cancer Institute is able to do many extraordinary things, and patients are now living longer,” he said.
As it often does for Dr. Saif, advancements in care and bringing them together to benefit patients lead back to the spiritual/medical connection that has been his core foundation.
“I believe in doing the right thing,” Dr. Saif says. “Extending and expanding what you’ve learned and what you know is essential. If you learn something and don’t pass it on to others then you have lost an opportunity to make a difference. But if you learn a new science, a new drug or develop a new test and reach or teach others, then your legacy will live on because you are like one of those trees that has long roots and allows other branches to grow. You extend, share and give to other people.” It is a philosophy and approach that has served Dr. Saif and his patients well, and he is excited to bring it to the Northwell Health Cancer Institute.