It never occurred to Sara Hurvitz that she could be a doctor until she saw a television movie in which a pivotal female character was a pediatrician.
“I never considered that a woman could be a doctor and I thought that would be an interesting profession,” said Hurvitz, now an assistant professor of hematology/oncology and a researcher with UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I always wanted to help people, but I didn’t know if I could handle the science.”
Hurvitz comes from an artistic background, she said, her family members were teachers and artists.
“The science needed to become a doctor,” she said, “was a stretch for me.”
Growing up in Danville, Calif., Hurvitz envisioned herself becoming a teacher, or a choreographer because she loved to dance. With those two career paths in mind, Hurvitz enrolled in a community college. Once there, though, she started thinking about becoming a doctor. Over time, she gained confidence in herself and in her ability to master the sciences. Slowly, a new career path was emerging.
In 1990, Hurvitz enrolled at the University of California, Irvine, where she earned degrees in biology and psychology. But after graduation, Hurvitz wavered again. Medical school was looming out there and it was intimidating. So she worked for two years as a paralegal before enrolling in 1995 in medical school at the University of Southern California, where she met her future husband. She graduated in 1999, got married and came to UCLA, where she did her internship in internal medicine and her residency.
Medicine turned out to be a good fit for Hurvitz.
“In my third year of medical school, I worked at (Los Angeles) County/USC. I got to get hands-on experience and really take care of patients. I felt right at home,” Hurvitz said. “Then, when I came to UCLA and I was a ‘real’ doctor, I was terrified. But after a week in this academic center, I felt secure given the amount of oversight provided and the quality of physicians practicing medicine here.”
Hurvitz was named chief resident in 2002, a role which allowed her to teach other residents. It was not what she thought she’d be teaching all those years ago, but it was fun.
During the second and third years of her hematology/oncology fellowship training, Hurvitz did lymphoma research with Dr. John Timmerman, where she focused on treatments that would train the immune system to fight cancer. She was all set to specialize in lymphoma when she was approached by a couple of UCLA oncologists who had another plan for her: breast cancer treatment and research.
“I began to study breast cancer,” she said. “I read about it day and night, trying to learn as much as I could.”
She agreed to join the UCLA faculty and now spends about 50 percent of her time seeing breast cancer patients in the clinic, and the rest of her time designing and running clinical trials. The studies she oversees are testing molecularly targeted therapies that home in on what’s broken in the cancer cell, sparing the healthy tissue. Much of the leading-edge, basic research on these new targeted therapies was done in UCLA laboratories and then translated into the clinics in studies like those Hurvitz is now running.
It’s an exciting time to be in cancer research, Hurvitz said, and at the Jonsson Cancer Center, she’s in the thick of it.
“It’s been a huge learning curve, and I spend a lot of after-hours time working on protocols,” she said. “For me, it’s important to be involved and I have a hands-on approach to trials I am running. It’s incredibly exciting.”
Hurvitz and her husband, Keith, a plastic surgeon with a private practice in Long Beach, have two children, a 7-year-old son, Sean, and a 2-year-old daughter, Caitlin. It’s a busy time both at work and at home, but Hurvitz wouldn’t trade any of it.
“I’m so grateful to be involved in the earth-shattering research that is going to change the way we view and treat cancer,” she said. “I’m living the dream, quite honestly.”
Like the young, Northern Californian girl who dreamed of being a choreographer, the adult Sara Hurvitz still has big dreams.
“I hope to see the day when there is a measurable cure rate for stage IV breast cancer,” she said. “And my high hope is that that cure rate someday exceeds 10 percent. Right now it’s only 2 to 3 percent. That would mean we’re cutting into this disease in a really meaningful way.”
- By Kim Irwin