In this edition, Allison Rosenthal, DO, recounts her experience as a leukemia patient during young adulthood, which destined her for a career in malignant hematology and landed her on a billboard in Arizona.
In Sound Bites, hear more from our interview with Dr. Rosenthal.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
From a young age, I wanted to be a doctor. I spent part of my childhood in Chicago, where my dad coached high school football. I remember doing cartwheels on the football field during halftime, and the players and coaches would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always said, “A doctor.”
I attended Utah State University as a student athlete for my undergraduate education and then started medical school at Midwestern University in Illinois a year earlier than planned. My plan was to take the MCAT at the end of college, take a year off to gain some experience working in a hospital, and then start medical school. But it turned out that I didn’t have to wait: A person who was admitted to the class decided to defer medical school for a year to be on a reality TV show, so I jumped at the chance to get a head start achieving my dream.
Then, in my second year of medical school, I was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia.
How did that diagnosis change your career path?
I took a year off to undergo chemotherapy and I came back to school while I was still on active treatments. For a while, I stuck to my original plan to become an orthopedic surgeon; the entire time, though, my doctor told me, “You’re going to go into oncology.” I was defiant at first, but once enough time had passed since the experience, I realized that oncology was absolutely what I was supposed to be doing. Then, things fell into place.
Even though your decision to pursue hematology was the result of an unexpected, life-changing event, do you think you found where you were “meant to be?”
Yes, I believe that hematology/ oncology is my calling. I’m a hard worker and I can find enjoyment in anything, but I doubt I would be as happy if I was doing something else.
If I had to pick another career, it would be another medical specialty. Practicing medicine can be stressful, but I love it. Even though the days are long, I can’t imagine doing anything else. The relationships I have with my patients and colleagues are everything to me. … I’m so grateful to be in this field.
Though I also joke that in my next life I’m going to come back as a yoga teacher because I rely on it to manage my stress and to take care of myself.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
My greatest accomplishment is becoming what I dreamed of since I was a little girl – particularly because I’m not a person who was “destined” for medicine or comes from generations of doctors.
I’m proud of how I accomplished my goal, too: I was a gymnast when I was younger, and instead of setting my sights on becoming an Olympic athlete, I used gymnastics as a stepping stone to reach my career goals. My family moved from Illinois to Arizona so I could continue my gymnastics training and I earned a full scholarship to Utah State University because of gymnastics. Participating in gymnastics all those years gave me many of the tools that I needed to succeed in medicine, particularly discipline.
Last year, I was named “Woman of the Year” by the Arizona chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) after winning a 10-week fundraising competition. Each candidate ran a campaign to raise money for blood cancer research, and the person who raised the most won and could allocate those funds to a research portfolio of his or her choice. Given my personal history with leukemia, I realized the importance of that work. We had a fantastic team, including many of my colleagues at Mayo Clinic, that raised $140,000 – a new record for the organization.
Unbeknownst to me, winning also meant that an image of my face was plastered on a huge billboard over one of the largest freeways in Arizona. Over the next several months, I was bombarded with phone calls, emails, and snapshots of the billboard! LLS even made me a replica that I keep in my office to commemorate the experience.
“Often, cancer is thought of as something that happens to older people, but it’s a completely different experience for a 24-year-old.”
Have you seen any big changes in the field of hematology since you started your career?
Immunotherapy has infiltrated all areas of oncology, particularly in my specialty, where chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy has been very exciting. Looking at the progress in hematology and oncology research through the lens of my own personal experiences, I am also excited about the greater awareness and focus on the lives of patients. We want our patients to live long, healthy lives, and it seems like we are now focusing on how to take care of them in the long term. We’re elucidating the value of patient-reported clinical trials outcomes, finding ways to improve quality of life, and addressing survivorship needs.
What do you do for fun outside of work?
I am honored to serve on the board of the Dear Jack Foundation, which address the shortfalls in treatment, support, and research on behalf of adolescents and young adults with cancer.
Its founder, Andrew McMahon, was diagnosed with leukemia shortly before me, and we met as young adult patients. Often, cancer is thought of as something that happens to older people, but it’s a completely different experience for a 24-year-old. There isn’t much recognition of the unique challenges faced by younger people with cancer. I am passionate about the foundation’s programs and I think this important segment of the population deserves time and attention, so I’m happy to devote some of my off hours to that project.
My family and I also are involved with a dog rescue organization in Texas, so I have a couple of English bulldog rescues, Pretty Boy Floyd and Ruby Mae, who might as well be my children. They are quirky and require a lot of attention, but they bring so much joy to my life. They brighten my day and make me laugh.
I’m also close to my two younger sisters. We don’t live near each other anymore, but I try to spend as much time with them as I can.
On the subject of “pets,” what is your biggest pet peeve?
Honestly, my biggest pet peeve is laziness. That might not be the right word for it, but the people I work with know that I expect excellence. If you say you’re going to do something, do it and do it well. Don’t do it just to cross it off your list, creating work for other people. I demand excellence from myself, and I think others should be held to the same standard.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
There are some embarrassing remnants from my former life as a gymnast that people might be shocked to come across. For example, there is a life-size representation of me in a leotard on the side of a cement truck in Utah. A local company decided to support the athletic programs at Utah State University, so, as part of our media program, my likeness and that of one of our football players (who wound up playing for 7 years in the NFL) ended up on the side of a cement truck.
What person from history would you like to have dinner with, and what would you ask?
Some people might answer Mother Teresa or another inspiring historical figure. Honestly, the first person that came to my mind was Chris Farley. He’s one of my favorite comedians of all time. I’ve watched his movies several times and, given the seriousness and stresses that make up a big part of my day, I think he would be a great dinner companion. I expect that I would be laughing until I cried, and there’s no better feeling than laughing so hard that your face hurts. That doesn’t happen often enough.