Joan Bisesi’s enduring impact on head and neck cancer research at the OSUCCC – James

James Rocco PortraitDr. James Rocco never had the opportunity to meet Joan Bisesi. He came to the OSUCCC – James in 2015 after 14 years at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Massachusetts General Hospital, and following his MD/PhD training at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and residency at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. But he thinks about Joan a lot.

That’s because her fund enables research into head and neck cancer that would not otherwise be possible. It’s a gift he does not take for granted. Here, Dr. Rocco describes his passion for helping patients with head and neck cancer—and the impact of Joan Bisesi’s philanthropy.

On why he decided to study head and neck cancer

I did my MD/PhD at Mount Sinai in New York, followed by my ENT residency at Johns Hopkins. Both have strong, well-established head and neck programs. I was influenced by the complexity of the cases and the challenges patients faced. I really empathized with these patients and saw that my clinical and surgical skills could make a difference in the quality of their lives.

On being a clinician and a scientist

I like the balance between being a clinician and a scientist. As a clinician, you can help people immediately. You go home each day thinking you made things a little better for patients. On the science side, you’re trying to solve problems for a whole bunch of people—people you may never even meet. It’s a slower burn to see the impact on some of your research efforts, but ultimately science is how we're going to fix this problem.

On the research breakthroughs the Joan Bisesi Fund could help advance

In head and neck cancer, we have one type related to HPV infection, which tends to be more curable and generally happens to people without the traditional risk factors of smoking and drinking, and another type related to smoking and drinking. A small subset of young women like Joan also get these cancers without any risk factors and with no real evidence for a role of the HPV virus. We don't understand a lot about this, but sequencing studies have shown similar genetic targets to the cancers impacting smokers and drinkers. Philanthropy can help us perform research that may explain how this is happening.

On the importance of researchers being connected to philanthropy

Many people who have PhDs study cancer as a puzzle or problem and may not fully understand the clinical horror of cancer and its impact on families—people missing their kids growing up, losing their spouse, not seeing their grandchildren. What we do in the lab is not just a job; we’re not just trying to understand all aspects of cancer. If you're a clinician or a scientist with philanthropic support, you meet the families, understand the disease's impact and understand the sadness. It's a powerful tool that keeps you focused. Families are looking to us with hope. And how magnanimous of people who have seen their loved ones suffer—like Joan’s family—to give to prevent others from suffering. It’s a really good reminder for scientists to understand that.

On participating in the Donut Run benefiting the Joan Bisesi Fund

Even before the race started, I was so impressed by the number of people there. It was inspiring to see so many of my physician colleagues running, as well as nurses, nurse practitioners and staff from The James. It’s really amazing—the energy. And there were people dressed as giant donuts. We’re here for this very serious, noble cause, but there’s also the joy of human behavior on display.

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