July Physician of the Month: Joel Mayerson
The letters and emails arrive regularly.
“Just today, I got an email from a patient’s mother,” said Joel Mayerson, MD, director of the sarcoma program and medical director of perioperative services at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
“She wrote to tell me that her son, nine years out from his sarcoma, had just found out his wife is pregnant,” says Mayerson, the July OSUCCC – James physician of the month.
It’s Mayerson’s surgical expertise and development of new procedures, along with personal connections with his patients, that have made him so successful and appreciated.
“I treat every patient as if they are a family member. Getting a cancer diagnosis is a very scary thing, and I try and remember they’re going through this process for the first time,” Mayerson says. “I make sure they understand everything that’s going on, have reasonable expectations for what’s next and are my partner in choosing what’s best for them.”
Grandmother Knows Best
Mayerson’s grandmother Dora came to this country from Eastern Europe looking for a better future. From as far back as he can remember, she would sit him down on her knee and say the same thing over and over: “You’re going to be a doctor.”
“My father was the first one in the family to go to college, and after that, she decided I was going to be a doctor,” Mayerson says. “She didn’t have [a specialty] picked out – just being a doctor was her goal.”
Mayerson grew up in Lima, Ohio, where a high school knee injury introduced him to the world of orthopedic doctors and surgery.
“I thought it was cool that you got to take care of athletes and be a sports medicine doctor,” he says.
At Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Mayerson discovered his true calling.
“On the first day of my orthopedic oncology rotation, I saw a doctor remove an osteosarcoma in a young man and put in a replacement femur and knee,” Mayerson says. “I was fascinated. I could help save lives and restore function and quality of life. I fell in love with this area of medicine and haven’t stopped talking about it for 25 years.
New Surgical Techniques
Mayerson is a pioneer in several types of surgery that improve the quality of life of patients with sarcomas – rare forms of soft tissue and bone cancer that disproportionately impact children, teens and young adults.
He was the first orthopedic oncology surgeon in this country to implant a non-invasive expandable total femur prosthesis in the leg of a young patient. The device could be lengthened without additional surgery as the patient grew taller in order to keep pace with the growing length of the other leg.
Mayerson is also a pioneer in rotationplasty, a complex surgery in which a surgeon removes the cancer-riddled middle section of a patient’s leg, including the knee, and then reattaches the lower portion of the leg, rotating it 180 degrees.
“[The ‘backwards’ foot] functions as the knee joint and fits into the prosthesis. This allows the patient to be very functional and play sports and do everything a kid does,” Mayerson says.
Mayerson and his team recently introduced a new surgical procedure for upper arm sarcomas that improves post-surgery movement.
“Now, we have a new shoulder socket replacement. Patients can have a full range of motion and can lift their arms. Seeing them having a better quality of life is so rewarding.”
Because sarcomas are rare cancers (approximately 13,000 new cases every year), it can be difficult to find research funding. To address the issue, Mayerson created Steps for Sarcoma, a 1-mile walk held every September to raise money for sarcoma research at the OSUCCC – James.
“The first year we had 200 people and raised $7,000,” Mayerson says. “This past September, we had more than 1,500 people and raised $160,000 and went over the million mark in total.”
Mayerson is also captain of the Team Buckeye – Team Sarcoma peloton that rides in Pelotonia, the annual fundraising bike ride that has raised $189 million.
Quality of Life for Patients
Under Mayerson’s leadership, the sarcoma program at the OSUCCC – James has grown into one of the largest in the country.
“My greatest reward is helping my patients return to the best possible quality of life – a life in which they can function as well as possible and do most of what they used to do before their cancer diagnosis,” Mayerson explains. “That’s what motivates me every day.”
Mayerson and his wife, Connie, recently celebrated their 25th anniversary. They have two sons: Drew, 20, and Ethan, 17.
Dora Mayerson passed away when her grandson was 12. While she didn’t see him achieve the goals she set out for him, we’re sure she would be proud of his accomplishments.