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Doctor Who: Dr. Allison Grow

Written by Erica Brown

Dr. Allison Grow

Who or what inspired you to go into medicine?

It was always in the back of my mind. In college, I majored in physics/applied math and got excited about those, to the point that I went to graduate school. But, I found myself really missing the human element and thought more and more about medicine. I was teaching MCAT prep courses to make extra money, spending time with pre-med students and suddenly realized it was still possible for me. So, I went back to med school in my thirties. I thought it would be a great combination of science/technology and having meaningful interactions with all kinds of people, and I was right.

What is the most exciting advancement in the treatment of cancer you have seen in your career? 

Molecular diagnostics and targeted therapies. This is a huge field with many aspects, but simply put, it means that every patient and every tumor are different, and we are beginning to understand how to meaningfully define those differences at the molecular level and tailor therapies to them. The conventional wisdom about how to treat patients is slowly evolving, and the classifications are becoming more finely discriminated. There are more targeted biologic therapies in the medical oncology arena every day, and on the radiation side, we are trying to understand which patients benefit most from an aggressive approach to small-volume metastatic disease. In terms that will interest patients, we are keeping cancer patients, even those with Stage IV disease, alive longer with less side effects of treatment because we have so many more weapons to use, and when one stops working or becomes hard to tolerate, we can frequently apply another.

Explain your use of the CyberKnife and how it benefits patients. 

The CyberKnife is a beautiful machine invented by an inspired neurosurgeon to deliver very high doses of radiation to tumors anywhere in the body over a very short period of time (usually 1–5 days) with remarkably precise targeting, including tracking of tumor motion caused by respiration. I use it to treat lesions anywhere from the brain to the spine, lungs, liver, pancreas, all the way to the prostate and pretty much anything in between. It particularly shines as a means of treating tumors that move with respiration because it can track the motion accurately “on the fly” and tumors with very complex shapes in otherwise inaccessible locations, like skull base meningiomas. The high doses over short time courses are ideal for producing quick results with minimal inconvenience to patients who don’t want to spend all their time in doctors’ offices. The treatment course tends to be easy, both because it is short and noninvasive and because the minimal doses to normal body tissues result in minimal to no side effects.

“If I weren’t a doctor, I’d be…” A pastry chef, an orchestra conductor, a math teacher or a biostatistician.

About the author

Erica Brown