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Oncologist & Cancer Survivor David Johnson, MD, of UT Southwestern Honored As “Giant of Cancer Care” by OncLive at ASCO 2019

When David Johnson, MD, talks about his part in cancer drug development, he says, “I played a small role.” Others don’t use the word “small” to describe his contributions. They use the word “giant.” According to a June 3, 2019 release from the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern, Dr. Johnson was honored as one of 15 Giants of Cancer Care ( recognized at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference in Chicago on Friday, May 30. The award was given by OncLive, the website for the Oncology Specialty Group ( Past inductees have included leading cancer experts from Harvard Medical School, Stanford, Yale, and the National Cancer Institute. Dr. John Minna, Professor and Director of the Hamon Center for Therapeutic Oncology Research at UT Southwestern Medical Center, was among the oncologists honored as a Giant of Cancer Care in 2015. The honor comes as Dr. Johnson prepares to step down after nine years of service as UT Southwestern’s Chair of Internal Medicine. He holds the Donald W. Seldin Distinguished Chair in Internal Medicine. He is an oncologist who has been on all sides of cancer: he’s an attending physician, a leading expert in clinical trials, an enthusiastic supporter of cancer research, and a former cancer patient himself. Dr. Johnson was in his early 40s, treating cancer patients in Tennessee, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. “It came as somewhat of a shock to say the least,” he said. He soon had the chemotherapy he had prescribed for hundreds of patients in the past. He lost his hair and was hit with every side effect: neuropathy, neutropenia, fever, infections, and more. He would get his chemotherapy through an IV and then roll the IV pole into his office to write grants and papers. It was a conscious decision to take a break from seeing patients. “I felt, mentally, I might not be as focused on the patients as I would on myself, so I thought it might not be fair to them,” he said.

When he returned to caring for patients, he found that many of them knew that he had chemotherapy. Even after his hair grew back, word got around – he was one of them.

“I decided I wasn’t going to talk about my experience because, once again, I felt it would be unfair to the patient to focus on me when the issue was their illness, but what I found out was that the chemotherapy nurses were telling my patients, ‘Dr. Johnson has been through chemotherapy, and you should talk to him about it,’” he said, explaining that patients felt a sense of comfort knowing that a doctor had been through it.

Eventually he found there were times he could mention his own fight with cancer as a way to help others.

“Patients would say to me, ‘Well, Dr. Johnson, what could you possibly know? You have not been through this,’ to which I would answer, ‘Well, actually, I have,’” he said. “I could say, ‘I agree with you; it’s frustrating to be in this situation. You feel powerless.’”

While connecting with patients on a level that few other doctors could match, Dr. Johnson also pushed forward with clinical trials for several new drugs that would later become staples in lung cancer treatment.

“Through a very methodical, systematic testing of drugs in clinical trials, I played a small role along with dozens of other investigators around the world in pushing the ball down the field so that patients are better off today than they were when I started in this field more than 40 years ago,” he said.

While he describes it as a small part, it was a significant contribution that led UT Southwestern to appoint him as the institution’s fourth Chair of Internal Medicine.

During Dr. Johnson’s time as Chairman, he developed cancer for a second time, this time on his tongue. The lesion was surgically removed by a colleague, and he was able to return to work quickly. He hired tremendous talent, producing a net gain of 150 new faculty members, and he played a role in opening the new, 460-bed William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital.

These were useful steps to advance UT Southwestern’s excellence in research and patient care, fundamentals Dr. Johnson promoted when he became President of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2004. He was the first President of the organization to have had cancer, and he led the development of guidelines for the formation of cancer survivorship groups throughout the nation. It was largely based on a conversation he had with his doctor when he finished his own cancer treatments. When he asked what the next step was, his doctor responded, “Just be happy you’re alive.”

“My response was, ‘Well, I’m happy I’m alive, but I want to be well too,’” he said.

Survivorship groups, now common throughout the country, focus on steps cancer survivors can take to improve physical and mental health. He said this change at the community level is dwarfed by the changes that have taken place in medicine.

Dr. Johnson said he remembers working as a young resident, seeing patients with a much older doctor he respected. The doctor stopped abruptly in the hall once and said to him, “You just can’t believe how much medicine has changed in the last 40 or 50 years.”

Dr. Johnson said he drove home that night thinking, “That’s what an old person would say.” Now he smiles broadly when he retells the story.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to do that,’” he said. “Now I find myself saying, ‘You just can’t believe the changes that have taken place over the last 40 or 50 years.’”

[News release] [OncLive Giants of Cancer Care 2019] [Video on Dr. Johnson's career]