publication date: Nov. 9, 2018

An Appreciation

Arti Hurria, geriatric oncologist at City of Hope, dies in traffic accident

By Michael Easterling

Communications Department, City of Hope

Arti Hurria, a pioneer of geriatric cancer care at City of Hope, died Nov. 7 in a traffic accident. She was 48.

Hurria was the George Tsai Family Chair in Geriatric Oncology, director of the Center on Cancer and Aging, co-lead of the Cancer Control and Population Sciences Program, vice provost of clinical faculty, a professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research, and a medical oncologist at City of Hope.

“Arti Hurria was special,” said Robert Stone, president and CEO of City of Hope. “She was a visionary, a groundbreaking innovator, and the kind of doctor who earned the trust of her patients with her humanity and her compassion. We were incredibly fortunate to know her, to work with her, and to learn from her for more than a decade and we will sorely miss her.”

“It’s hard to believe she is gone. We are overwhelmed with grief,” said Steven Rosen, City of Hope’s provost and chief scientific officer, the Irell & Manella Cancer Center Director’s Distinguished Chair, and the Morgan & Helen Chu Director’s Chair of the Beckman Research Institute. “Our world changed in a moment. Arti represented the best in oncology and humanity.”

Hurria made important contributions to the field of oncology and to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, said ASCO CEO Clifford Hudis.

“Dr. Hurria was a vibrant, shining light in the field of geriatric oncology, and it is impossible to overstate the profound impact she has had on improving the care of older patients with cancer through her research, clinical care, administrative leadership, and mentoring,” Hudis said. “Our hearts are with her husband and daughter, her patients and colleagues, and the many people around the world who knew, admired, and loved her. She will be profoundly missed.”

Arti Hurria’s medical career began in the unlikeliest of places: a barbershop.

“It was the barber shop my dad went to,” she said in an interview for a news feature published by City of Hope. “I was with him. I was about 5. The barber asked what I was going to be when I grew up and [my dad] said, ‘Oh, she’s going to be a doctor.’”

She laughed about it at the time. The memory was so vivid, because of the haircut she got that day.

“My mother’s horror at my haircut is forever cemented in my mind,” Hurria said. “That’s the day I learned I was destined to become a doctor.”

The child of two physicians, Hurria credited her parents with instilling in her an appreciation of the value of education.

“My father came from a village in India and described studying by candlelight,” she said. “As I grew up, he continued to study and always had a highlighter in his hand. That was normal to me, growing up. He taught me to appreciate education and the opportunities it can bring.”


A global education

It was their own devotion to education, medicine and each other that led Hurria’s parents around the world.


Hurria sports the haircut that launched her career


After leaving India, they relocated to the United Kingdom and, later, New York, where Hurria was born. When she was eight, her family moved to Southern California for its more moderate climate.

At 18, Hurria left the family home to pursue her medical education at Northwestern University. There, she met Rosen, who was then a professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

“I was a second-year medical student and I thought I wanted to be an oncologist,” she said. “So, I knocked on his office door and he invited me to follow him around his clinic on Tuesday afternoons. He was already famous then, but I didn’t know it.”


Investing in the future

Rosen and Hurria’s parents, Kamla and Kesho Hurria, were present recently when she received The George Tsai Family Chair in Geriatric Oncology. 

Tsai, chairman of Fairmont Designs, who endowed the chair, attended as a friend and benefactor. The occasion was Hurria’s chance to tell her personal story and to share her vision for the future of geriatric oncology.


Hurria as a young child


“It’s my mission, what I like to call ‘the dream,’” she told the standing-room-only crowd. “That all older adults with cancer will receive personalized, tailored care, utilizing evidence-based medicine with a multidisciplinary approach.”

Hurria always had strong compassion for whom she calls the “older, more vulnerable” generation. As director of City of Hope’s Center for Cancer and Aging, and vice provost for clinical faculty, Hurria was instrumental in establishing the Cancer and Aging Research Program, which includes 17 participating institutions across the country.

As an oncologist specializing in geriatric medicine, Hurria was part of a rarefied group of physicians. In the United States, there are fewer than 200 geriatric oncologists. As a result, Hurria said the health care workforce receives very little geriatric training, even though the older population is the largest demographic.

Today there is one geriatric physician for every 2,620 patients. By 2030, it is projected that there will be one geriatrician for every 3,798 patients. Cancer diagnoses among this group are growing every year. However, when researchers test new drugs in clinical trials, they typically recruit younger individuals.

“Historically, clinical trials have left out people who are older and more experienced, which doesn’t make much sense,” Hurria said in the profile feature. “We’re changing that. Older people have much to teach us. Their bodies are different. Their lives are different.

“Sixty percent of all cancers occur in people who are 65 and older,” she said. “Baby boomers are turning 65, and today, the largest population consists of people who are over 65. By 2030, the largest population of adults will be 80 or older. We cannot ignore that.”

Hurria said that older patients with cancer have different needs and expectations.

“They want to know if they are treated, just how sick they will get from the treatment. They want to know if they will still be able to function,” she said. “They want to know if they can still be socially active and if their memory will be intact. Eighty percent of our older patients say they would rather maintain their memory than survive. And they do not want their children to know. They have a great anxiety about becoming a burden.”


The power of listening

One way Hurria treated cancer differently in older adults was by listening to them—and listening to their bodies. There is chronological age, she explained, but there is also functional age. Two people, both 75 years old, can be very different. One may be wheelchair-bound, while the other may still be surfing every morning. These differences impact how cancer is treated, Hurria said.


Arti Hurria, with George Tsai


“If we can customize the treatment for a specific patient through a geriatric assessment intervention tool, we can anticipate what the side effects will be and develop interventions to decrease those side effects,” she said. Currently, there is an ongoing City of Hope study to determine whether geriatric assessment-guided interventions can decrease the risk of chemotherapy side effects for older patients with cancer.

“We can understand what the risk of chemotherapy toxicity will be, so we can prepare the best course of treatment for the individual,” she said. “We can talk to the patient, we can talk to the family and they understand we are all doing this together. They know what to expect and they will be more prepared for the treatment course.”

Hurria’s research was fortified by the newly endowed chair, for which she said she is both humbled and grateful:

“I am so thankful to George Tsai and the family for caring so deeply about those who are vulnerable in this world, and for helping our work continue here. City of Hope is a place of healing and humanity. We can make a difference in the lives of our older patients. We can climb this mountain together, and I’m convinced the view will be absolutely beautiful.”

Hurria had been honored with multiple awards throughout her career including the Frederick Stenn Memorial Award for Humanism in Medicine, and the B.J. Kennedy Award and Lecture for Scientific Excellence in Geriatric Oncology.

Hurria also was on the board of directors for the American Society of Clinical Oncology and was the chair and founder of the Cancer and Aging Research Group, co-chair for the Alliance Cancer in the Elderly Committee, past president of the International Society of Geriatric Oncology, and past chair of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network Older Adult Oncology Committee (2010-2016). Most recently, she was inducted as a member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation.

Hurria is survived by her husband and her daughter.

Matthew Ong contributed to this story.

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