In a perfect world, not a single person would have to battle cancer. And while our world may be far from perfect, we’ve come a long way, says Iliana M. Popescu, an oncologist at Eisenhower Desert Cancer Care in Rancho Mirage.
“Cancer, particularly breast cancer, is no longer a death sentence,” she says, noting that while one in eight women will get breast cancer, only one in every 38 affected will die of it — and mortality rates for cancer overall have decreased by 27 percent in the last 25 years.
“The statistics tell a story. We see so many advances, so many things we can do for our patients to improve the outcomes. It’s amazing.”
As a girl growing up in Romania, she realized she wanted to get into medicine, and specifically oncology, as she watched a family member struggle to find proper treatment.
“I’ve seen the shortcomings,” says Popescu, who attended medical school in her home country and later completed her internship, residency, and fellowship at New York–based medical centers. “It was obvious to me there [were] not that many treatment options for cancer and that the future was unlimited. And I think I was right about that.”
Popescu concentrates on breast and gynecological cancers, a focus stemming from her interest in genetics, which plays a major role in treatments. “Twenty years ago, there were barely three or four genes we knew how to test. They all related to breast and gynecological cancers.
Since then, there has been an explosion of knowledge in genetics,” she explains, pointing to 14 cancer drugs that were approved last year, many of which are therapies that may be able to target a cancer’s specific genes. “We can treat patients based on their genetics — based on their molecular changes in the cancer tumors — and I find that outstanding. I think there is a lot of hope.”
Because there are so many new treatment breakthroughs, for breast cancer in particular, it can be a challenge to navigate the options. Thus, Popescu stays on top of new research, reports, and trials.
“Almost every month it’s something new going on with breast cancer, so I realize I have to do more, to go to meetings, to read more. I read every day,” she says. “I get information every day, one way or another, about breast cancer, and still I go to work and something new happened by the time I get home.”
It’s sharing that knowledge (and that hope) with patients during one of the most vulnerable times of their lives that brings her the most fulfillment.
“It’s a privilege taking care of patients. I do find satisfaction being at their side and listening to their life stories,” Popescu says. “Knowledge and experience can only take you so far. But I think compassion, kindness, empathy, and a relationship with the patient is really the most rewarding aspect of my career. And, really, of my life.
VIDEO: Dr. Iliana Popescu speaks to the ways that are available to battle cancer.