Dr. Amy Early: Hooked by the cure
While other sixties-era teens stayed up late to watch midnight movies, perennial night owl Amy Early snuck out of bed to watch talk shows. One night, watching an interview with the first person to be cured of Hodgkin’s disease, Early had a life-defining moment. “This was the first cure of an advanced lymphoma in chemotherapy, and I was so taken by that,” she recalls. “Some of us are fortunate to have a moment in our lives that we can seize as being our calling, and I think I have to view that late night [viewing experience] as that.”
Fast forward to 1976: Dr. Amy Early, newly titled via a medical degree from Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, arrived in Buffalo to pursue a residency in oncology. “At the time, the places to go were New York, Houston, and Buffalo,” says the western Pennsylvania native. “Buffalo just made a lot of sense, because it would be close to my family.”
Early’s post-graduate work at Roswell only confirmed her choice of specialties. “The 1960s and ’70s were exciting,” she maintains. “With the birth of chemotherapy, it was a time when cancers that could not be cured were suddenly being cured. When I was a youth, virtually all children with acute leukemia died; by the time I finished college, half of them were being cured, and by the time I finished my fellowship, eighty percent were being cured. During my training, tamoxifen, a hormone medicine that blocks receptors for estrogen in a breast cancer cell, became available and that has saved tens of thousands of lives. It’s been remarkable.”
As a medical oncologist at the Buffalo Medical Group, Early treats all kinds of cancer patients, including many with breast cancer. Through her career, she’s seen treatment go from “the early days of disfiguring radical mastectomies to oncoplastic surgery [cancer-related breast reconstruction] with the idea that cancer surgery is minimal.” But by far, the greatest career moment she’s experienced was at the 2006 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology when clinical trial results were presented on a new antibody treatment for a certain type of aggressive breast cancer.
At the reception, the thousands of cancer specialists in attendance were shown slides depicting clinical trial results with women in both the United States and Europe who had this particular cancer at an early stage. With the antibody treatment, occurrence was cut in half, and the women had made it to four years with very small risk of recurrence. “There was a collective gasp,” Early remembers. “We were seeing something we had never seen. U.S. News and World Report compared the exuberance to a Rolling Stones concert. The entire gamut of emotions was in the room that day, from cheers to tears. It was such a dramatic moment in my life.”
Day-to-day operations at work are much less so, with Early spending much of her time at the office. But, she points out, that’s a good thing: “Fifteen years ago, an oncologist spent most of her time in the hospital. Now, nausea medicines are dramatically better and we have medications that keep blood counts normal, so most go through their treatments without ever having to be in the hospital.”
Early is quick to dispute the popular notion that her job is all sad, calling oncology a specialty with tremendous hope, lightning fast changes and advances, and prognoses where most patients, in fact, survive their cancers. It’s an encouraging and rewarding perspective, one that makes Early fairly certain that her career will remain hands-on. “Research is exciting, but I’m happiest when I’m with patients,” she says. “I don’t have aspirations for administration, though I do love teaching first-year students [as a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences]; they’re so fresh and excited.”
When there’s time left at the end of the day, Early likes to attend concerts—she’s a BPO season ticketholder—or cook as she was taught by her Venetian grandmother, and she “treasures” her nights out with the girls. She also plays French horn in the Lockport Community Band. “I’ve been playing since my young teens, but there was a period of time when life was busy with medical school and the horn sat in the closet,” she says. “But I love my band. It’s what keeps me sane and happy.”
Donna Hoke is the editor of Buffalo Spree Home.