Not just treating cancer: Dr. Ellis Levine

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Every weekday from half past six in the morning until about half past seven at night, Dr. Ellis Levine, fifty-eight, an oncologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute specializing in breast and genitourinary cancers, is at work. In addition to seeing roughly 100 patients a week, he faces a full slate of research and teaching responsibilities as a professor of oncology at Roswell and an associate professor of medicine at UB. Consequently, he spends most weekend afternoons at work as well. Weekend mornings, he works from home.

It is not altogether surprising, then, that Levine, a self-described “workaholic,” lives alone in his North Buffalo apartment; he’s not married, has no children or pets, and no real hobbies outside of being a prolific reader and avid sports fan (sorry Buffalonians—he’s loyal to the Pittsburgh teams he grew up rooting for). What makes Levine tick is his practice, and, more to the point, the people who benefit from it. “It sounds hackneyed,” he says, “but I gain a sense of relevance from helping other people. I am devoted to my patients.”

Anyone not familiar with Levine’s biography might assume he came from a family of doctors and had always planned to be one himself. It’s surprising, given Levine’s single-minded dedication to his work, is how close he came to not becoming a doctor at all. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, he aspired to be a physicist, but his grades weren’t where they needed to be. So he switched his major to biology, with thoughts of becoming a veterinarian. It was his father, a self-made attorney who had grown up very poor, who convinced him to go to medical school for the financial stability.

As a cancer specialist, Levine strives to maintain a very high level of empathy and respect for his patients—not just for the group as a whole, but for each individual who comes into his office. From the first visit onward, he sees each patient not just as a person with cancer, but as a person with a family, interests, and desires who just happens to have cancer. When asked about this, he nods. “I’m not just treating cancer,” he explains. “The cancer is inside a unique personality. So although I have to maintain some distance—the burnout rate among oncologists is very high—over time I do form close bonds with my patients. I get to know them.”

Many doctors may find this level of intimacy simply too painful, especially when many of their patients are of the terminal-disease variety. But Dr. Levine sees it as part of his calling. “The most important thing I do as a doctor is not to extend a person’s life,” he says. “That’s part of it, but it’s more important to give them a better quality of life. And as I get to know a patient, part of my role may be to help them learn how to die—to help them heal old wounds, close their affairs, and to change their mindset so they are mentally ready to say goodbye.”

As one might expect, it’s not a happy day for Dr. Levine when a patient passes away. But he takes solace in a bigger picture. “If a patient of mine had a good life and a dignified death, then I feel like I’ve had a good outcome,” he says. “Obviously, there are other kinds of good outcomes that I celebrate too, but I get very rewarded by that.” He’s also buoyed by the strides being made in the lab. “We’re breaking down the genome,” he says, adding that Roswell Park, a rather minor player when he arrived in 1989, is now on the cutting edge of cancer research and treatment. “Buffalonians can be very proud of what they have here,” he says.                


Laura Silverman is a freelance writer and editor based in Buffalo.

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