Medical All-Stars, Part 6

Irina Veytsman, MD, 
Director of Hematology and Oncology and Associate Director of Thoracic Oncology, PinnacleHealth Cancer Institute

Dr. Irina Veytsman’s mother was a physician who often took her children on calls to homes in remote parts of their native Russia. In stormy Siberia, they would walk “sometimes miles from one house to another,” Veytsman marvels.

“I always looked up to her,” she says. “Patients always cherished her.”

Veytsman studied medicine in Russia, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, her career goals became “basically impossible.” She and her husband, a fellow medical student, came to the U.S., “and that was the best choice.” Her path took her to do research as a visiting scholar at Yale University and then to a residency at University of Connecticut School of Medicine, where she started research in the hematology/oncology field.

Veytsman accepted a fellowship with the National Cancer Institute, where she discovered a niche in oncology for “translational research,” which funnels laboratory findings into clinical practice. She then joined Medstar Washington Hospital/ Georgetown University to pursue research and treatment of lung, head and neck cancer.

While she focused on finding and treating aggressive, drug-resistant tumors, researchers discovered drugs for patients who have specific mutations and responded dramatically to targeted therapy.

A cancer diagnosis, even if curable, is “life-changing” for her patients. She tells them, “We’ll be there with you.”

PinnacleHealth’s Cancer Institute is, she says, “a gem” that has opened about 12 trials and enrolled many patients who benefitted. “Oncology is teamwork. Everybody here is so eager to see patients and do this work, and all at a very high standards level. It’s amazing to me how much we’ve achieved in just a couple of years.”

She brings back findings from conferences worldwide, and she is active in the American Society of Clinical Oncology, as a chair of the educational committee track for head and neck cancer. She also serves on the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer’s communication committee.

Veystman and her husband, Holy Spirit Hospital physician David Sharashenidze, have two children, a 22-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.

“It’s definitely a journey,” she says. “We’ve been through a lot together, and that’s important because we do support each other, and we understand each other.”

In her practice, even when she holds patients’ hands and delivers the news that their cancer is Stage IV, they often squeeze her hand and ask, “How do you do this?”

“I am trying to support them, and they are trying to support me,” she says. “Every day, I’m humble, and every day, I wake up and think how lucky I am. I get to know people very, very, very well. It doesn’t matter how difficult it is. It’s such a pleasure to be here and take care of them.”