By Jeff Tucker

Path of Discovery

Dr. Alissa Greenbaum’s journey to surgical oncology took several turns, but serving the underserved remains her north star.

Alissa Greenbaum, MD, did not originally plan on becoming a surgical oncologist.

Her path to The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center started in public health, and at first she planned to pursue a career in family practice.

“My interest has always been in disparities in health care. However, when I got to medical school and did my surgery rotation I quickly changed my course,” she said. “I really connected with the ability to make significant change in a short period of time with people.”

Greenbaum’s start in health care began with a volunteer stint in AmeriCorps, where she worked as a medical assistant in a community health setting in San Francisco.

“I worked with migrant workers and homeless youth,” she said. “I was a Spanish major in college and spent quite a bit of time in Mexico. I’m a bilingual provider in Spanish and that gives me an opportunity to connect with people as well – in their first language.”

Greenbaum received her medical degree from Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland. In her third year of medical school, she did a rotation in surgery and fell in love with it.

“I liked the intensity of it,” she said. “The responsibility, the constant problem solving and again, being able to connect with people in that way both before and after the operation is extremely unique. Honestly the amount of trust that people put into you was the most profound aspect of it to me.”

In medical school, Greenbaum set her sights on becoming a trauma and critical care surgeon. This brought her to UNM in 2012 for general surgery residency training.

Even while the focus of her medical career was changing, one of the core motivations for Greenbaum – serving communities in need – remained. She chose UNM in part because she wanted to practice medicine in a hospital that cares for an underserved population. She also has a friend who is a pulmonary critical care doctor practicing at UNM who spoke often of the hospital’s mission.Greenbaum became sold on the choice of UNM for her surgical training.

But her UNM residency added another turn to her journey when she met surgical oncologist Itzhak Nir, MD.“When I rotated as an intern with Dr. Itzhak Nir, I saw the combination of seeing patients in clinic and doing these big, heroic kind of operations and then following them for the rest of their life,” she said. “I connected with that, more than trying to save somebody’s life that came in off the street – which is also worthy, but was not as much of a fit for me.”

Greenbaum’s new focus on surgical oncology led her to pursue a two-year research fellowship at UNM during her general surgery residency that focused on surgical outcomes and cancer disparities in Native American and Hispanic populations.

After graduation from UNM in 2019, she completed a two-year Complex General Surgical Oncology Fellowship at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, as well as a master’s certificate in clinical and translational science through Rutgers University.

She was mentored by Richard Alexander, MD, a renowned specialist in peritoneal surface malignancies and the technique of cytoreductive surgery and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). The procedure treats select patients with stage IV gastrointestinal cancers in the abdomen, peritoneal mesothelioma and ovarian cancer. The operation starts with surgical removal of the tumors. The peritoneal cavity is then bathed in heated chemotherapy to further target and kill cancer cells.

Greenbaum not only performs gastrointestinal surgery for many tumor types, but currently serves as the program director for the Peritoneal Surface Malignancy and HIPEC program, making the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center the only center in New Mexico to offer the procedure.

The UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center was Greenbaum’s first choice to work as a surgical oncologist, she said. She fell in love with New Mexico, its scenery and its diverse cultures. Even as she worked in New Jersey, she maintained ties to the Southwest, particularly on the Navajo Nation.

When COVID-19 hit, she was able to partner with her contact in the Native community to establish a relief fund, which delivered hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment (PPE), food and spiritual services to tribal members all over the state. Since her return to New Mexico, these collaborations have expanded, with new projects focusing on creating culturally integrated models of health care.

“I really started to think about being able to work with Native American communities and how to best contribute to that as a surgeon and oncologist, and I really couldn’t do that kind of work anywhere else,” she said. “Second, was the opportunity to be reunited with my surgical mentors in Dr. (Bridget) Fahy and Dr. Nir. To have their support as I start out my academic career is an amazing opportunity.”

Greenbaum said the fact that UNM offers a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center was important as well.

“The ability to offer and be involved in ongoing clinical trials, especially as a surgeon, is really important to me,” she said. “Our services in terms of patient care, patient navigation and our facilities are world class. We’re really able to bring absolutely excellent care to the most disparate people. I’m excited about the direction we’re headed as an institution.”

UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in a 500-mile radius.

Its more than 120 board-certified oncology specialty physicians include cancer surgeons in every specialty (abdominal, thoracic, bone and soft tissue, neurosurgery, genitourinary, gynecology, and head and neck cancers), adult and pediatric hematologists/medical oncologists, gynecologic oncologists, and radiation oncologists. They, along with more than 600 other cancer healthcare professionals (nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, navigators, psychologists and social workers), provide treatment to 65% of New Mexico's cancer patients from all across the state and partner with community health systems statewide to provide cancer care closer to home. They treated approximately 14,000 patients in about 100,000 ambulatory clinic visits in addition to in-patient hospitalizations at UNM Hospital.

A total of nearly 400 patients participated in cancer clinical trials testing new cancer treatments that include tests of novel cancer prevention strategies and cancer genome sequencing.

The more than 100 cancer research scientists affiliated with the UNMCCC were awarded $35.7 million in federal and private grants and contracts for cancer research projects. Since 2015, they have published nearly 1000 manuscripts, and promoting economic development, they filed 136 new patents and launched 10 new biotechnology start-up companies.

Finally, the physicians, scientists and staff have provided education and training experiences to more than 500 high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellowship students in cancer research and cancer health care delivery.

Categories: Comprehensive Cancer Center