By Regina Nuzzo
Martin Abeloff Remembered
A noted oncologist leaves behind a legacy in cancer research
By Regina Nuzzo
After a 35-year career dedicated to bringing the latest developments in cancer research to patients, oncologist Martin D. Abeloff died of leukemia in Baltimore on Sept. 14. He was 65.
For 15 years, Abeloff was the chief oncologist and director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore. He specialized in clinical therapy research, particularly for the treatment of small-cell lung cancer and breast cancer.
Abeloff was also a strong proponent of early detection and prevention of cancer. In April, he appeared on Charlie Rose’s PBS show for an episode on cancer, during which he spoke about the value of cancer prevention research.
Abeloff’s first experience with cancer came early. When he was 12 years old, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He later described memories of watching her struggle in pain, as she learned how to move her arm again after a radical mastectomy.
“[Cancer] therapies have been lengthy, toxic and disfiguring, adding to the amount of suffering that a patient and family endure,” he said in the Johns Hopkins cancer center’s newsletter commemorating his retirement in the spring of 2007. “You simply can’t treat cancer without paying attention to the psychological and social aspects of the disease.”
An arts lover, Abeloff established the Art of Healing program for the benefit of patients and families at the Kimmel Cancer Center. More than 100 pieces of art are now displayed, and lunchtime musical performances are given in a central glass atrium.
“Marty had a unique blend of humanism,” says tumor biologist Stephen Baylin, the deputy director of the Kimmel Cancer Center and Abeloff’s friend and colleague for more than 30 years. “In everything he did, he could always establish a personal connection. He was revered by his patients.”
“He was inclusive,” says Ellen Stovall, a long-term cancer survivor and the president and chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. “He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, but he was also a great listener. For important issues, he would turn to patient advocates and say, ‘I want to know what this means to people that we’re treating.’ “
Abeloff was born in the coal-mining town of Shenandoah, Pa., where he grew up serving ice cream at the soda fountain in his father’s pharmacy. He graduated from an accelerated undergraduate program at Johns Hopkins University, where he also received his medical degree in 1966.
After training in Chicago and Boston, he returned to Hopkins in 1972 as a fellow in the newly created department of oncology. He remained there as a faculty member for the rest of his career, first serving as the department chairman and then as the director of the cancer center.
Abeloff leaves his wife of 40 years, Diane, a medical illustrator whom he met during medical school at Johns Hopkins, as well as a sister, two daughters and three grandchildren.
“Marty’s legacy cannot be summarized in just a few words,” says researcher and surgeon John E. Niederhuber, the director of the National Cancer Institute and a friend of the Abeloffs. “With individuals like him, we know they’re great when they’re with us. But it’s when they’re not with us that we see exactly how much they meant to us both individually and to the world.”