Caring for US Veterans Helped Lead Iraqi Immigrant to Develop Prostate Cancer Advances

Laura Panjwani
Published: Saturday, Aug 06, 2016
Maha H. Hussain, MB ChB

Maha H. Hussain, MB ChB

Life hasn’t always gone as planned for Maha H. Hussain, MB ChB.

When she graduated from Baghdad University College of Medicine in June 1980, Hussain thought she had everything figured out. She would complete her residency at the main teaching hospital in Baghdad and then join her new husband, also a doctor, who was heading to England for a few years, to finish their training. After specialization, the two would start their careers in Iraq. Hussain had her heart set on becoming a hematologist.

But the start of the Iraq-Iran war changed everything.

“We began hearing about the troops amassing on the borders between Iraq and Iran. Literally, within 3 days, I had to decide if I was going to join my husband and leave Iraq for England,” said Hussain. “This was the era of Saddam Hussein and all the political unrest and brutality of the regime. It was a lot of pressure to decide what to do, but we could sense that a war was coming.”

Hussain made the difficult decision to leave her home in August 1980, escaping just 5 weeks before the war began. The couple planned to return and rebuild their lives in Baghdad once it was safe again. That day never came.

Finding Her Inspiration

Today, Hussain is internationally known as a leader in clinical research in the field of genitourinary (GU) cancers, where her work has led to changing the standards of care for patients with metastatic prostate cancer.

Her latest position of leadership will be as the associate director for Clinical Sciences Research at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, where she also will serve as co-director of the center’s Genitourinary Oncology Program.

Hussain has been serving in a similar position at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, which she joined in 2002. She is the Cis Maisel Professor of Oncology, associate director for clinical research, co-leader of the Prostate Cancer/GU Oncology Program.

“I am first and foremost a physician,” said Hussain. “I’ve also been fortunate to be able to participate and lead clinical trials, translating the ideas that I’ve come up with both at the national and international levels.”

“We have been able to affect the field in terms of managing advanced prostate cancer and really push the envelope with regard to developing new treatments. I am proud of that,” she said.

Getting to where she is today did not come without its challenges. A few years after leaving Baghdad for England, Hussain and her husband made another international move, this time to the United States. One of Hussain’s uncles, who was also a doctor, lived in Michigan, so the couple settled there in 1983. At the time, there were not many other people of Middle Eastern descent in Michigan.

“It was not very easy to establish another new life in another foreign country,” said Hussain. “However, very soon after arriving, we ended up loving Michigan and the United States, the people, and the style of living. You could make friends easily and integrate. Although the language and the society culture are different, people are the same everywhere.” After completing her training at Wayne State University, Hussain took a job as a staff physician in the Hematology and Oncology Department of the VA Medical Center in Detroit, where she stayed for 10 years. Working with veterans was an experience that had a significant impact on her life, both personally and professionally, said Hussain.

Maha H.
Hussain, MB ChB When she first started at the VA, Hussain wasn’t sure how her patients, many of whom served in the military in the Middle East, would respond to a female Iraqi physician.

“My last name, Hussain, sounds the same as Saddam Hussein,” said Hussain. “You can get singled out immediately as a foreign person with a funny name and a name that is not really favorable because of its similarity with an evil person’s name.” But her patients’ reaction to her ethnicity surprised her.

“Not only were these men supportive of me as their doctor and allowed me to take care of them, but they showed genuine concern about my family who were still in Iraq,” she said. “People wrote me letters, telling me not to worry, reassuring me that they had my family in their thoughts and they were praying for my family. It wasn’t just patient to doctor, it was human being to human being, and that was amazing.”

That strong connection with her patients who were military veterans, many who were fighting losing battles with GU malignancies, motivated Hussain to refocus her career goals.

“At the time I started, there weren’t that many research opportunities or treatment opportunities within GU malignancies,” said Hussain.

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TitleExpiration DateCME Credits
Oncology Briefings™: Current Perspectives on Preventing and Managing Tumor Lysis SyndromeJun 30, 20191.0
Community Practice Connections™: 2nd Annual International Congress on Oncology Pathology™Aug 31, 20191.5
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