From the Ground Up: Daniel G. Haller, MD, Gets Giants of Cancer Care Award in GI Cancer

Daniel G. Haller, MD, says he has relied on “cheerful serendipity” throughout his life and career.

Growing up in Long Island, New York, Dan Haller, MD, didn’t always know that he wanted to become a doctor. He spent most summers doing what he calls “odd jobs” and claims that he never really had any true role models when it came to a career path. But then, in the hot summer of 1965, one of those odd jobs serendipitously led him to the medical industry.

“I went to the Nassau County unemployment office,” he recalled. “It turned out that they had a job as an orderly at the county hospital, Meadowbrook Hospital, now Nassau University Medical Center.”

Haller spent the summer making beds, feeding patients, and being on the ward—all for $1 an hour. “I had to walk a mile to take 2 buses to get to the hospital by 7 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “But once I was on the ward, I knew that’s where I wanted to be, period.”

Soon after his first introduction to medicine, Haller went on to Syracuse University as the second in his family to attend college (his brother was the first) with a full scholarship. Surprisingly, he arrived on campus with an undeclared major.

Taking a variety of advanced placement classes, he found himself not having enough to do and not doing well in his classes. “I just examined myself, and I realized when I don’t have much to do, I don’t get things done. And when I’m really pressured and have a lot to do, I get more done,” he said. “So what did I do? I looked in the campus newspaper, and a job as an orderly [was] posted at a hospital adjacent to the campus.”

It was a full-time job, 3 pm to 11 pm, in the emergency department at Crouse-Irving Hospital. “It turned out it made me really focus on my studies because I had to get [them] done,” he explained. “It changed everything. His grades improved, he added premed courses, and he also became more socially active—even finding time to sing in the Hendricks Chapel Choir at Syracuse University.

He graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University in 1969 with a BA in political science, a minor in journalism, and a full scholarship to medical school at the University of Pittsburgh.

After finishing medical school, Haller applied to be an intern at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, but that didn’t work out. “I was disappointed, but it ended up that I went to Georgetown [University Hospital in Washington, DC],” he said, noting that he eventually became a resident and then fellow. “And the benefit of that is I met my wife there.”

At the time, his wife, Eileen, was a nephrology nurse at Georgetown. During his second year in the program, oncologists Philip S. Schein, MD, DSc (Hon); John S. Macdonald, MD; and Paul Woolley, MD, PhD, left the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish an oncology practice at Georgetown. Haller joined a class of 4 fellows, working 7 days a week every 4 weeks for 2 years.

“I learned very early on that I had a very personal relationship with my patients,” he said. “I remember so many of them by name. Forty-four years later, I still get a Christmas card from a patient I entered on my first clinical trial.”

Building A Career

Haller was surprised when he didn’t end up getting a full-time job at Georgetown after his fellowship, but as he describes it now, that also turned out to be serendipitous. Soon after, Schein recommended him to the late Franco M. Muggia, MD, a chemotherapy pioneer who headed one of the extramural programs at NIH. Muggia helped Haller get a job with the Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program at the institution.

“Then finally, after about 2 years, I [got] a call from John Glick at Penn Medicine,” Haller said. The University of Pennsylvania needed more faculty in the clinical oncology department and offered him a job as an attending physician and assistant professor. He accepted and has been at the institution for more than 40 years.

John H. Glick, MD, served as director of Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center from 1985 to 2006. Today, he is the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Professor of Clinical Oncology, a professor of medicine, and president of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute.

Although gastrointestinal (GI) oncology had been his main focus at Georgetown, Haller dove into breast cancer and other solid tumors to broaden his knowledge. “In the mid-1970s, no one wanted to do GI oncology,” he explained. “It was all breast and leukemia.” Once the faculty grew, he was able to return to GI.

From 1980 to 1994, he climbed the ladder at Penn Medicine, rising from attending physician to medical director of hematology-oncology. In 1992, he also became a coleader for the clinical oncology research program at Penn and an associate medical director for Penn Home Infusion Therapy. He later added another responsibility—associate chief for clinical affairs in the Division of Hematology-Oncology.

Even his minor in journalism came in handy. Throughout his career, Haller has held a number of editorial positions with high-profile medical journals including Journal of Clinical Oncologyand Annals of Oncology. Four years after officially retiring, he continues working as an editor to keep his skills sharp and his knowledge current.

“I always want to keep up-to-date, which is why I enjoy editing things—even in areas I don’t know. I like keeping my brain going,” he explained. “[I] semi joke that if I have to go to a meeting to learn something, [then] I’m already out of date, right? I should know this already, or I should have anticipated it.”

Haller has received several awards, recognitions and accolades throughout his career, such as being named a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 2013. Upon arriving to London for the induction, Haller was invited to one of the Queen of England’s garden parties.

“We were introduced, and she congratulated me. I simply said, ‘Thank you, ma’am,’” he recalled.

Haller also has an endowed chair named after him at Penn Medicine: the Deenie Greitzer and Daniel G. Haller Associate Professorship in Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology.

“When I got the endowed chair, a number of fellows who I taught in the past were there,” Haller recalled. “I said to them, ‘Tell me, honestly, do you remember anything I taught you?’ And one said, ‘The factual things really didn’t matter because we have ways of finding [those] out. You taught us how to treat people, and not just medically, but how to treat people as colleagues, how to treat your patients, [and] how to talk to people. That made more of an impact.’”

Making A Difference

Haller estimates that he’s spent about one-third of his life in clinical trials. He has participated in at least 70 clinical trials throughout his career, starting back when he was a fellow at Georgetown.

After his fellowship, he became the project officer of the GI Tumor Study Group and was involved in many clinical trials around adjuvant therapy. Later, at Penn Medicine, he became the principal investigator for the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG).

During this time, he was lead author for Intergroup 0089, which is still the largest colon cancer adjuvant treatment trial for patients with high-risk disease. The trial accrued more than 3700 patients and looked at a treatment regimen of fluorouracil, leucovorin, and levamisole in high-risk, stage II and III colon cancers. “What we were able to do [was] drop levamisole out of the accepted regimen and cut 6 months off treatment based on that and other trials,” he said.

“We instituted the first large-scale anal cancer study,” Haller said of another trial, which was based on the Wayne State University experience examining the efficacy of infusional fluorouracil and mitomycin C with radiation. “Before that, people were having surgery, and then it was found out at certain institutions like Princess Margaret [Cancer Centre] and Wayne State that a combination of 2 drugs plus radiation therapy cured most people with early-stage disease.

But it had only been done in single institutions, which is sometimes misleading. We had to show that everybody could do it.”

Forty years later, infusional fluorouracil and mitomycin C with radiation are still the standard of care for anal cancer.

He also participated in ECOG’s EST-1282 study, another major trial that showed how chemo-radiotherapy was better than radiation alone for early-stage squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. Today, this regimen is the standard of care.

In 2013, Haller became the cochair emeritus of the National Cancer Institute Gastrointestinal Intergroup, empowering him to approve or reject cooperative group trial proposals. “Of all the jobs I’ve had, that was the one I missed the least when I finished because it had the possibility of being contentious,” he said. “I generally tend to be a collaborative person, not a contentious person.”

Putting Down Roots Yet Moving Forward

Haller has always enjoyed traveling because he loves learning new things and meeting new people. Although many trips were for work, he was able to sneak in some vacations with his wife.

One year, the pair spent 3 weeks in Australia, mixing work with a celebration of his 50th birthday. Together, they explored the Great Barrier Reef and the city of Cairns in Queensland and the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Next, they headed to Melbourne and then to Sydney, where they stayed at the Park Hyatt Sydney hotel overlooking the Sydney Opera House.

Haller says it was the longest vacation he had ever taken. “I spent 2 hours lecturing and 3 weeks minus 2 hours vacationing,” he said, adding that, “Australia [will] always [be] one of my favorite countries. I’ve been to Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Tasmania. Will I get back? I’m not ruling it out.”

A few years ago, he also spent 2 weeks in Scotland with his church. “I did spend a semester of medical school at the University of Edinburgh my senior year,” he recalled. “It [was] great to go back to Edinburgh more than 40 years later, almost 50, actually, to see how things had changed.” He notes the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh as the biggest change, which had been built in 1879. No longer a functional hospital, it has been converted into offices and condos.

He’s also visited most of the countries in South America and Europe and been to Jordan twice and London at least 20 times. He hopes to one day visit Egypt and Israel. The only continent he has yet to step foot on is Antarctica.

Haller noted that he and wife Eileen have “been married 43 years this year.” During that time, they’ve welcomed 4 golden retrievers into their family, the most recent being 6-year-old Buddy.

Haller has also picked up a variety of interests and hobbies, but the one he is most passionate about is singing, which stems from his mother enlisting him in the church choir at age 7. “I’ve sung all 4 parts over my life,” he said. “I went from a boy soprano, through an alto, to bass, and now I’m a second bass.”

Today, he is part of the 85-member choir at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. “It has a fabulous music tradition and one of the best organs in Philadelphia. The church seats about 1000 people, and we almost fill it on Sundays,” he said.

In the past, Haller has also enjoyed needlepoint, claiming that he’s made enough Christmas stockings and pillows to last a lifetime.

During the pandemic, he became interested in diving deeper into his family history and was able to trace his father’s family back 13 generations to the early 1500s in Germany. “My great-great grandfather actually died in the Battle of Chattanooga in the Civil War,” he said.

He notes one similarity throughout his family tree. “Not one of them had a college degree or even high school diploma,” he said. “They were all blue-collar workers and worked with their hands.” Haller broke that pattern, making his parents proud.

“My life has been one of cheerful serendipity,” he concluded. “I’ll just rely on that.”