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Philip Spanheimer, MD, joins the UNC Department of Surgery as an Assistant Professor, in the Division of Surgical Oncology. He sat down to discuss what inspired him to become a surgeon scientist, his goals while at UNC Surgery, and letting go of his dreams of one day being a major league baseball player.

Dr. Spanheimer received his undergraduate degree from Duke University in 2005 and his medical degree from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in 2009.  He completed his general surgery residency and research fellowship at the University of Iowa in 2016.  He then stayed on in Iowa City to work as a staff surgeon at the VA Medical Center for one year before completing his complex general surgical oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2019.  Dr. Spanheimer will be a specialist in our breast surgery program.

What inspired you to become a doctor/surgeon?

The sciences always interested me, and over time, I gravitated more and more towards them. When deciding on my future career aspirations, I liked how medicine involved both science and patient interaction. I enjoy that personal touch, seeing people, coming face to face with a problem, and getting the opportunity to do something that affects their life right away. The lab is an opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of the world around us, broadly and on specific questions, but with less tangible personal application.   As I progressed in my training I realized both the clinical patient-focused and scientific lab aspects were important to me.

How did you decide to pursue your current specialty? Has it met your expectations?

I’ve always been interested in cancer biology, and Surgical Oncology is a fascinating field because of the breadth of what it allows us to do. We get to take care of patients. We get to affect their cancer treatment on a day-to-day basis. We also get to ask interesting questions about why different cancers behave differently, how they respond to different medical and surgical treatments, and how we can come to a better understanding of the underlying biology and how that can lead us to better treatments.

I enjoy being a surgical oncologist. Not only do you get to have an immediate positive impact on a person’s life, but I come up with new questions to ask every single day. The advantage of the training that I’ve gone through is developing tools to start to answer those questions too. So far, it’s everything I hoped a career as a surgeon scientist would entail.

What brought you to the Department of Surgery at UNC?

The main draw for me in coming to UNC Surgery revolves around my interest in breast cancer, specifically the breast cancer basic science lab and the breast cancer research group. I now have the opportunity to work with Charles Perou, Professor of Molecular Oncology, and a giant in the field of Cancer Research. I’ll be embedded in his lab, which is an amazing opportunity.  The breast cancer group is phenomenal, both clinically and leading research, and. I’m excited to come into a department of surgery that has a strong history and commitment to research and developing junior faculty.

What contributions would you like to make to your specialty?

I want to provide world-class care to patients with cancer, in particular, breast cancer, and then I want to have a productive investigation in the lab. I hope that my research will lead to understanding the way genes are expressed in breast cancer across different individual tumors, how that leads to different tumor behavior, and how that can be targeted and used to individualized cancer care.

Why did you decide to pursue academic medicine?

The lab is what grounds me. I want to participate in the continued investigation of cancer biology, which is very important to move medical science forward in both understanding the disease and learning how to treat it better. Being in an academic environment, especially one like UNC, gives me the resources and opportunity to pursue that passion.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

It’s extremely rewarding to use my skills and training to treat disease. When patients come to me, I can talk with them about the disease they are facing and then take the necessary steps, along with the other members of their multidisciplinary team, to provide treatment. What I like about Surgical Oncology is that we build long-term relationships with patients, and we are by their side during their medical journey. Our treatment plans are customized to each individual patient and their disease; there is no one size fits all model. The process is very rewarding to have somebody come to the clinic, and you witness their story unfold through diagnosis and treatment, and ultimately getting their lives back after a cancer diagnosis.

With the lab work I do, I find it rewarding to be able to take what I am seeing in the clinic back to the lab and vice versa. It gives me a better understanding of what’s happening with the disease and what specific things we need to understand better to develop better treatments.

Is there a particular achievement (professional or personal) that has been most gratifying to you?

I’m proud of my time in the lab as a research fellow. I think we did some very interesting work that’s laid the groundwork for important questions to be answered in the future. I’m also proud of completing the Surgical Oncology fellowship at Memorial. It was a great environment to learn how to think about surgery and oncology and the interface between those things.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

I always keep in mind the simple mantra of ‘work hard.’ I remind myself that the short-term stuff will work itself out. Don’t ever be too proud of an accomplishment or too down on not being successful; if you keep working hard, everything will work out.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I wanted to be a professional baseball player until around last year when I finally gave up on the dream. I grew up playing sports and baseball, in particular, has a place in my heart. As a kid, everything revolved around it; I had baseball cards, it’s what we watched on TV, what we talked about daily. I think you always aspire to be the best at whatever you’re doing and so it seemed like a pretty good way to live your life. In high school, I looked around the baseball field and started to recognize that I wasn’t going to be the guy that the White Sox are going to come calling for next year. When I came to that conclusion, I shifted my focus and started to think about what I wanted my future to look like.

What do you do when you aren’t working?

Outside of work, I spend time with the family, which includes my wife, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at UNC, and my kids. One thing that my wife and I have done a good job of is we don’t waste time at home. There’s no time where people are sitting around, or somebody’s on an iPad, and somebody’s watching TV. When we’re home as a family, we’re spending time together, doing activities, reading books, going to the Children’s Museum, or the library. We’re engaging each other as a family, and we’ve learned that we have to maximize the time we have together.

How would you describe yourself in one word?


If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

The superpower that I want is Telekinesis. I want to know what other people are thinking.  While it could have its drawbacks, as a physician, it would be a great tool to help to communicate with patients, to know what people needed to hear to help them better process everything we tell them and to help put them at ease.

If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?

I want the chance to talk to William Steward Halstead, Chair Emeritus of John Hopkins, and the father of modern surgery. He lived a very interesting life. I am interested to hear about his professional journey, how he developed his perspective, and how he established the structure of what departments of surgery and surgical training needed to look like in this country. He shaped the last 100 years of surgery, and it would be exciting to understand how he looked at the world and medicine during that time.

Can you give me an example of a failure that you’ve had in your career your personal life and what you learned from that?

Coming out of medical school I was not one of the top surgery applicants and didn’t get an interview at a lot of top programs.  I’m not sure what would have happened if I had more options, but I was extremely fortunate to train at Iowa.  Personally, I met my wife and we had our beautiful, amazing children.  Professionally I got the best training as a surgeon and scientist who laid the groundwork for an academic career.  I learned that you never know what the future holds and that if you stay focused and work hard things will work out.

What gets you up in the morning?

Each morning I’m excited about something different depending on what the day holds, as both a surgeon and a scientist. I wake up excited about the work to be done in the lab, the questions we’re asking, and the answers we are starting to get.

Other days, it’s exciting to go into the operating room, see patients in the clinic, and help them get through a disease that’s very scary and very daunting. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you use your training to help patients get healthy and get control of their life back.