A Doctor at Heart

by Anna Williams | photography by Andre LaCour

Deputy Director Maha Hussain oversees clinical research, but never forgets her primary goal: having an impact on patients.

There’s an old Iraqi proverb that has stuck with Maha Hussain, MD, since she left her native country: “You can’t clap with one hand.”

For Hussain, deputy director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, it’s an idea at the core of her approach to personal and professional success.

“It takes a team,” Hussain says. “Throughout my career, I have been successful in part because of collaboration with other people — whether it was colleagues I worked with or the support of my husband and family.”

Hussain, who joined Northwestern in September 2016, is an internationally recognized authority on clinical research and a leading expert in genitourinary oncology, especially prostate and bladder cancer. She is also an active clinical investigator focused on novel therapeutics and a practicing oncologist at Northwestern.

“In some ways, I wear many hats. But deep down, I’m a doctor at heart,” says Hussain, also the Genevieve E. Teuton Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology. “I didn’t get into this just to sit in an office all day. Everything I do, even while in an administrative job, needs to have a direct or indirect impact on patients.”

There is an incredible willingness here to work together to impact patient outcomes through science, research, mentorship and excellence in medical care.

As part of that mission, some of Hussain’s chief responsibilities at the Lurie Cancer Center are enhancing clinical trial infrastructure, expanding clinical trial protocols, facilitating scientific translation and forging partnerships that grow clinical research opportunities for cancer patients.

“At Northwestern, we all provide exceptional care. But I always say that exceptional care will never be good enough if we don’t have a cure or impactful treatments for our patients,” Hussain says. “That’s why my passion is research. Research is what will cure cancer.”

From Baghdad to Detroit

As far back as she can remember, Hussain has always wanted to become a physician. Growing up in Baghdad, her family encouraged her to pursue her goals. “I never thought that because I was a woman I shouldn’t be a doctor,” she says. “It was a very open culture, where education and performance was the great equalizer.”

After graduating from the prestigious Baghdad University College of Medicine in 1980, Hussain and her husband, also a physician, left to pursue their residency training abroad, just as the Iraq-Iran war was breaking out. After three years in England, they landed in Detroit, where a few of Hussain’s family members had already immigrated.

The couple planned to return to Iraq after completing their training. “But there was one war there after another, and we elected to stay,” Hussain says. “It was the best decision we have ever made. Baghdad is our motherland, but the U.S. is our home.”

Hussain was first drawn to oncology during her residency at Wayne State University in the mid-1980s. It was an exciting era, she says, with many discoveries, clinical trials and investments being made in research. Cures were becoming possible, such as in testicular cancer, and cancer was no longer automatically “a death sentence.” But while caring for patients in a local VA hospital, Hussain was also deeply discouraged by the lack of progress in prostate cancer.

“It was just so awful to see men coming in with horrible disease, and you had really hardly anything to do for them,” Hussain says. “To me, it was a turning moment — I realized this is an area where there’s a clear need for impact. And I felt an urgent need to contribute.”

Journey to Northwestern Medicine

A Full Career

In her career since then, Hussain’s research and leadership have helped improve standards of care for metastatic hormone-sensitive and castration-resistant prostate cancer. She has authored close to 250 scientific publications and book chapters and taken leadership roles in a variety of national oncology committees. Amidst that work, she has continued to care for patients as a clinician and serve as a teacher and mentor. She has also put a priority on outside interests — her family, including a son and daughter, and hobbies such as travel, reading, photography, cooking and a robust social life.

After her time at Wayne State, Hussain was recruited to the University of Michigan, where she spent almost 14 years in top scientific and leadership positions before joining Northwestern.

“I was ready to take on the adventure of working with a new team, with the wonderful brain trust at Northwestern, in order to develop the best possible clinical research for our patients,” Hussain says. “There is an incredible willingness here to work together to impact patient outcomes through science, research, mentorship and excellence in medical care.”