Dr. Abraham Chachoua’s Collection of Elephants Was Born a Decade Ago When One of His Patients Explained That an Elephant with Its Trunk Upturned Is a Symbol of Good Fortune. Other Patients Followed Suit.
An elephant never forgets, and neither does Abraham Chachoua, MD, the Jay and Isabel Fine Professor of Oncology at NYU Langone Health. “I think of my patients as my family,” he says, “and I would do anything for my family.”
Dr. Chachoua’s office at Perlmutter Cancer Center overflows with mementos from his patients—most of them elephants of one kind or another, each one unique. His museum-quality collection was born a decade ago when one of his patients explained to him that an elephant with its trunk upturned is a symbol of good fortune. Over the years, other patients followed suit, bringing him souvenir elephants from all over the world.
Every figurine has a story. One of his favorites is about the young woman with stage IV lung cancer who gave him a Peruvian elephant made of alpaca. While under Dr. Chachoua’s care, she also developed breast cancer. “She didn’t let any of that stop her,” he says. “She would just travel the world. We chose a chemotherapy that covered both cancers. Her last couple of scans showed she’s free of disease. I think that’s pretty impressive.”
Lung cancer claims the lives of more than 150,000 Americans annually—more than breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined. Because the disease metastasizes quickly and often causes no symptoms in its early stages, nearly half of all cases are diagnosed at stage IV, when the average life expectancy is 18 to 24 months.
To improve those odds, Perlmutter Cancer Center launched a comprehensive Lung Cancer Center in 2017. A multidisciplinary clinical and research hub, the center currently has a growing number of clinical trials under way to investigate transformative new therapies that may significantly extend survival and minimize symptoms. “We take a coordinated approach to each patient’s care,” explains Dr. Chachoua, chief of medical oncology. “Every person we treat has a think tank on their side.”
The most promising treatments include targeted therapies aimed at specific genetic changes within the tumor, and immunotherapies that boost the immune system’s ability to destroy tumor cells. “When I came to NYU Langone for a research fellowship in 1985,” recalls Dr. Chachoua, “the only treatment available for metastatic lung cancer was chemotherapy, and the average life expectancy was six to nine months. Now, we have doubled the length of survival for a subset of patients, and 5 to 10 percent of patients on immunotherapy can be cured. Lung cancer is no longer an imminent death sentence.”
Dr. Chachoua is proud of Perlmutter Cancer Center’s reputation for personalized patient care, noting that while treatment is critical, good doctoring makes a difference, too. “My goal,” he says, “is not only to help patients live as long as possible, but with as high a quality of life as possible. That patients think well enough of the care we give to add to the collection is very rewarding.”