Manali Kamdar’s journey to specializing in the treatment of lymphomas with blood and marrow transplantation took nearly a decade, with layovers in North Carolina, New York and Northern California. But it all started in Mumbai, India with a little girl drawn to the arts and sciences.
“As far back as I can remember I was always interested in liberal arts and in sciences,” says Kamdar. “I was drawn towards the field of medicine, research and its impact on human lives. With respect to arts, the language of dance enamored me. Juggling between school and dance recitals was part of my life. They didn’t interfere – one energized me to learn the other and vice versa.”
Kamdar says it was obvious early on that she would be applying to medical school. She was always curious to know the workings of the human body. She wondered why things go wrong and once they’re fixed, can they break again?
Medical school is set up differently in India. It begins once a student finishes the United States’ equivalent of high school. It takes about four and a half years of rigorous training and because India is so populous, heavy emphasis is placed on clinical skills. Then students take tests to see in which specialty they will continue their training.
“It so happened that I topped the state in pediatrics,” says Kamdar. “But as much as I Iove kids, that wasn’t my calling. That’s when it hit me how badly I wanted to practice adult medicine. I turned down pediatrics residency and travelled to the United States to pursue training in internal medicine.”
She started her specialty training as an internal medicine resident at East Carolina University. That’s when Kamdar believes fate stepped in.
“It was destiny how I got into oncology,” she says. “When I first started training in internal medicine, I thought I would subspecialize in cardiology. However, during one of the crossover rotations I witnessed one my mentors take care of a cancer patient.”
Kamdar remembers it vividly. The woman was 75 years old and had been battling breast cancer for about 15 years and had progressed through many chemotherapy regimens and clinical trials. She says her mentor compassionately helped the woman come to terms with her illness.
“He basically helped her understand that she had put up a brave fight. He brought a deep sense of calm to her last moments. It was life-changing for me to see how the process of dying can be humanized so graciously,” says Kamdar. “I wanted to be like him and that day I decided to pursue oncology.”
Next was a fellowship in hematology and oncology at East Carolina University. But another decision was looming – what would Kamdar choose as her sub-specialty? She was drawn to lung cancer and lymphoma. Some time as a guest fellow at Cornell University helped Kamdar make up her mind. She chose to focus on lymphoma, a cancer that begins in infection-fighting cells of the immune system. Kamdar then headed to Stanford University for a third fellowship in blood and marrow transplantation.
When Kamdar earned the chance to lead the lymphoma program for the University of Colorado, School of Medicine Division of Hematology, she was thrilled at the opportunity to build and create a robust lymphoma program that would offer cutting edge medicine to patients.
“I love it here,” said Kamdar. “It’s not just the natural beauty that the state is blessed with but people are very giving and accepting of each other. I have spent time on each coast and this is the perfect mix of east and the west.”
Now that Kamdar has been in Colorado for almost two years, some of her goals for the lymphoma clinical program are starting to be realized. Patient volumes increased substantially which led to the successful recruitment of another lymphoma specialist. Kamdar is also collaborating on several clinical and translational research projects with other investigators on the Anschutz Medical Campus and looks forward to fruitful collaborations which will eventually improve patient outcomes.
“I hope to make our lymphoma program one of the top programs in the country. I realize there is a lot of work that needs to be done but I have amazingly supportive colleagues and mentors and I am positive we will achieve it,” she says.
Kamdar’s research goal is ambitious. She wants to be able to offer every lymphoma patient a clinical trial within the next five years.
“We all have to be aware that standard of care treatment practices come from clinical trials. However there is always room for improvement,” said Kamdar. “The next six months here are actually going to look very different since we will be offering several new clinical trials to our patients.”
She is enjoying every bit of this experience, in particular her time in clinic where she gets to see the true impact of lymphoma research on patients’ lives. “I love the clinical aspect of what I do because I get to form meaningful relationships with my patients,” she says.
In the midst of building the lymphoma program and taking care of patients, Kamdar tries to find time to enjoy her life outside of work.
“I believe as physicians it is very easy to get burnt out, especially in the field of oncology,” she says. “Spending time with my family and friends is by far my most favorite thing to do, followed by dance, watching movies and trying new restaurants in the city. After all you live only once and it’s important to give it your best and live life to the fullest.”