After a successful 17-year career at JPMorgan, Bita Javadizadeh Brun ’99 was ready for a change. “We’ll call it a midlife crisis,” she says with a friendly laugh. “I loved the time I spent at the bank and am grateful for the extraordinary relationships I made, but I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
At the same time, she was starting to feel worn down, which she credited to working steadily for many years and chasing after her two young sons. So Javadizadeh Brun left JPMorgan, taking a position at a startup being financed and run by a close family friend. The work was fascinating and the team talented, she says, but the venture did not develop according to forecasts and there was no room for her to grow. As she began to contemplate her next move, Javadizadeh Brun found herself feeling increasingly drained.
“You just think, ‘I’m a New Yorker and I’m tired,’” she says. “I really attributed a lot to just working a long time.”
At the urging of her primary-care physician, however, Javadizadeh Brun underwent diagnostic testing, which entailed a sonogram and an MRI. What came up on the screen shocked both doctor and patient.
“They happened upon a pretty big tumor in my liver,” she says, noting that the discovery came completely out of the blue. “I have no history of cancer in my family. I’m totally healthy otherwise.”
The tumor, which turned out to be inoperable, was the result of a rare form of liver cancer that affects the bile duct, known as intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma. There are only about 6,000 cases of liver bile duct cancer diagnosed in the United States each year — and, as of now, the prognosis is typically not good.
“I went from thinking about what I’m going to do next professionally to thinking — at my age and with my family and young children — about my mortality.”
“The doctor said, ‘If we hadn’t seen this [tumor], you’d be dead in six months,’” Javadizadeh Brun says. “I went from thinking about what I’m going to do next professionally to thinking — at my age and with my family and young children — about my mortality.”
It certainly wasn’t the kind of life change she had been aiming for. But Javadizadeh Brun, with the same determination and organizational prowess she had shown as a top financial advisor, sprang into action. Knowing that time was of the essence — “the cancer had progressed and we needed to get the right care quickly” — she, with the help of her family, dove head-first into researching the best cancer treatment centers in the US and abroad. They quickly landed on New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — and into the office of Dr. Ghassan Abou-Alfa ’16.
A Doctor and a Destiny
Abou-Alfa has been an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering for 15 years, specializing in gastrointestinal cancers, primarily those of the liver and bile duct. In addition to his practice at the center, he is a lead researcher in the field, focused on developing targeted therapies to overcome cancers resistant to standard chemotherapy. Abou-Alfa chairs the National Cancer Institute Task Force for liver and biliary cancers and is the co-author of 100 Questions and Answers About Liver Cancer and 100 Questions and Answers About Biliary Cancers, two books designed to help educate patients and their loved ones about these cancers — both of which are on the rise in the United States. Abou-Alfa co-authored the latter book with his wife, Eileen O’Reilly, another prominent oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
“The best way to enhance knowledge in a specific cancer, and to that effect, in any disease, is to bring the different disciplines together under one umbrella,” explains Abou-Alfa, who nearly a decade ago spearheaded an international collaborative effort between Memorial Sloan Kettering and his alma mater, the American University of Beirut. Abou-Alfa had long wanted to expand and develop this collaborative model, but since bringing people together requires organizational, leadership, and even financial skills, he realized he needed business training. Memorial Sloan Kettering agreed, and the center sponsored his pursuit of a Columbia MBA degree while he continued his practice and academic research.
And so it was during Abou-Alfa’s final semester at Columbia, around the winter holidays last year, that a woman named Bita Javadizadeh Brun showed up in his office. She and her family had done their research and were convinced he was the doctor she needed.
“We talked to a lot of [experts], and everyone kept coming to Abou-Alfa,” Javadizadeh Brun says. “He is that perfect combination for me of clinician — a scientist who really knows his stuff, with whom I feel very confident — but also a really humane, wonderful person. From day one, his perspective was, ‘You’re a healthy, 43-year-old woman with no other complications [who] has a problem, and we’re going to fix it.’”
The two immediately felt a natural kinship — which was enhanced, Javadizadeh Brun says, by their shared Middle Eastern heritage: she hails from Iran and he from Lebanon. “There was a common cultural connection,” she says. Their bond was only strengthened when they discovered they were fellow Columbia Business School attendees. “It was a nice icing on the cake that we came from the same school,” Abou-Alfa says.
Treatment and a Way Forward
The week after their first meeting, Abou-Alfa put Javadizadeh Brun on a treatment plan of chemotherapy to keep the cancer in check while awaiting the results of genetic testing that could open the door to other treatments. “The more time that I’m responding well to chemotherapy,” Javadizadeh Brun explains, “the more time Dr. Abou-Alfa, his academic colleagues, and the industry have to come up with better curative [options].”
“Patients go to doctors to be treated and healed, but I’ve also forced the conversation of ‘What else can we do?’”
Never one to sit on the sidelines, Javadizadeh Brun wanted to participate however she could in helping to further the research in the field. So she teamed up with Abou-Alfa and the development office at Memorial Sloan Kettering to create her own team for Cycle for Survival, a national movement to beat rare cancers. Cycle for Survival’s indoor cycling events raise money for research and clinical trials. This past March, 56 riders joined Javadizadeh Brun and Abou-Alfa at a Manhattan Equinox sports club to ride, sweat, and cheer one another on. While they had set a fundraising goal of $25,000 for the event, Javadizadeh Brun’s team raised more than $183,000 that day, making them one of the top-performing Cycle for Survival teams nationwide for the 2016 season, not only in dollars but also in number of gifts (more than 600) and in number of riders.
Javadizadeh Brun addresses her teammates during her and Abou-Alfa’s record-breaking Cycle for Survival fundraising event in March.
© Cycle for Survival
Javadizadeh Brun and Abou-Alfa quickly realized that together — with her background in finance, his expertise in medicine, and their combined business education — they could go well beyond this first effort. They envision bringing together specialists of all disciplines to advance the treatment of liver and bile duct cancer. With funds raised, Javadizadeh Brun hopes to help further research, expand clinical trials, facilitate interaction among the participating doctors, and more.
The only requirement for working together, Abou-Alfa told Javadizadeh Brun, is that her treatment and recovery come first. “He said, ‘We’ve got to always keep in mind that we work at your pace, not the other way around,’” Javadizadeh Brun says.
Abou-Alfa says their partnership — and growing friendship — has helped sustain them both during Javadizadeh Brun’s difficult diagnosis and treatment. “This relationship became quite about synergy. There is ... this energy that we each give each other, for me to keep doing what I’m doing towards her care and for her to keep doing what she is doing for her care.”
“I’ve said this is part of my healing regimen,” Javadizadeh Brun adds of their work together. “This terrible diagnosis really put me on a path to say, ‘All right, maybe there is something here I can do not just for myself. How can I use this channel, this positive energy with my doctor, and my visceral need to feel like I must not only survive but thrive to help [further] this spectrum of cancer research?’ Patients go to doctors to be treated and healed, but I’ve also forced the conversation of ‘What else can we do?’”