Face to Face: Anna Weiss Strives to Bring "Brightness," Vision to the Breast Cancer Program

Jan. 27, 2023

Rochester is an “irresistible, once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunity,” says Anna Weiss, M.D.

This is a high compliment, coming from an MD Anderson-trained and Harvard University breast cancer surgeon.

She arrived in Rochester this fall to serve as Wilmot Cancer Institute’s new Director of the Breast Cancer Service Line.

What lured her to the University of Rochester Medical Center? Weiss credits a culture of teamwork. She says the vision feels authentic and unified among the top leaders, despite their full plates and different responsibilities.

During many separate interviews, for example, she noticed that Wilmot Director Jonathan Friedberg, M.D., was on the same page as Chair of Surgery David Linehan, M.D., who was on the same page as Jennifer Harvey, M.D., Chair of Imaging, who had the same vision as Department of Medicine Chair Ruth O’Regan, M.D., and Wilmot Associate Director for Community Outreach and Engagement, Paula Cupertino, Ph.D. (Cupertino, Linehan, and O’Regan also serve on Wilmot’s executive committee.)

“Every single person is looking in the same direction — and that is not common,” Weiss says. 

As she settles into western New York and her new role, which also includes Program Leader of Breast Surgery and Director of the Comprehensive Breast Care Center, Weiss took a minute to talk about what she brings to the Wilmot team. 

Following is an edited conversation.

Welcome to Rochester! What are your plans for the breast cancer program?

There’s a few things. First, to take a group that already has really strong pieces and then to finish the puzzle, making it cohesive, if you will, is a really exciting prospect. I think the potential to elevate this group is huge.

On the immediate horizon: We need a program for people with an elevated risk of breast cancer. We already have something in its infancy and I’d like to see this grow. It would involve enhanced screening and providing a detailed look at a woman’s risk of future breast cancer. We have so many extraordinary pieces for this program: Wilmot has one of only seven NIH-NCORP cancer prevention and control grants in the country, and has a certified genetics team. We just need to make sure women know it’s available. One of our breast surgeons, Jessica Gooch, also has a particular interest in risk and prevention research, and my goal is to engage her to help strengthen this area. And the chair of Imaging, Dr. Jennifer Harvey, has focused her career on breast density and how it relates to the risk of future breast cancer.

My other immediate plan is to solidify our survivorship program, while also making sure that our providers have a bit more space for newer patients, as well.

Another area where we can really distinguish ourselves is in clinical trials. For example, there is an interesting national clinical trial looking at the safety of omitting or reducing radiation for low-risk, early-stage breast cancer patients. At an academic medical center, we can offer more of that type of clinical research than community hospitals.

And finally, when I spoke to Paula Cupertino we talked about getting out into the community more often. I told her, absolutely, I’ll come to weekend events! There are plans for a ‘mammo van,’ (a mobile unit that provides imaging services) — and I know that everyone is feeling the same way and wants the same things in terms of community outreach. 

During the past few months, I’ve been meeting with community leaders and Wilmot’s partner organizations that are focused on breast cancer. They have provided a lot of insight and have been so welcoming.

You mentioned the importance of clinical research. What are your thoughts about finding that sweet spot of treatment for each woman and each subtype of breast cancer?

My guiding principle is shared decision-making and coming up with the right plan for each patient. I like to call it ‘right-sized therapy.’ Or personalized therapy. It’s about figuring out exactly which patients are less or more at risk of the cancer returning, and giving them the correct amount of therapy to treat those risks
based on the latest research.

This approach is especially important as the population ages. (Wilmot has a nationally recognized clinic for caring for older adults with cancer. Weiss says she’s excited to connect with this group of providers, particularly Allison Magnuson, D.O., who is enrolled with Weiss in the highly selective American Society of Clinical Oncology leadership development program this year.)  

I’ve worked with patient advocates for a long time in the development of institutional clinical trials at Dana-Farber. They’re often breast cancer survivors. They’re brilliant and I’m consistently floored by how savvy they are in trial design. They are involved from day one. We always try to get a balanced assessment of what their reactions are to the trials and what is important to them. Are we doing enough for aggressive cancers? But also keeping in mind the side effects of treatment.

Sometimes, as scientists and surgeons and doctors, we get a little bit narrow, like having laser vision for a problem, and we can forget the whole picture. So, it’s good to have reminders from people who care. I think we have a really big opportunity for more community outreach and input.

Where do we stand with breast cancer today? What does the future look like?

You know, breast cancer is not a death sentence any more for most people. Many women are going to live for decades and decades.

I would say our biggest, exciting frontier right now is new systemic therapies and new targeted therapies. This is probably true for all types of cancers, but in breast cancer it’s about being able to analyze the tumor for receptors and then tailoring therapy appropriately. Sometimes you can even target a tumor with a very small amount of receptor, such as having a low level of the HER2 protein. It’s just a really exciting time.

There are so many clinical trials happening that advance care all across the U.S. and we are part of it here at Wilmot. They are developing and discovering new drugs all the time. We’re also working on right-sizing breast cancer surgery to decrease side effects.

We have some very heavy hitters here at Wilmot — like Ruth O’Regan, M.D., and Carla Falkson, M.D. — and my job is to improve the infrastructure so that all of our talents can shine.

Overall, I’d say the future is about the combined improvements in medicine, surgery, shorter courses of radiation, and many exciting clinical trials.

Why did you choose to specialize in breast cancer? 

When I was a surgery resident, I just loved cancer surgery. The interactions with the team — the surgeon, the medical oncologist, the radiation oncologist, the imaging specialists — it was always exciting. The plans were well thought-out and well-executed. I felt that I could continue my life-long learning in this space where the quality of research is really high.

Also, some of my attending physicians in surgery were just the best teachers. In medicine, we call it the triple threat — surgery, research, teaching — and I want to contribute in that way. 

You are a Syracuse native, which is part of the reason for coming back to upstate New York. What else can you tell us about yourself? 

Oh, people ask me: ‘What is your hobby?’ and I say, ‘Does writing clinical research papers count?’ (She laughs) Actually, I have two amazing dogs and I have awesome parents who live in Syracuse and I’m very close to them. We all like to get outside and walk nature trails, which central New York has in abundance. 

I’m very close with my extended family that also lives in upstate New York. They have a dairy farm and I’ve spent my entire life visiting the farm. I’ll go and have dinner and my cousins, who’re all women, will go out and round up the calves. As a kid, I also spent every Christmas at my brother’s godparent’s house in Henrietta.

During my time in Boston, I think I learned that I’m not a big-city person. So far, Rochester offers amazing dining and attractions, but is so easy to live in. 

When I bought my house in Fairport and did the walk-through at closing, people in the neighborhood started to come out of their houses to welcome me. They were all so nice!

At Wilmot, I want people to know that they can come and talk to me. Ask me questions. If you have ideas, just approach and tell me. Sometimes, people are surprised to learn I’m a surgeon because I don’t match the stereotype that some people have about my profession. I like that about myself. 

I’m hoping to bring that flavor of happiness and brightness and cheeriness to the group.