University of California San Francisco

Artist’s Heart Guides Treatment Plans

Mack Roach III

As an artistically inclined child growing up in 1960s San Francisco, Mack Roach III anticipated a life of drawing and painting. “At heart I’m an artist,” he says. But he was also fascinated by what he calls the “magic of physics.”

Armed with his father’s advice — “Whatever you do, be the best,” he always said – Roach headed to Morehouse College in Atlanta to study physics. His career path ultimately returned him to his hometown, as a radiation oncologist at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Radiation oncology gives me an opportunity to be an artistic physicist,” says Roach, 58. “I use physics and computers to draw pictures, to create dose distributions in three dimensions that can reduce the risk of complications in the people we treat and that can increase their chances of survival.”

Roach is a professor of radiation oncology and urology, and chair of the Diller Center’s radiation department. He is an internationally recognized expert on using radiation to treat and manage prostate cancer.

The switch from physics to medicine began when he was on a summer program as an undergraduate, working at Stanford University’s linear accelerator. His uncle asked him about his work and he had a hard time giving a simple explanation.

That led the budding physicist to consider a more down-to-earth career studying medicine at Stanford. Later, during a medical rotation at Stanford Hospital, a chance meeting with a family friend who was gravely ill with cancer inspired Roach to specialize in cancer medicine.

Sadly, the friend did not survive advanced kidney cancer, and Roach took it to heart. “I felt I had let this man down,” Roach says. “So I decided I was going to fight cancer.”

After finishing medical school, Roach served a fellowship in medical oncology at UCSF. He learned how to use chemotherapy and discovered the importance of radiation as a therapeutic tool.

A few years later, when Roach returned to Stanford for a residency in radiation oncology, his first radiation oncology mentor was Malcolm Bagshaw, a top prostate cancer expert.

Studying with Bagshaw motivated Roach to specialize in the study and treatment of prostate cancer. He also wanted to help eliminate health disparities that make African-American men twice as likely to get prostate cancer as men of other ethnicities.

“It’s a war between us and cancer,” Roach says. “But along the way I’ve found that I like cancer patients better than other kinds of patients. People with cancer can reach another level of consciousness because they have cancer. The relationships you can build with them are totally different than those you can have with people who don’t have anything wrong with them.”

Roach finds working with cancer patients inspiring, not depressing. “Cancer patients teach you that the human spirit overcomes all,” he says.

But what really broadens Roach’s smile is leading the radiation oncology team at UCSF’s Diller Center. “It’s one of the best places on planet Earth to be treated for cancer,” he says.

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