Celebrated Physician: Sarika Rao, DO

When helping patients tackle the challenges of endocrine cancer, Sarika Rao, DO, believes that trust is often the most important element of any treatment strategy.

“These are lifelong, complex diseases that typically require many visits, so it’s important that we bridge a connection early,” explains Dr. Rao, an attending physician in Endocrinology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center and assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She adds that her love of travel is frequently the key to establishing and building those all-important relationships. “I’ve been fortunate to visit many parts of the world with my family, and they’re often places where my patients are from or have visited as well.”

Why Endocrine Cancer?

The Jacksonville, Fla., native’s interest in the highly specialized field of Oncologic Endocrinology began with her childhood fascination with how the body’s many systems interact. After medical school at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, she completed a residency in internal medicine at the University of Massachusetts, and stayed for a fellowship with the school’s Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes.

Dr. Rao went on to earn the sole annual Oncologic Endocrinology fellowship at the University of Texas’ prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center. There, she focused on the treatment of conditions such as advanced thyroid and adrenal cancers, as well as endocrinopathies that arise from other cancers or chemotherapy.

Dr. Rao’s Work in D.C.

Attracted to the Washington area by the opportunity to work with a large, diverse population, Dr. Rao is also part of the Institutional Review Board for Oncology, as well as the immunotherapy working interest group at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

“Immunotherapy has proven successful in several types of cancers, but it’s a relatively new approach for endocrine tumors,” she says. “We’re also learning more about genetic influences in different types of endocrine cancers, why certain tumors become more aggressive and what drugs can target specific malignancies.”

Language of Care: Establishing Meaningful Patient Connections

Grasping such highly technical information may be a formidable task for patients and families, especially as they cope with the emotional challenges of a cancer diagnosis. That’s where the sharing of travel tales and other trust-building skills come in.

“Knowledge really is power,” Dr. Rao says. “If I can help them understand their disease and what to expect, my patients definitely feel more at ease moving forward.”

And what new destinations would Dr. Rao like to share with her patients? “I’d like to visit South Africa and Botswana, and go on a safari,” she says. “Antarctica also sounds so exotic, though I’d probably have to prepare myself for the rocky sea voyage!”

Thyroid Surgery: Better Care for Better Looking Results

For those who fear or face cancer of the thyroid—the tiny gland in the front of the throat that regulates the body’s hormones—medical specialists have an important message: Take heart.

“Only about 10 percent of the lumps or nodules detected in the thyroid area turn out to be cancer,” says Jennifer Rosen, MD, FACS, chief of Endocrine Surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “And even when advanced at the time of discovery, thyroid cancer is very treatable and often curable.”

While the numbers affected by the disease has tripled over the past three decades, that’s largely due to refinements in diagnostic technology. In fact, symptoms of thyroid cancer are few and far between, with such vague complaints as trouble swallowing, a change in voice or a lump or swelling in the neck. Risk factors are rare as well, consisting of a family history of the disease or exposure to high levels of radiation. Women are also much more likely to be affected than men.

As a result, most people have no idea they even have a problem until their doctor notices a nodule during a routine check-up, or an x-ray uncovers something suspicious.

“To help with diagnosis, we use advanced, state-of-the-art ultrasound to detect tiny thyroid nodules, many of which escaped notice by yesterday’s less sensitive technology,” Dr. Rosen says. “Depending on the size of the tumor, we may then proceed with an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy, a sophisticated procedure that requires a depth of expertise and experience for the best results.”

And if cancer is the answer, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ treatment, with different options depending upon the size of the tumor and whether lymph nodes are involved. Some form of surgery typically produces the best therapeutic result. But how it is performed and by whom can make a huge difference in cosmetic outcome. 

“We do everything possible to prevent scarring,” explains Dr. Rosen. “That includes using minimally invasive surgical techniques, making incisions low in the neck using ‘melt away’ sutures and a special skin glue. Of course, it also helps that, as thyroid specialists, we’re very comfortable working with the delicate skin on that part of the body.”

After thyroid cancer surgery, most patients return almost immediately to their regular lives.

“While all patients will need lifelong medication and monitoring,” concludes Dr. Rosen, “they can still expect to live a good, long life after cancer.”

Tune in to the full podcast interview with Dr. Rosen.