Erika Hamilton, MD
Director, Breast Cancer & Gynecologic Cancer Research | Sarah Cannon Research Institute
Partner | Tennessee Oncology
"The most influential individuals in my life are those who ignite curiosity and refrain from using the word 'no,'" said Erika Hamilton.
For someone who has spent her life pushing past the norms in a quest for improved cancer outcomes, it's important to be surrounded by 'can do' people. "It is vital to think outside the box and not take the current answer or statistic as the final word," she said of oncology care. "If we just become comfortable with the status quo, we will never advance care or propel new drug therapies forward."
Growing up in Charlotte, N.C., Hamilton said she knew from the age of five that she wanted to be a doctor and was fortunate to have family and teachers who said 'yes' to her interests. "Throughout school, I was lucky to have teachers who allowed me to pursue my curiosity in nontraditional ways - like dissecting frog brains in elementary school when it wasn't on the curriculum or helping me explore my passion for science ... even if that meant taking AP Biology a little ahead of my peers."
After completing her undergraduate studies at Washington and Lee University, Hamilton returned to her home state for medical school, internship and residency at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, followed by a fellowship at Duke University in nearby Durham. While she never wavered about her decision to be a doctor, Hamilton said she originally thought she might work in a pediatric field. "But I quickly realized that I enjoyed working with adults and helping them discover the empowerment that comes from understanding their situation and treatment options and finding a personalized plan that was right for them," she explained.
"When patients find the correct therapy, it's such a joy to watch their progress wildly exceed our expectations," Hamilton continued. "I also love celebrating the important milestones with them, whether that's their children getting married or even starting kindergarten."
Her responsibilities with Sarah Cannon Research Institute and Tennessee Oncology allow Hamilton to enjoy the best of both worlds by taking an active role in research while still engaging directly with patients two days a week. She's most passionate about the intersection of those two roles - clinical trials. "No advance in cancer has been made without a clinical trial," she stated unequivocally.
Hamilton said a misconception persists that clinical trials are for those who are out of options ... that it's a last line of therapy. Instead, she hopes people will think of it as a starting point. "That's something a patient should ask their doctor at diagnosis," she said. "I often tell my patients a clinical trial is a way to access the drugs we may be using five or 10 years from now." She's equally passionate about the Sarah Cannon mission to bring those cutting-edge clinical trials to patients in their own communities. "Patients shouldn't have to hop on a plane to get the latest care," she noted.
Hamilton is deeply appreciative of all who participate in trials without knowing all the answers ahead of time. "The bravery of the patients that come and participate in clinical trials, even with the uncertainty of the outcomes, is inspiring," she said. "It's incredibly special when that bravery is rewarded with clinical success, much like running into the end zone and scoring a touchdown!"
While the pandemic was undeniably disruptive, Hamilton said a silver lining was the increased time she and husband Justin, an Air Force pilot and squadron commander, had to spend with daughters Patten and Ellis, ages seven and four. Whether playing games in the park, backyard scavenger hunts or just doodling with sidewalk chalk in the drive, Hamilton said it was important to remember little things can be big fun. "This year has been a good reminder of the value of finding childhood joy and contentment in life's simplicities," Hamilton noted.
It's a perspective she plans to carry forward in her work. "Every single improvement is one additional stair on the staircase," she pointed out. New drugs, precision medicine, improved tolerance, fewer side effects - Hamilton said each advancement allows physicians to better care for patients and give them more simple moments with friends and family. "If we look back decade to decade, this type of progress is astounding from where we have come. Every step we take brings us closer to improving patients' quantity and quality of life."