SAN DIEGO — Election day 2016 was also the birthday of gynecologic oncologist Shannon Westin, MD, MPH, in which she celebrated with her husband, medical oncologist and hematologist Jason R. Westin, MD, with a bottle of champagne. When they learned of Donald Trump’s victory, they opened their liquor cabinet.
So, quipped Jason Westin, 41, speaking here last week at the recent American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting.
Westin leads the diffuse large B-cell lymphoma research team at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he designs and conducts lymphoma clinical trials. He believes that clinical research is the best weapon to fight cancer.
Trump’s election, he said, helped him make the pivotal decision to run for Congress this year in Texas’s 7th District. Success would mean giving up a profession he loved, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make.
His talk here focused on why physicians and scientists should become involved in advocacy and the political process.
Westin told MedPage Today that it took about a week following the election to decide to look into how he could actively make an impactful difference to help counter the anti-science sentiment he saw brewing in Washington.
“The decision was made in stages, not during some ‘aha’ moment,” he said. “It wasn’t clear what I could do, so I started exploring different opportunities.” He noted that many people don’t know who represents them in Congress, and in many districts a candidate runs unopposed.
But that was not the case in the 7th District, which takes in the large Texas Medical Center complex where MD Anderson is located, in Houston. The congressional district had shifted over the decades between Democratic and Republican influence; Hillary Clinton outpolled Trump there in 2016.
But incumbent Rep. John Culberson won a ninth term in 2016. Culberson currently chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. He had opposed the Affordable Care Act, rejected the scientific consensus on climate change, and in general held views very much in line with Trump’s.
Still, the district seemed flippable. About a month after the 2016 election, Westin read online about a group called 314 Action, described on its website as “members of the STEM Community, grassroots supporters and political activists committed to bring innovation to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education, aggressively advocate for real solutions to Climate Change and elect more STEM trained candidates to public office.”
Westin was intrigued by its pitch “to help bring science, fact, and reason back to government,” and a day or two after responding online, he received a phone call to discuss potential political opportunities.
The group’s numerical designation stood for the first three digits of π, he explained, and it had an experienced team of politicos who knew what it took to run a campaign.
Except, he said in reflection, how to better organize fundraising for researchers who may not have the resources of more-seasoned politicians.
“It was an evolutionary process getting to the point of deciding to run in the March 2018 primary, and I faced six other Democratic opponents.”
During his talk at ASH, however, he didn’t mention his party affiliation. He told MedPage Today later that he didn’t want to be labeled — the message he wanted to convey was nonpartisan, that clinicians and scientists should become more politically active.
Out of the field of seven, Westin placed third, and was therefore ineligible for the May runoff won by attorney Lizzie Fletcher, also a political neophyte, who went on to beat Culberson in the November general election.
However, not only had he been endorsed by the Houston Chronicle, but following his defeat the paper wrote an encouraging second editorial urging him to run again for future office.
And his campaign was boosted when Mark Hamill, the “Star Wars” actor who played Luke Skywalker, came across Westin’s YouTube campaign video and tweeted: “Here’s hoping Texas sends @DrWestinForTX07, a valiant, fact-wielding fighter to battle the science-denying Neanderthals in Congress. Making #ClimateChange political is a peril our planet can’t withstand. WATCH THIS VIDEO! #MayTheFactsBeWithYouALL.”
Hamill’s support was a pleasant surprise but it couldn’t help Westin surmount the challenges of fundraising.
On the other hand, Westin’s loss was also his patients’ win because so many of them were concerned they might lose their oncologist to Washington.
During the six months of his campaign Westin had to forgo much of his research and patient care at MD Anderson, reducing his practice to one day a week to see the patients on his clinical trials.
Giving up oncology would have been a difficult decision but he said that if elected he would hope to have made an even greater impact than as an academic oncologist.
When asked about another run for office, Westin said “maybe,” depending on the future political climate and political opportunities. But, he also mentioned the tremendous toll the campaign took on his wife and three young children as well as having to sacrifice his oncology career.
“My patients were concerned they might lose me as their physician, and a number of them were interested in joining my campaign. But I would tell them, let’s focus on why you’re in clinic today, and if you want to get involved then please sign up through my website.”
Westin is glad that he made the choice to follow his convictions to help bring science and reason to the floors of Congress. He’s fond of the saying, “If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.”
And his time at ASH was not solely devoted to relating his political saga.
He was a co-author on a number of posters dealing with aggressive lymphoma, as well as on the Dec. 1 New England Journal of Medicine paper reporting updated results from the JULIET trial of CAR T-cell therapy, simultaneously presented at ASH.