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Maira Campos Brings Hope to Cancer Patients

Meet Sansum Clinic’s New Medical Hematologist/Oncologist Joining the Breast Cancer Research Team at Ridley Tree Cancer Center 

A cancer diagnosis usually provokes a wide range of emotions in patients, including anger, fear, anxiety and grief. But there is also reason for hope. While it is true that cancer is still one of the leading causes of death in the United States, many cancers are now curable or controllable. Survival rates continue to improve thanks to advances in detection, treatment and management. Developments have also enabled oncologists to provide care that is more personalized.

Oncologists are physicians who specialize in diagnosing and treating cancer. These specialists stay up to date about new research and findings so they can help people navigate treatment options, showing compassion and care to their patients and patients’ families. Maira Campos, MD, MPH treats patients with all types of cancer, with a special interest in breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers. She joins Ridley-Tree Cancer Center at Sansum Clinic from the St. Charles Cancer Center in Bend, Oregon.

Dr. Campos completed medical school in Brazil, where she was born and raised. “I was the first person from my family to have access to that kind of education,” she says. “My parents are to be thanked for being examples of selfless dedication to their children’s education. They worked, and our main job was to study and do our best.”

She is grateful to have been given opportunities, including to engage in clinical trials during her second year of medical school. “It was fascinating,” Dr. Campos says. “We were running our own clinical trials under the mentorship of Dr. Auro del Giglio and his team. Having an inspirational, compassionate mentor can really define who you are as a professional in medicine. The results of our trials were published in international journals while we were still medical students, and that inspired us all to do better. It helped us see that we can have an impact in the world with the resources that we are given.”

In her fourth year of medical school, Campos was invited to present one of her papers at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting in Chicago. ASCO is a professional organization representing physicians of all oncology subspecialties who care for people with cancer. “I did an oral presentation at ASCO,” she continues. “For a foreigner, that was a big deal. The opportunities I had during that time defined my career. I am so thankful to my colleagues and mentors in Brazil.”

Her experience presenting at ASCO motivated her to uproot from her native homeland. “I wanted to be in a place where I would have access to the top treatments, training and research,” she says. At age 24, she sold her car and moved to the United States to complete an observership at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. She held a research position for a year and a half at the University of Miami. “I was required to take steps to validate my diploma,” Dr. Campos continues. “I published papers and presented my work.” One of those publications led to an opportunity for an oral presentation in Paris for an audience of 4,000 medical professionals and students. 

During her residency at University of Miami - Jackson Memorial Hospital, Campos volunteered her time and medical expertise to help victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The mission was part of Project Medishare for Haiti, founded by Dr. Barth Green and Dr. Arthur Fournier from University of Miami School of Medicine. “We provided care for as many as fifty patients per day in ten-hour shifts,” Dr. Campos shares. “The UN was delivering food by helicopter. It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in my life.” 

Her volunteer work in Haiti was a continuation of a personal practice of charity and compassion. For ten years, from high school to the end of medical school, she volunteered to help people in poor local communities. “I would call companies and ask them to donate medications that were desperately needed by people living in the shantytowns of São Paulo,” she says. “We distributed medicine, did cancer screenings and gave free talks in the community to educate people about cancer prevention. It was my first experience working with patients, and it revealed to me that you become family with patients as an oncologist.”

Dr. Campos now joins the Breast Cancer Research team at Ridley-Tree Cancer Center. She has a passion for women’s health and intends to leverage her expertise in that field to expand clinical trials and capabilities in Santa Barbara County so patients have less need to travel outside the area to receive care.

Dr. Campos is a hematologist and oncologist. Hematology is the study of blood and its diseases. Oncology is the study of cancer. The fields overlap due to the presence of cancers in the blood. Three cancers affect the blood: leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. “In hematology, I see everything from iron-deficiency anemia to leukemia,” Dr. Campos shares. “The most common forms of cancer I see are breast cancer, colon cancer and skin cancer. We also see lung cancer cases, which is a very difficult disease. But it has become more treatable for some patients with certain markers in their tumors.”

She says approximately sixty percent of her cases involve breast cancer. She emphasizes the importance of getting an annual mammogram, which is the main form of detection for early-stage breast cancer. Patients who have an abnormal mammogram are referred to Ridley-Tree Cancer Center by their primary physicians. 

Dr. Campos says cancer patients who are referred to Sansum Clinic oncologists benefit from a team approach from the very beginning of their care. “Patients meet their surgeon, oncologist and radiation specialist at the outset of treatment and get an overview of the plan for their care and treatment,” she explains. “Working as a multidisciplinary team from the beginning of a patient’s case, we are able to provide better communication and better care.”

The team undertakes weekly conferences where all cases are discussed among the specialists. They have conversations with patients about treatment options and therapies. Those can include surgery to remove the cancer, radiation treatment and chemotherapy. In some cases, patients are good candidates for new treatment options including immunotherapy. In discussions, doctors learn about patients’ genetic risk factors and family history of cancer. Those factors can influence what kinds of therapies will be offered.

Advances in Diagnostics and Treatment of Cancer

The field of oncology has recently benefitted from advances and innovations that improve diagnostics and treatment of cancer. One such development is a diagnostic procedure for early-stage breast cancer called Oncotype DX, which assesses gene expressions of known cancer-related genes to predict how likely breast cancer is to recur after treatment. This guides decisions about treatment and helps doctors determine whether a patient would get added benefit from chemotherapy or anti hormonal therapy as part of their treatment plan. 

“The Oncotype DX test provides information that can lead to more personalized treatment,” Dr. Campos explains. “It can help reduce the number of patients exposed to chemotherapy, which can have side effects. It provides us with a better understanding of breast cancer so we may provide less aggressive treatment or therapy for patients who would truly benefit from it.”

Patients with certain types of cancer may benefit from a new procedure called immunotherapy, also known as immuno-oncology. Immunotherapy stimulates the immune system to improve its natural ability to fight cancer. This can be used in a number of cancers that have specific markers for it. The side effect profile can allow for better tolerability and easier delivery. 

“Immunotherapy is now being provided up-front in some cancers and has significantly changed the treatment of some of the most aggressive types of disease,” Dr. Campos says. Clinical success is highly variable among different forms of cancer. Immunotherapy can be provided alone or in combination with other types of cancer treatments.

Many oncologists feel immunotherapy is one of the most promising new cancer treatments since the first chemotherapies were developed in the 1940s. Chemotherapy is a treatment with drugs that kill cancer cells directly. It can be used alone or in combination with surgery, radiation or immunotherapy. But because chemotherapy attacks all rapidly dividing cells within the body, which may include both cancerous and non-cancerous cells, it can cause side effects such as hair loss and nausea. Dr. Campos says these side effects can be controlled with new drugs, but adds that chemotherapy is not a very targeted therapy.

“Moving forward, treatments such as immunotherapy enable us to provide cancer treatments that are more personalized for each tumor type and its characteristics instead of a one-size-fits-all approach such as chemotherapy,” Dr. Campos explains. “It’s an avid field of research now. Cancers of the bladder, lungs and colon that did not previously have highly-effective options for therapy have seen developments in the last years. It is very exciting to see cases that were typically difficult to treat now benefitting from this opportunity. We can evaluate the genetics of the tumor itself by sequencing the tumor tissue. This helps us understand if that cancer will be likely to respond to certain types of therapy so we can provide personalized cancer care.” 

Targeted therapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to target specific genes and proteins that are involved in the growth and survival of cancer cells. To develop targeted therapies, researchers first identify the genetic changes that enable a tumor to grow and change. “A potential target for this therapy would be a protein that is present in cancer cells but not healthy cells,” Dr. Campos explains. “This can be caused by a mutation. Once researchers have identified a mutation, they develop a treatment that targets that specific mutation. This enables us to provide cancer treatments that are more targeted and personalized.” 

Cancer Causes and Prevention

Why do people get cancer? According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is caused by changes to genes that alter the way cells function. Some of these genetic changes occur when DNA is replicated during the process of cell division. Others are the result of environmental exposures that damage DNA. 

“We have a lot of information about causes for different tumors,” Dr. Campos says. “There is not one answer to the question of why people get cancer, but for each type of tumor there is a set of known risks. Tobacco, alcohol and obesity are common causes, as are radiation and exposure to cancer-causing substances called carcinogens.”

Some risk factors such as tobacco smoke and the sun’s rays can be avoided. Others are harder to evade. Carcinogens may occur in air, water, food and job-related materials. Many factors influence whether exposure to a carcinogen will cause cancer in an individual, including the amount and duration of exposure and the individual’s genetic background. 

“During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increased need to focus within and stay healthy,” Dr. Campos says. “In a broad sense, that can mean watching your diet, exercise and stress levels. We all need to take a step back, breathe deeply and find time ourselves. More specifically, we can avoid exposure to things that are known to be high risk for cancer. We should also continue with our health screening tests such as mammograms during these hard times. It is always better to have preventative care and early detection for cancer, rather than a diagnosis later.” 

She describes some of the most common cancer risks. “Smoking tobacco increases your risk factor for developing lung cancer by ten to twenty-fold. There is a significant reduction with cessation. Decreased physical activity is associated with increased risk of cancer, so it is important to avoid being sedentary. Radiation from the sun is the primary cause of melanoma because lifetime exposure to UV radiation can cause genetic mutations. That’s a big factor in Santa Barbara and coastal California where people like to go to the beach or pool and get a suntan. Sun exposure before 10:00 AM and after 4:00 PM is healthier. And people should wear sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher.”

Walking the Path With Patients

Survival rates for cancer patients vary by types of cancer. “In some areas, we have made enormous developments in the last five years,” Dr. Campos reveals. “For example, lung cancer was once thought to have a very dismal survival rate when it spreads to other organs. Nowadays advances in immunotherapy have changed the course of the disease worldwide. The survival rate has improved significantly despite still being an aggressive disease. Our patients are allowed to spend more time with their loved ones while experiencing fewer side effects from therapy.”

Dr. Campos is happy that she and her team can now offer more hope. “Newly-diagnosed patients sometimes come to the cancer center very fearful and crying,” she says. “It’s such a life-changing event. Thankfully advances in medical science enable us to walk the path with our patients to allow them to enjoy a quality of life and increased survival rates. No matter what stage of cancer a patient has, when they walk through the door of our cancer center they can feel that they have a family here and are part of a team that they can relate to. Cancer patients go through so much emotional distress and financial burden. It requires a lot of bravery and courage. Part of our care involves supporting the mental health aspects with patients. That entails things like open communication. 

Fluency in Spanish and Portuguese helps Dr. Campos relate directly with many of her patients for whom English is not their native language. Santa Barbara County is 47 percent Hispanic or Latino. “I chose Santa Barbara as a place to live, work and raise my children because it is a diverse environment where people come from multiple places and can have access to good quality healthcare,” she shares. “Oncology often involves difficult and complex discussions that are hard to accomplish through a translator. Cultural nuance can be lost. No matter what background people come from, they should have access to medical care and be treated with respect. They shouldn’t have to pretend they speak English. My ability to communicate with Hispanic and Latino patients in their native language helps them feel loved and cared for. They are treated with dignity here."

“We have an extensive team that allows us to provide excellent oncology care while taking into consideration that all people deserve the best cancer care no matter their circumstances or financial resources,” she continues. “From the primary care doctors working hard on prevention, to our specialty care, I am always very impressed with the high quality of care and focus on creating a healthier community.”

Dr. Campos says patients often have personal challenges and emotional barriers to medical care. “Along with medical treatments and procedures, there is an important aspect of care that involves guidance,” she says. “We are here to give good medical advice and to work with patients to build an understanding of what makes sense for that person’s life. It is gratifying to be able to walk this path where we are addressing the whole person. Oncology and hematology allow us to do that. We bring people to an understanding that they must pay attention to their body. They need an open door and time to talk about their life, not rushed through a fifteen-minute office visit. As a doctor, you can never lose track of the fact that you have a human being in front of you. I entered this profession because I love helping people feel better physically and emotionally. That’s why I love what I do.”

Maira Campos, MD, MPH completed her hematology-oncology fellowship at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and her internal medicine residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital at the University of Miami. She attended medical school and received her master’s degree in public health at ABC Foundation School of Medicine in São Paulo, Brazil.

Dr. Campos lives in Santa Barbara with her husband and two children. She and her family volunteer their spare time delivering free meals to community members in need. She enjoys hiking and has a passion for rare plants. 

Sansum Clinic Medical Oncology Department delivers chemotherapy, biologic therapies, immunotherapy and supportive treatments for cancer patients.

Ridley-Tree Cancer Center 
540 W. Pueblo Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93105 
Phone: (805) 879-0670