Dr. Philip J. Di Saia wrote the book on women’s cancer. Literally.
The author of the seminal 1975 work Clinical Gynecologic Oncology, the first textbook for practicing gynecologists on how to diagnose and treat cervical, vaginal and other gynecologic cancers, Di Saia has spent the past 30 years helping UCI become a leader in women’s cancer.
“I’ve always wanted to make a difference, and saving lives has certainly made me feel like I have,” says Di Saia, who holds the endowed Dorothy Marsh Chair in Reproductive Biology.
As director of the UC Irvine School of Medicine’s gynecologic oncology division, Di Saia has assembled a distinguished team of specialists that has conducted clinical trials on promising cervical and ovarian cancer drugs and developed less invasive surgical procedures. Partly because of the contributions of his group, UC Irvine Medical Center garnered recognition by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s 50 best hospitals for gynecology services in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
In the lab, Di Saia’s discoveries have dramatically improved patient care. In the 1990s, he found that estrogen replacement therapy could treat menopausal symptoms in women who have had ovarian or breast cancer without reactivating the disease. A decade earlier, he discovered that modified surgery on women with early invasive vulva cancer could excise the cancer without having to remove the clitoris and other sexually sensitive areas.
“Dr. Di Saia saved my life,” says Vickie Thornell, a survivor of stage 4 cancer of the endometrium whose care Di Saia oversaw at UC Irvine Medical Center. “Every time I see him, I give him a big hug.”
In recognition of Di Saia’s career achievements, UCI awarded him the Medal, the university’s highest honor, in 2003.
“Dr. Di Saia helped put UCI on the map for women’s cancer and women’s care,” says Dr. Gautam Chaudhuri, executive chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “Now, UCI is among the best.”
Born in Providence, R.I., Di Saia attended nearby Brown University. He initially planned to become an engineer but later switched to pre-med, “which pleased my mother,” Di Saia says, with a laugh.
After graduating from Brown, he earned his medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine. Di Saia later interned and did his residency at Yale University. In 1977, he came to UCI to head the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The excitement surrounding the cutting-edge cancer research taking place at UCI is one reason why Di Saia has stayed here for so long.
“The cancer program has blossomed into something special,” he says, “but the future is even brighter.”