By Sara Bondell - January 19, 2021
By day, Patrick Hwu, MD, works to cure cancer. By night, he wears sunglasses and jams on his keyboard. He is a member of The CheckPoints, a band comprised of cancer researchers and physicians from across the country. It’s named for a type of immunotherapy treatment that removes immune cells’ brakes — or checkpoints — and enables them to attack cancer.
Hwu and his mates have a regular gig: They’re the house band for the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer and play to hundreds of their colleagues at two scientific conferences a year.
“We have a bunch of nerdy immunology friends that get together and they dance until it’s after midnight,” said Hwu. “It’s a ton of fun.”
Fun isn’t a word often associated with cancer care, but there is surprisingly more in common between the disease and a rock ’n’ roll band than meets the eye. While science is left-brain oriented, music stimulates the creativity-focused right side. Together, they make the perfect pair; Hwu often uses his creative side to answer research questions.
Working at a cancer center is also a band of sorts, and Hwu is excited to take the lead in the Moffitt Cancer Center band of clinicians, researchers, team members and patients.
“Being in a band is learning to work together, listen to each other and work as a team, so it’s very much like that with science and medicine,” said Hwu. “We have to work as a team. We have to really listen to each other and make space for each other, and then move together.”
Compassion and Work Ethic
Hwu’s parents, Mark and Margaret, grew up in different regions of China: Margaret south of Beijing and Mark near Hong Kong. After immigrating to the U.S., the pair met in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Margaret taught chemistry at a nursing school and Mark earned his doctorate in chemical engineering.
They raised Hwu and his three sisters in St. Albans, West Virginia, a small town with about 13,000 people. Both successful in their fields, Hwu’s parents taught their children not only the importance of science and research, but also compassion and work ethic. Both began their careers in a new country with few resources. Mark washed dishes to make ends meet. When the couple became U.S. citizens, the story made the St. Albans newspaper.
“That shaped the importance of a work ethic to get where you want to go and to be goal-oriented,” said Hwu. “They always encouraged education and to be appreciative of being part of this country. They had to earn that, earn their citizenship, and it always stuck with me.”
Music also stuck with Hwu from a young age. After his father, who didn’t play himself, tried to teach his son to play piano using a how to book, Hwu began formal lessons in the third grade. As he got older, he gravitated from classical music torock, which inspired a love of rock ’n’ roll. It wasn’t long before he learned to play Styx’s “Come Sail Away.”
He played the trumpet in high school and took his first trip to Tampa in 1981, when he played with the St. Albans Red Dragon Band in the Gasparilla Parade. He had no idea he would return to Bayshore Boulevard almost four decades later as the CEO of Moffitt.
But Hwu already knew he would become an oncologist. His first experience with cancer came when a teacher and classmate were both diagnosed with leukemia. iHis
St. Albans didn’t have a hospital that could offer treatment, so both had to travel to the National Cancer Institute in Maryland. And later in life, both of his parents would become cancer survivors — Margaret with breast cancer and Mark with prostate cancer.
“I saw people around me getting cancer and really not a lot of places to treat the disease,” said Hwu. “I saw there were a lot of new therapies that were needed. Very early on in my life, I saw cancer clearly as a problem I wanted to tackle.”
Hwu’s passion led him into an accelerated undergraduate-to-medical school program where he developed an interest in immunotherapy. He eventually walked through the same doors his teacher and classmate once did — at the National Cancer Institute for his medical oncology fellowship.
Though his academic journey was demanding, music was never too far away. Each step of his career came with a new opportunity to play in a band. As an intern, he was in a band called Move the Cat; in residency, he played in As Is. When he arrived at the National Cancer Institute, he helped form the band Protocol Violation, a name with a cheeky nod to clinical trials.
“A violation isn’t something you are supposed to do on protocols, but it was one of those rebellious rock ’n’ roll names,” joked Hwu.
Hwu kept the protocol violations to his music and pushed forward with his immunology work alongside the best and brightest during the infancy of the field.
In a rock band, the musician on the keyboard plays the underlying chords of the music, creating the structure of the song and listening closely to the other instruments and the singer who sings the melody. Hwu’s ear for music taught him the importance of good listening skills in medicine.
“If you don’t listen to the nurses, you are in big trouble,” said Hwu. “That’s how I got through my residency, listening to them. And I actually married one of them, so I am still listening to nurses every day.”
Hwu and his wife, Katie, have two adult daughters, Emily and Ally, and a 14-year-old bichon frise named Maisy, who was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma four years ago. Maisy received a melanoma vaccine approved for pets that was designed by the tuba player in The CheckPoints. Today, she is cancer free.
Quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought Hwu and his family closer than ever. Hwu built a dance floor inside their Houston home for Ally, a dance major who needed somewhere to practice while away from her college campus. In return, his daughters taught him the ways of Generation Z college students and “addicted” their dad to food delivery apps. They also introduced him to the social media video app TikTok. With the goal of getting 100,000 views, Ally asked her parents to join in.
In one video, Hwu participates in a sibling challenge, answering questions about his daughters. In another, he and the family are wearing bath robes and sunglasses dancing to a song from “Mamma Mia!”
“I thought, who’s ever going to see this? So I might as well do it,” said Hwu.
One family video has racked up over a million views.
Hwu doesn’t let his viral video fame go to his head. Instead, it’s taught him the power of social media and inspired ideas to harness the platforms to promote Moffitt and cancer research. And as for the videos, they are minutelong snippets that capture a monthslong quarantine, memories the Hwu family, under ordinary circumstances, wouldn’t have documented. While the idea of quarantining surrounded by women may scare some men, it’s something Hwu cherishes. He’s used to it, after all, growing up in a home with sisters.
“I learned that if you listen to the women around you, you’ll be guided well and your life will be fine,” said Hwu. “That’s been a principle that’s worked for me my whole life.”
Taking the Band on the Road
While Hwu has had an impressive career so far, the opportunity to lead Moffitt is one of his most exciting challenges, and he is ready to embrace all Moffitt and Tampa have to offer. Swapping landlocked Texas for the Sunshine State, he is looking forward to waking up every morning by the water and has plans to try his hand at paddleboarding. He is a National Football League fan and will now be cheering on Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
And of course, his keyboard is coming with him. Once he finds a drummer, bass player and a few others, can a Moffitt house band be far behind?
All that’s missing is a catchy name.