Ovarian cancer researcher Dr. Joanie Mayer Hope

Know Your History. Save Your Future.

Alaska surgeon leads fight against ovarian cancer

Sitting in the breakroom of her women’s cancer practice well after hours, and still in scrubs, Dr. Joanie Mayer Hope gets straight to the point. Her father was born in Germany during the Holocaust. Her great grandmother died at Auschwitz. It was one of the most horrific events in history, and it instilled values that stay with her to this day. Chief among them is the desire to make a difference in the world, and be an agent for positive change.

Dr. Hope grew up in Boulder, Colorado in the early ‘70s, living collectively with her large, extended family. Her father was a professor of Sociology and her mother was a social worker. Today, she’s turned “making a difference” into a lifestyle. She is one of only two gynecologic oncologists in Alaska, providing surgical and chemotherapeutic treatment to female cancer patients at her practice, Alaska Women’s Cancer Care, and throughout her local healthcare system. Her latest endeavor, Any Mountain, is a creative research and awareness campaign for ovarian cancer which actually began as a song.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women, deadlier than any other female reproductive cancer. Despite this fact, there are currently no screening tests for early detection. Typically, by the time a woman is diagnosed, her cancer is already in stage III or stage IV. It’s rare but deadly, affecting 1-2% of women, 20% of whom are genetically predisposed. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer has lacks attention and research funding.

Dr. Hope plans to change that. She has gathered a team of six ovarian cancer experts, led by Dr. Elizabeth Swisher from the University of Washington and Dr. Karen Lu from MD Anderson, to research ovarian cancer prevention and early detection. Dr. Hope calls these experts the “Any Mountain Expedition Team.” She has also commissioned a marketing and public relations team to raise awareness about ovarian cancer in a way that encourages women to learn about their family cancer history. This is currently the best way to determine if someone is at an elevated risk for ovarian cancer. 

The battle against this disease feels like climbing amount, she says, but every step we collectively take brings us closer to the top.

Dr. Hope actually never planned to go into medicine. There were no doctors in her family. All she knew was that she wanted to make impactful change in society. She wrestled with the challenge of, “changing the system while striving to succeed within the system.” Her 20s were a season of trial-and-error, trying to find “the thing” that would fit her values and help her create lasting change. Her first step was to attend Stanford to study economics. 

During college, she took a year off and went to San Francisco State University, where she worked as a speechwriter for civil rights activist Angela Davis. It was there she developed an interest in the intersection of racism and healthcare delivery. She learned a lot under Davis’ mentorship, and although she didn’t know it then, it would plant a seed that would one day lead her to medical school. After she graduated from Stanford, she took a job in San Francisco as a private investigator, where she worked with a court appointed attorney serving people who could not afford criminal defense investigation. 

During that time, she went to graduate school for intercultural relations focusing on anti-racism education and awareness efforts in white communities. This was a season of significant personal growth for her, but she still wasn’t doing everything she thought she could to create change.

At the age of 29, she reached a critical turning point in her career, and decided to transition into medicine.  

“Healthcare was a world where every issue I cared deeply about lived,” Dr. Hope says, looking back at her late twenties. “I knew that I could be a change agent within that world. I felt too old, but I decided that if the time I spent in training was quality time, if I was truly living, then it was going to benefit me and it was not too late so long as every day mattered.” So that’s exactly what she decided to do.

She moved to New York City and accomplished all her pre-med studies in one year, earning herself a place in medical school at the State University of New York in Brooklyn. She trained at Kings County Hospital and witnessed incredible emergency medicine work as healthcare providers treated trauma patients affected by inner city violence. She also completed a rotation through Indian Health Services that saw her stationed in Metlakatla, Alaska, where she was exposed to different healthcare issues. For starters, instead of arriving by ambulance, patients came on boats and float planes.

While she was in medical school, she also started the Downstate Team-Building Initiative, a program that trained students to be interdisciplinary and multi-cultural healthcare teams, working together across their differences to deliver better patient care. Once she graduated, she proceeded to the New York University Medical Center for a four-year OBGYN residency. It was there that she fell in love with the sub-specialty of gynecologic oncology, drawn to the combination of surgery, complex medical care, and life-and-death issues involved in cancer treatment. Near the end of her residency, Dr. Hope married her female partner and gave birth to her daughter, Ari Jazz, before she commenced a three-year fellowship in gynecologic oncology.

Dr. Hope is not only a “rock star” healthcare provider, she is also literally a rock musician. Dr. Hope has been interested in music her whole life. She is a skilled vocalist and guitarist who had always dreamed about being a professional musician. “Music inspires people to do many things,” she says. While she was in medical school, she found her muse, and wrote 30 original songs. Then, during her fellowship, she co-founded and became lead singer of the rock band N.E.D. (No Evidence of Disease) comprised of six gynecologic oncologists from around the county who use music to raise awareness of cancers.

The band featured in a 2010 documentary, produced by Spark Media, which tells stories of gynecologic cancers through the eyes of the doctors who treat it. For two years, they followed Dr. Hope, the band, and their patients, to capture their story. The documentary has received multiple awards, international syndication, over 2 million viewers to date. More information is available at the documentary website, nedthemovie.com.

As Dr. Hope completed her fellowship, she began to look for her first job as an attending gynecologic oncologist. Still curious about the way cancer care was delivered in Alaska, she interviewed with the only gynecologic oncologist in Alaska of 10 years. In 2010 she flew up to the Last Frontier, but just two months after she arrived, her colleague left Alaska. She was left alone, as the only gynecologic oncologist in the entire State. 

“It was sink or swim and I decided to swim,” Dr. Hope says. “It was never an option to walk away from this State and these women.” With a newfound commitment to Alaska women, Dr. Hope founded Alaska Women’s Cancer Care. Her goal is to provide cancer care to women regardless of socioeconomic status. “I believe that healthcare is a fundamental human right and should be free or as absolutely affordable for people regardless of what they can pay,” she says. In 2012, Dr. Hope helped to found a non-profit, Let Every Woman Know-Alaska, to support the work she was doing in cancer care.

She left N.E.D in 2019 after 10 years and an incredible creative journey, and she still incorporates music into her medical career. That’s what led her to write the Any Mountain song, which inspired the Any Mountain project. It’s a hip hop track that tells the story of ovarian cancer from a patient’s perspective. After recording the song in New York City in 2017, she raised the funding necessary to turn it into a music video in 2019. She shared the video with her friend and colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Swisher, and together they began to plan how to use the song and video to make a larger impact for the ovarian cancer cause. The Any Mountain campaign was born, the Expedition Team was assembled, and the project launched in 2020.

For Dr. Hope, it all comes back to the lessons her family learnt from surviving the Holocaust, which is to go out and do good in the world. To this day, she continues to overcome the mountains in her life and in the lives of others, relying on the powerful memory of her family history to fuel her future. It formed the tagline of the Any Mountain campaign, because it rings true for all the women she has helped. Know your history. Save your future.

Learn more about ovarian cancer and find out how you can help by joining the climb.