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Meet Maria E. Nelson, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Surgery

Keck Medicine of USC is the University of Southern California’s medical enterprise, one of only two university-owned academic medical centers in the Los Angeles area.

Meet Maria E. Nelson, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Surgery

Nelson is an oncological surgeon, specializing in breast cancer treatment at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Here’s what you won’t find on her resume:

Her personal physicians as a child inspired her to pursue her career.

“I have always had a compelling desire to help people. As a young child, I was often in and out of the hospital with asthma attacks, and I gained a great respect for the competence and compassion of the physicians who took care of me. It is one of the great privileges of my adult life to be practicing surgery at a time in which breast cancer is, in most cases, a curable disease and to be able to bring resolution for so many of my own patients.”

Family meals are her favorite moments.

“I live for time with my family. My husband and I have two children, a four-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. They keep us pretty busy! My husband, who is also a USC faculty member, is a wonderful cook, and some of my favorite moments are eating dinner together at home and talking about our days. We also try to spend as much time as we can with extended family.”

She wouldn’t trade in her career for anything.

“I love my career and cannot imagine changing it with anyone! I feel truly blessed to be able to be part of the lives of my patients at such an emotionally difficult and challenging time.“

True stories inspire her.

“I enjoy reading nonfiction. I especially enjoy listening to audiobooks, as I drive to my different clinics. I just finished listening to When Breath Becomes Air, the powerful memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis. I’m looking forward to starting Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I enjoy learning about what matters in peoples’ lives.”

One piece of advice sticks with her.

“’Treat people the way you would want to be treated.’ This is the way I approach my interactions with all my patients. I always want them to know we’re in this together, and they’re not alone.”

Her patients bring her inspiration.

“My patients inspire me each and every day. They come from all walks of life and have experienced so many different trials and triumphs in their own lives, yet share a common challenge and a common bravery. I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to be on their journey with them.”

Advancements have redefined breast cancer treatment.

“The most important advancement in breast cancer care has been that, through careful clinical trials, we have come to have a much better understanding of when it is safe to offer more conservative surgeries. Over 30 years ago, a breast cancer diagnosis meant a massive, disfiguring surgery, but today it is possible to treat many cancers with less invasive, breast-conserving procedures that have a much smaller impact on a patient’s life. Yet, this brings with it a host of new challenges for breast surgeons and patients in navigating difficult and highly personal decisions about how to manage care. The most challenging and important part of my job is, therefore, to build relationships of trust with patients, in order to be able to work through these highly personal care decisions together.”

She will stick by your side.

“For most patients, they typically think of seeing their surgeons as they drift off to sleep and maybe once more post-op. For me, as a breast surgeon, it’s not that way at all. I aim to be someone my patients and their families can trust, because my job is the critical first step in eliminating cancer — hopefully, it is the last step, but as the ‘captain of the ship,’ I try to guide them through this scary and often difficult time.”

Working with Keck Medicine of USC is a privilege.

“Being a breast surgeon at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center of Keck Medicine is a privilege. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a team of highly educated, compassionate, caring and technically skilled professionals. At USC, we have a team attitude. We meet weekly for our breast oncology conference bringing together multiple disciplines, including surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologist, radiologist, pathologists and genetics, where we genuinely listen to one another and formulate individualized care plans for each patient.“

Nelson is an assistant professor of clinical surgery. Click here to view her full biography.

Click here to learn more about the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.