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Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Dr. Johnny Chang

Johnny Chang, MD, hematologist-oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Cancer of Tarzana

When you see your doctor, you expect them to ask about your symptoms and medical history. You don't expect them to ask where you grew up, what kind of car you drive or what your dog's name is.

It's this interest in his patients' lives that makes Dr. Johnny Chang the kind of physician who truly cares about the people he treats—and their pets.

"I get to be a big part of my patient's life. I enjoy asking about their family and hearing stories about their vacation, if they have grandkids in college—really getting to know them as a person."

Helping cancer patients live longer and better

Dr. Chang is a hematologist-oncologist and the medical director of Cedars-Sinai Cancer of Tarzana. As a physician who treats blood cancers, Dr. Chang says he decided to become a hematologist-oncologist because it allowed him to be a scientist involved in medical research, while also maintaining a high level of social interaction with his patients.

"I get to be a big part of my patient's life," Dr. Chang says. "I enjoy asking about their family and hearing stories about their vacation, if they have grandkids in college—really getting to know them as a person."

For Dr. Chang, cancer treatment goes beyond helping his patients beat cancer or boosting their chances of survival.

"Some people think that oncology is just about how long you can help a cancer patient live, but that's a very one-dimensional approach," Dr. Chang says. "At our office, we want to make sure that patients are getting everything they need to have a high quality of life. This includes not only their medical treatment, but the emotional, social and supportive aspects of care."

"It's not about whether someone lives 10 years or five years after a cancer diagnosis, it's about making sure they have a much better five or 10 years in terms of their overall wellbeing."

Creating a close-knit oncology practice with the resources of a larger hospital

In Tarzana, Cedars-Sinai Cancer provides all services in the same building, which Dr. Chang says is a huge benefit. Last year, Dr. Chang treated an elderly patient who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"We had a healthy, 85-year-old woman come in who had become very sick in just a few weeks," Dr. Chang says. "She said to me, 'Thank you for seeing me, but I'm 85 years old. I don't feel good, and I'm never going to feel better.'"

Dr. Chang told the woman that despite her ovarian cancer diagnosis, maybe there was something they could do. He went down the hall to get the social worker, who could talk to the patient and her family. Then he went to find the on-site gynecologic oncologist.

"It's a very unique thing that we're all in the same building. For this patient, I was able to pull in our radiologist, social worker and gynecologic surgeon all within a half-hour period." 

Dr. Chang then went back to the patient and presented the option to surgically remove the tumor that day, which she agreed to.

"One year later, we have a lady who is doing perfectly fine, functioning well and even baking cookies for us," Dr. Chang says. "I still see her now as a patient, and she's doing great."

Checking in on patients in between checkups

Dr. Johnny Chang's painting.

The friendly atmosphere of the oncology practice also makes patients feel more at home.

"We're very approachable: My patients can come and find me anytime, and if I'm busy, I always get back to them," Dr. Chang says. "We'll call them and ask them how they are doing. Often, they're very surprised, like 'Why are you calling when I didn't call you?'"

The level of care and concern Dr. Chang extends to his patients on a daily basis stems from his own upbringing. Born in Taiwan, Dr. Chang immigrated with his family to Southern California when he was 13.

"When we first came to the U.S., I didn't speak a word of English," Dr. Chang says. "The first year was very difficult. Assimilating to America was not easy."

Because of these early experiences, Dr. Chang says he knows what it's like to not feel supported or have all the resources you need when going through a challenging time.

"I really want to make sure that I understand a patient's struggle," Dr. Chang says. "If a patient is nervous, I try to find out why. I make an effort to address the anxiety, not just the health concern."

This often involves asking patients if they live with someone, who their neighbors are and if they have friends nearby.

"On the surface, these things might not seem that important to their care, but these are the things I worry about, because I understand how it feels to not be supported."

Getting creative when he can

Most days, Dr. Chang doesn't have time to dawdle while seeing his patients and running the oncology office, but you might catch him drawing or doodling on a notepad as a way to clear his thoughts.

"Painting was my first love," Dr. Chang says. "Art helps me to be calm, and I'm good at thinking while I'm drawing."

Dr. Chang continues to draw and paint when he can. He's even started teaching his two sons, age 11 and 13, how to paint with him.

"Academically, I was not the best student in high school, but I was a very good painter," Dr. Chang says. "At the end of one class, my teacher would always ask how many things I drew in my notebook. If I drew a lot, that meant it was a boring lecture. But if I didn't draw much, my teacher would say that it was a good day for him."