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Published on October 16, 2015

OneCape profile: The doctor who almost wasn’tOneCape profile: The doctor who almost wasn’t

David R. Lovett, MD has treated hundreds of cancer patients, but few of them know that their oncologist almost became a lawyer instead of a doctor.

Dr. Lovett went to Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana—“an all-male school in the middle of nowhere,” he calls it—as a pre-law student. But his life changed track when he was a sophomore.

“I felt some pain and my testicle was swollen,” he said. Tests in Indianapolis led to a diagnosis of cancer. The 19-year-old left school and returned home to be treated in Boston.

After surgery, Dr. Lovett, who is now medical director of oncology at the Davenport-Mugar Cancer Center at Cape Cod Hospital, underwent monthly chemotherapy treatments for a year, working part-time selling clothes when he was able.

“I lost my hair and had all the other side effects,” he said. “This was back before there were good anti-nausea medications, so it was not fun. The nausea of chemotherapy is like nothing on Earth. ”

When he was ready to return to school, he transferred to UMass Amherst.

“I looked into nursing because I loved my nurses,” he said. Eventually he decided to become a doctor, although he faced one more obstacle.

“I had struggled with high school chemistry so I thought I had a bad aptitude for science,” he said. Success in a college chemistry class convinced him he had the right stuff, but the change in majors created a heavy workload.

“I had a lot of catching up to do,” he said. “There were a lot of hard courses in three years.”

After college, he worked as a medical researcher at the Harvard School of Public Heath, helping with a study on the effects of caffeine. Then he went to the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, followed by a residency in internal medicine at Worcester Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Lovett underwent his three-year fellowship training in oncology and hematology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“When I first got to Sloan Kettering, in my first rotation, my superior was a pioneer in anti-nausea therapy,” he said. After his fellowship, he remained at Sloan Kettering for another three years, treating patients, training fellows and conducting research.

Dr. Lovett spent two years in private practice in California before coming to Cape Cod Hospital and what’s now known as the Davenport-Mugar Cancer Center. In addition to working with local colleagues, he often collaborates with specialists at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital.

He said his experience as a patient helps him relate to his patients, but he usually doesn’t talk about it. “I beat cancer and some of my patients won’t,” he said. “But a lot has changed since I was a patient. There are a lot more options for treatments.

“When I started as a doctor, I thought there’s no way there will ever be a cure for cancer. But we’ve made tremendous strides in some cancers. Cancer can be a chronic disease instead of a death sentence. People can live for decades after cancer treatment.

“For instance, CML – chronic myeloid leukemia – was a disease we used to dread. Now we like to see that as a diagnosis because we can treat it very well.”

The American Cancer Society selected Dr. Lovett as its annual medical honoree at the Compass of Hope Gala, an ACS fundraiser, on Oct. 17 at the Oyster Harbors Club in Osterville. Among other things, the honor recognizes his strong advocacy for the Survivorship Program at Cape Cod Hospital, which encourages doctors and patients to discuss the physical and emotional challenges of cancer treatment.

Who better to discuss those challenges than someone who’s been there?

And while his year undergoing treatment was a difficult one, it’s not just Dr. Lovett’s oncology patients who benefited from his change of career.

“My wife says I would have been a jerk as a lawyer,” he said.